While Antarctic action may take place at ground or sea level, the sheer enormity of Antarctica may very well be best seen from the air. Photo / Getty
For those who seek adventure, there are few destinations as highly prized as Antarctica. The storied white continent has long topped my travel wish list but has, alas, remained elusive.
Fearing motherhood may put adventure travel on the back burner for a while, my plan had always been to visit Antarctica before starting a family but fate had other ideas. The pandemic hit halfway through my pregnancy, and in March 2020 the unthinkable happened: my homeland, Australia, closed its borders. My son was born two months later.
During wordless feeds in the wee hours of the morning, my mind invariably wandered to Antarctica. But as I navigated my way through this new normal, and the stop-start nature of lockdowns, it felt as though my dream was slipping away. Then I remembered something I’d read about scenic day flights over Antarctica.
Even today, the last great wilderness still requires the overwhelming majority of travellers to arrive by ship; and, along the way, brave a treacherous two-day crossing of the infamous Drake Passage, home to some of the choppiest waters in the world.
“not affixed bunk lifts slides hits bulkhead
I lift drop to mattress
we pound south. “
Writes American poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield of the Drake Passage in Toward Antarctica: An Exploration.
Intrepid ship passengers spy their first icebergs around the South Shetland Islands, about 120km north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, barren rock rises out of sub-zero water and is blanketed in gleaming white snow. To call it a welcome sight is surely an understatement. And from this point onwards, the landscape only grows more impressive.
“Along the wiggly island coast land met solid sea in a tangle of blue-shadowed pressure ridges or the pleated cliffs of a glacier. I began to readjust my perception of ‘land’ and ‘sea’,” writes English author Sara Wheeler of her first sighting of Antarctica, in the international bestseller Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica.
“A tabular iceberg was damped into the ice, its steep and crinkled walls reflecting the creamy saffron sun. The sky was a rich royal blue, marbled up ahead by the volcanic plumes of Mount Erebus, and a paler blue sheen lay over the wrinkled sea ice like a filmy opalescent blanket.” Unlike most travellers, as an expeditioner Wheeler arrived via military aircraft, landing on the frozen sea between Ross Island and the Antarctic continent.
Though passengers of Antarctica Flights (antarcticaflights.com.au) don’t land as Wheeler did, they do have the rare opportunity of seeing the continent from the air. Carrying only hand luggage, travellers file on to a chartered 787 Dreamliner in Sydney – and other Australian cities – for what is arguably the most unique scenic flight in the world, a 12.5-hour return trip with three to four hours over Antarctica.
Scattered ice comes into view about three hours south of Australia. Icebergs and ice floes follow, before the flight crosses the South Magnetic Pole, where the rugged mountainous topography of the mainland can be seen. But how can these singular landscapes be enjoyed through regulation aeroplane windows? They can’t, which is why windows on Antarctica Flights are 65 per cent larger than on other vessels of their kind.
Cruising at an altitude of around 10,000 feet, the plane flies in sweeping figure-eights to ensure both sides of the aircraft can take in points of interest. Antarctic explorers and expeditioners provide context, with onboard talks on the polar environment, and live crosses to research stations on the ground.
The flight turbocharges armchair travel, replacing the armchair with an aeroplane seat and providing an unforgettable experience – minus the lengthy ocean voyage and frigid temperatures. It’s also as close to pandemic-proof as you can get; as a return voyage that doesn’t land, it’s considered an Australian domestic flight. Best of all, in October 2020, the website was still taking bookings. I was sold.
Although the earliest available flight wasn’t until 2022, it felt like a safe bet considering the uncertainty of the pandemic. Studies have shown that the anticipation of travel can make us as happy as actually going on the trip, so my Antarctic dream flight felt like the perfect antidote to life in lockdown.
And what better time to consume books, films and TV shows about the continent to stoke that anticipation? It turns out there’s a story on Antarctica to suit all types of traveller, from Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World – regarded as one of the best books ever written on the subject – to the film Happy Feet, with its delightful singing penguins.
Among my favourites was ICEolation, a charming 28-minute documentary about adventurers Sophie Ballagh and Ewan Blyth’s two-week, self-supported kayak exploration of the Antarctic Peninsula. More video diary than documentary, the pair’s enthusiasm about their rare and ambitious trip is infectious.
Although I won’t experience the thrill of paddling among icebergs or encounter a sleeping humpback whale as they did, it was encouraging to note the film opens with a wide aerial shot of Antarctica, a common theme in documentaries on the continent. Because while the action may take place at ground or sea level, the sheer enormity of Antarctica and its spectacular landscapes may very well be best seen from the air.