Susan Elliott boards a unique flight over Antarctica to marvel at the world’s coldest, driest and windiest continent.
It’s something of minor miracle, really. I’m at the bottom of the planet, but feel on top of the world. I’m seated in the cosy comfort of a jumbo jet, yet way down below is a seemingly endless sea of ice. And I’m feeling just a little smug, because I know I’ve picked a winner.
By flying with Antarctica Flights, I’m seeing more of the world’s last great wilderness from a wider perspective than I ever could at ground level. It’s the coolest of cool day trips, and it departs from most Australian capital cities.
I could, of course, have been stoic: travelled to Argentina, braved a potentially turbulent crossing of the Drake Passage and pretended I just love being cold to my very core. But that’s not me. Like many travellers, I like an equal mix of comfort and curiosity.
There’s a festive party atmosphere from the moment of take-off.
Antarctica Flights is the only company to offer ‘flightseeing’ tours of the Antarctic, and 2019 marks an impressive 25 years of flying over the world’s coldest, driest and windiest continent … not that guests have to deal with any of that from 10,000 feet in the air.
Billed as ‘The World’s Most Unique Day Tour’, it’s a 12-hour round trip departing from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane on a chartered Qantas 747-400 at around 7.30am.
Being an international flight, you get all the perks: two full meal services and a complimentary bar served by the happiest flight crew in the air, largely because they’re as excited about the journey as the passengers are.
There’s a festive party atmosphere from the moment of take-off, starting with a welcome glass of bubbles; the coldest thing on this Antarctic trip is the chilled drink in your hand.
It’s not long before passengers are putting down their champagne flutes and grabbing cameras, smartphones and binoculars as the first specks of sea ice are spotted.
As the plane descends from its cruising altitude, it’s like we’re watching a slow-motion film starring gigantic glaciers, ice floes – thick bands of sea ice up to 10 kilometres wide – icebergs and the magnificent Transantarctic Mountains.
At only 10,000 feet, our view is gaspingly close. “Wow” is the word of the moment and on everyone’s lips throughout the day.
There are glimpses of international research stations and sometimes even Mawson’s Huts, the home for Douglas Mawson and 17 other men exploring the Antarctic 100 years ago.
The huts, which are visible from our flight, triggers contrasting feelings of wonder: Mawson and his men in a heroic battle just to survive, while – a century later – I peer down, smartphone and chilled champagne in hand.
The captain can choose from 19 different flight paths, depending on the weather, and no matter what it’s like on your departure day, you always get a magnificent view of the mountains and ice floes.
If the flight path passes over a research station – maybe Australia’s Casey or Davis, or France’s Dumont d’Urville – the captain may radio the ground and the call will be broadcast via the cabin’s PA system. Listening to an expeditioner, who is on the pack ice a few thousand metres below, is very special.
And be ready to make new friends as this journey is a social affair. Unlike regular commercial flights, passengers don’t have to buckle up as there is no air turbulence over Antarctica. Everyone’s encouraged to stand up, move around and even swap seats and windows.
Specialists who have worked in Antarctica – scientists, doctors, chefs and tradespeople – wander through the aircraft to answer questions.
A regular guest is Diana Patterson OAM who, in 1989, was the first woman to command the Australian Antarctic Division’s Mawson Station. After that, she worked to help preserve Mawson’s Huts and was the last person to do a husky run before dogs were banned from the continent.
Another favourite is Peter Attard, who worked at Casey, Davis and Mawson stations as a plumber, preparing clean water for everyone to drink and keeping the heating, fire services, boilers, pumps and air conditioners in working order.
The spectacular views last for about four hours as the captain makes 360-degree turns around the most significant sights, so passengers port and starboard can marvel and take priceless photos.
The trip itself isn’t priceless: prices range from $1,199 for Economy Class Centre in the main cabin to $7,999 for a First Class seat.
Halfway through the flight, passengers swap seats (except those seated in Economy Centre and Business Centre seats), ensuring that everyone on the tour has a window or a seat next to a window seat for half of the flight. It’s a fantastic idea and works brilliantly.
Twelve hours later, we land back in Sydney, brandishing a unique boarding pass and SD cards full of photos. And I guarantee you, that night in bed, you’ll think that really was the coolest day trip ever.