We’ve been flying south from Sydney for almost four hours and passengers on the right side of the Qantas 787 Dreamliner have started gasping and pointing at something out of the window. From my seat in the middle of premium economy, I crane my neck to try to glimpse what has captivated them. When someone moves their head, I finally see it: a shard of the purest white gleaming in the inky ocean below. It’s an iceberg — the first spotted on this 13-hour scenic charter flight to Antarctica.
It’s just a taste of what is to come. As we cross the south magnetic pole and head towards the great frozen landmass — at 13.7 million square kilometres, it’s almost twice the size of Australia and larger than all of Europe — ice floes stretch to the horizon as far as the eye can see, turning the Southern Ocean into what looks like a giant slab of marble.
The aircraft gradually descends to about 3,000 metres above sea level (the lowest altitude permitted) to grant an up-close view of the vast continent. Rising from the horizon, the jagged coast of Antarctica appears and the cabin breaks into rapturous applause. While I had expected to be wowed by the stark beauty of the ice shelves, glaciers and crevasses, glistening like crystal in the sunlight, it is the mountain ranges that impress me most: dark peaks and ridges jutting proudly from a pillowy blanket of snow. Their immensity is hard to grasp. The Transantarctic Mountains stretch for 3,500 kilometres, spanning the entire continent, and their highest peak, Mount Kirkpatrick, is 4,528 metres tall. We fly so close it seems as if I can see every striation on the surface of these slumbering beasts.
At the halfway point of the journey, we all swap seats so those sitting far from windows can get a better view. I’m relieved to finally be in pole position, especially since the 787 Dreamliner’s electronically dimmable windows are the largest on any passenger jet, which minimises the drawback of being seated over the wing. The view is so glaringly white that it calls for sunglasses, which I’d been advised to bring.
The documentary maker Peter Hicks and the glaciologist Peter Keage provide expert commentary over the plane’s PA system and roam the cabin sharing their knowledge of and experiences exploring the Great White Continent. I learn that the ice sheet covering Antarctica is on average about 2.2 kilometres thick (up to 4.8 kilometres at its densest point), and that it holds 90 per cent of the world’s surface fresh water. Yet Antarctica is one of the driest places on earth, with an average annual precipitation of just 166 millimetres, and is classed as a desert.
No trip to Antarctica would be complete without considering the effects of climate change, which includes thinning ice, melting glaciers and declining numbers of krill, polar bears and penguins (including the recent devastating loss of thousands of emperor penguin chicks). The paradox of taking a long-haul flight to view one of the most ecologically fragile places on the planet is not lost on me, but the operator, Antarctica Flights (antarcticaflights.com.au), has taken measures to mitigate environmental damage: all flights are carbon neutral and only fly out of each departure city — Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth — once or twice a year, with the next flight scheduled for mid-November. The company also supports the Antarctic Science Foundation, a charity that funds research into crucial projects such as ice shelf mapping and penguin mating viability.
We roam over Antarctica for three hours in all, collectively marvelling at the pristine wilderness. We spot the French Dumont d’Urville base, Mawson’s Huts (erected by the explorer Sir Douglas Mawson from 1910 to 1914, appearing to us like specks of dirt on the gleaming ice), the spectacular Ross Ice Shelf, which is fed by several gigantic glaciers, and the stunning mountains in Northern Victoria Land and Cape Adare — collectively just a fraction of the continent. All too soon, it’s time to head home.
At the end of the day, I have been in the air for more than half of it and have ended up where I started. But my spiritual cup — not to mention my camera’s memory card — is full after my encounter with this magical place.
Christine Piper contributed to this report.