This once-in-a-lifetime experience is almost impossible to do justice to in words, which is why the snapping of shutters as cameras click wildly is an essential element of the trip for some. For others, it’s enough just to grab a window-seat and sit transfixed as the amazing vista unfolds below.
The world’s only programme of Antarctica sightseeing flights, now in its 19th season, is still packing in passengers each year, despite a hefty price-tag which sees an economy seat go for AU$1199. So if you’re looking for an extra-special Christmas present – or unforgettable New Year’s Eve experience – this might be just the thing.
I was lucky enough to take this flight a few years ago (but have never travelled there by ship, sadly). The first four hours were reminiscent of any other long haul flight. Passengers immersed themselves in books and newspapers, trolleys trundled through with the breakfast service, there were a few murmured conversations, and we tried to concentrate on what the Antarctica experts were saying over the public address system in preparation for what we were going to see. A couple of Antarctica videos were screened, and we were treated to a broadcast phone interview with scientists at the Australian Antarctic base at Macquarie Island.
But just as one of my travelling companions asked “are-we-there-yet?” in mock whinge, suddenly we were! There was a frisson of excitement as the captain announced the first sight of the frozen continent and everyone was quickly out of their seats, craning to the windows for their first glimpse of it.
For the next four hours, it was a flight like no other. Seat allocation was forgotten as people move around, sharing vantage points, moving from aisle to aisle, discussing what they’re seeing, striking up friendships with strangers over their common interest in what’s below. Food service was suspended for lunch….instead, sandwich packs were passed out, the bar was open (but you needed to go up to be served), and then ice-creams were handed out. It’s fun and it’s friendly.
Beneath us, the frozen wasteland of Antarctica provided images which will never be forgotten (except maybe by that guy who overindulged on the bar service and spent the entire flight asleep).
We flew in a low and slow figure-eight pattern, over the South Magnetic Pole, crossed the Antarctic coast near the French research base at Dumont d’Urville, looked down on Cape Hudson and the Mawson Peninsula, marvelled at the spectacular Trans Antarctic Range and Mount Minto, and circled over the Wicker glacier, before heading to Terra Nova Bay and more glaciers. On the cabin video screen, the pilot’s view was broadcast from a camera mounted in the cockpit.
A rotation system on the flights ensures that aisle and window passengers change seats half way through the flight, and although centre seat passengers aren’t part of that system, everyone was generous with their vantage points and the crowd was constantly moving, parting to allow other photographers their chance, with no signs of discontent whatsoever.
A team of Antarctic experts – explorers, scientists, authors – explain what you’re seeing, with an interesting commentary made up of anecdotes, history and personal experience. While one talks on the public address, others mix with the passengers at the windows, sharing their advice first-hand. Every passenger also gets a comprehensive information kit full of useful information about the Antarctic.
As we reached the end of our four hours above Antarctica, a friendly research scientist from the Australian Antarctic Division, marked our flight path on a map for me. I was astonished: we’d flown so far, and for so long, yet only seen a tiny slice of this vast continent.
Antarctica Flights has announced six flights over the upcoming Southern Hemisphere summer, including the popular New Year’s Eve celebration flight from Melbourne, which enables passengers to see the first daylight of 2014 from their specially chartered Qantas 747 flight. The fare includes celebratory drinks plus dinner and a live on-board jazz band.
Other Antarctica flights, departing from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and (for the first time) from Brisbane are offered on Sundays in January and February 2014.
Since 1994, Antarctica Flights has taken more than 31,000 travellers on more than 100 flights across the Antarctic, with the New Years Eve flight remaining the most popular.
Up to 19 different routes are available to take advantage of the clearest weather conditions of the day, ensuring the best possible views of the Antarctic landscape.