New Year's Eve Midnight Sun Flight
The Antarctic flightseeing tour is a round-trip of 12 hours from Sydney. The plane spent approximately 4 hours over the Antarctic Treaty area and approximately 4 hours over the actual continent. The Qantas plane and crew are chartered through Croydon Travel - the only operators in the world that do these flights. There is a seat rotation system, which applies to all but those in economy centre. All others in economy have either a window seat or seat next to window for half of the flight, then change seats midway. Passengers are free to walk around the aircraft and view from any door or window in the appropriate cabin.
During the flight they played educational films on exploration, wildlife, scientific research, etc., and did live broadcast from Antarctica stations. Our three on-board experts provided commentary throughout the flight and were available for questions. The plane kept a minimum safe altitude of 2,000 ft. (615 metres) above the highest ground within 180 kms or 10,000 ft (3,077 metres) above sea level.
Antarctic day flights from Australia and New Zealand began in 1977, and halted after a New Zealand Air flight crashed in 1979, killing all aboard. It was resumed in 1994.
Those in economy seating received the full Qantas international service (yeah, baby, yeah!), including complimentary bar service. Most people took full advantage of that, like our seatmate Ken, who consistently procured wine bottles, cups of champagne, and cups of scotch. Ken was an older man, in his 70s I'd say, who boarded in Melbourne. Nice fellow, but once he got soused the spit flew when he spoke. Y and I switched between the middle and window seat a few times until rotation, when Ken got the window. Odd that he didn't have a camera, we thought. We showed him our digital pictures on Y's laptop.
In Which Y and K See Much White
Y and I got to the gate at the Sydney Airport by 1300. The 1400 departure time was delayed owing to the late arrival of the polar survival suits as well as the malfunction of a system that monitors the engines. I bought a flat white at the espresso bar and overheard a man explain to his young daughter what saccharine was. Most of the people at the gate were considerably older than 50, though there were a few young people of varying ages. There were three older ladies decked out in resort white and gold, with the obligatory gold purse, gold shoes, and gold trim on their shirts. Y thought they were southern; I thought they were from Boca Raton.
We finally boarded, and on the hour-long flight to Melbourne we watched an educational video and had a snack. When we egressed the plane in the Melbourne gate, we saw a man in a penguin costume flapping his arms as well as tons of people who were to fill the remaining 3/4 of the plane and the five-piece Bob Whetstone Maple Leaf All-Stars band playing 'New York, New York' over to the side.
There was a 40-minute layover, then we used the second of our four boarding passes to get back on the plane. On the way from Melbourne to Antarctica, there was dinner, and I took notes from the videos and read through the Lonely Planet book and the Australian Antarctic Division stuff.
About four hours from Sydney, we could see the plane at the edge of Antarctica, on the screen. If we had had a compass, we would have seen the needle spin around, trying to find north. Our on-board experts told us exploration tales of misfortune, ambition and endurance (balls, if you will), as well as geology, wildlife, and their own expeditions. Right about then we saw ice floes out of out of Cape Adare, the sight of the first landing in 1895. I got a lump in my throat looking at the chunks of ice on the Prussian blue water, and everyone crowded around the windows. Soon, an expanse of snow came into view, and someone explained that the odd-looking patterns we see are called sastrugi (patterns): wind-blown snow on the sea ice. We also learn that the shape of the floes indicate how recently they broke off. Large areas with straight edges are the freshest, and patterns of floating sea ice also reflect the influence of wind and ocean currents.
The captain circled Mt. Minto, the highest peak of the Admiralty Range at 4,163 metres, and passed over the glaciers and mountains of Northern Victoria Land, where we saw angular, exposed rock under the snow on the mountains, which created a chiarascuro effect of shadow cast on the left side and sun-glinted snow on the right. There were vast expanses of marshmallow-fluff-like snow with sastrugi.
In Which Y and K Hear the Station Leaders
I'd like to mention before I start this paragraph that our friend, who has spent a winter on the Amundsen-Scott base, tells me that the station leader is the most likely to buckle, to not handle things well. Moving on.....During the flight over the continent we heard from Marilyn, the station leader at Casey, who said that there were 63 people there during the summer for five weeks, and 15 in the winter, for eight months. It was 3 degrees, but they were walking around in shorts and T-shirts, because they get acclimatized early. They have a lot of classic black and white films, some in 16 mm, that they watch on Wednesday and Sunday nights. Sunday is the day off.
We also heard from the MacQuarie Island station leader. Their summer population was 30, and they had 26 projects, including cold stress studies and biology projects, e.g. researching Albatross populations.
New Year's Eve and the Conclusion
We flew over the ice-covered Ross Sea Region and celebrated New Year's Eve Sydney time with streamers, those silly hats, and champagne. The band played Auld Lang Syne. Twice. They played Amazing Grace soon after. Twice. I don't know why. We had two more New Year's Eves, and two more (perfunctory) celebrations.
We circled Mt. Melbourne, an active cinder volcano with tuff circles and steam vents that could be seen from the air. We then passed over the Italian base at Terra Nova Bay before heading northwest to Cape Hudson and Commonwealth Bay, "the windiest place in the world," according to Douglas Mawson, from which point he saw his relief ship sail away. We then circled over Dumont d'Urville, and started back over the South Magnetic Pole.
It's really quite difficult to describe how it felt to see it, how marvelous it was, and the improbability of seeing a land so pure. We took 250+ pictures.
"There's been a lot of discussion up here in the flight deck as to where we actually are."
- Phil Wood, AAD PR guy.
A Preliminary Assessment of Environmental Impacts of tourist overflights was submitted to the Australian Antarctic Division in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty. These flights were determined to "have no more than a neglible impact on the environment," and are the most environmentally acceptable way for tourists to see the continent, relative to cruises and such.