A 12-hour flight that brings you back to your point of departure without landing anywhere might not be everyone’s idea of a good day trip….but a “day trip to nowhere” over Antarctica is one that those who’ve experienced it talk about for years afterwards.
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 has announced a new season of flights starting in November – the perfect idea for an extra-special Christmas or special occasion gift.
Antarctica Flights has scheduled seven flights over the Southern Hemisphere summer, including the popular New Year’s Eve celebration flight from Melbourne – complete with jazz band and champagne – which enables passengers to see the first daylight of 2021 from the windows of the chartered Qantas 787 Dreamliner.
Flights are set to begin with a Melbourne service (15 November), followed by flights from Sydney (22 November), Melbourne (31 December), Perth (26 January), Brisbane (7 February), Adelaide (14 February), and Sydney (21 February).
Fares start from AU$1,199 for an Economy Explorer seat to $7,999 for a Business Class Deluxe. Within that range there are six fare levels, offering different seat positions (check the website for details).
I was once lucky enough to take this flight as a travel writer (but have never travelled to Antarctica 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. At that time, the plane was the recently-retired 747 (on the new 787 Dreamliner, the windows are bigger).
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 was a lot of fun.
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.
Since 1994, Antarctica Flights has operated more than 150 flights across the Antarctic, with the New Year’s 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.
A Glass Half Full travelled as a guest of Antarctica Flights. For more information, in Australia, call 1800 633 449. Images courtesy of Antarctica Flights. This is an updated post, originally published in 2013.