Anthony Dennis sits back and enjoys the scenery on a one-day joy flight over Antarctica.
Something doesn't feel right. I'm about to leave for Antarctica but I have with me nothing warmer than a light summer cotton jacket as I sit at Gate 8 of the domestic airport awaiting the call for my flight. A man in a penguin suit (hope he's not the captain) is trying to strike a note of gaiety as the passengers form a long line to receive their boarding passes. At least the penguin is dressed properly for the South Pole.
If this was a normal scheduled flight, the hours we're about to spend in the air would take us roughly as far as Tokyo. But no, we're heading completely in the opposite direction. This is one of the world's greatest and longest-running joy flights and I've scored a precious Qantas business class seat, as a guest of Antarctica Sightseeing, on a 9500- to 10,500-kilometre round-trip day tour to the polar icecap with the only scheduled landing (please Lord) being when we touch back down in Sydney later tonight.
To say it feels surreal is an understatement. I've been issued two boarding passes: Sydney to Antarctica and Antarctica to Sydney. In my "expedition notes" are the instructions on the essential etiquette required to make such a flight succeed: "All passengers except those who have booked economy centre or business class centre seats will be asked to move to the seat indicated on the Antarctica-to-Sydney boarding pass at a nominated point, which will be approximately halfway through our sightseeing time 'over the ice'."
It's a condition of travel on the flight that passengers move seats when asked to do so in order to ensure everyone has good views and can take photographs (damn those pesky wings and engines that get in the way). The aviation geeks aren't forgotten as the passengers are allowed to eavesdrop on the conversation between captain and control tower during take off as we head as due south as we can possibly get.
En route to Antarctica, it's time to sit back and relish the bonus relaxation time and the Qantas business class service afforded by the three hours' or so air time before we reach the first iceberg. Elsewhere in the cabin, one of my fellow passengers is so laid-back he's changed into his grey Qantas business class-issue jammies (though he looks like the man in the penguin suit who is back in his civvies).
There's certainly a convivial atmosphere on the chartered Qantas 747 that signifies we're all on a trip of a lifetime, of sorts, even though these Antarctic sightseeing flights have become almost routine. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Antarctica Flights, which has introduced thousands of travellers to the white wasteland. Travellers who, like me, would not have otherwise experienced it. Phil Asker, our Antarctica Flights manager, thinks this is his 46th flight and confides to me that his wife has been on so many trips over the years that she will no longer accompany him.
Even by just flying over Antarctica we have joined an elite group, with only 4000 or so people paying for the privilege each year. More than 25,500 tourists visited the continent in 2011-2012, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Only about 200,000 people have ever been to Antarctica, and the first time a human set foot there was a relatively recent 1821.
Of course, the dream of Antarctic sightseeing flights was dealt a devastating blow when in 1979 an Air New Zealand jet crashed into Mount Erebus, one of the continent's tallest mountains, killing all aboard. There was a long interval before such tours resumed, with the disaster still casting something of a pall over the South Pole joy flights that have followed. Pilots have since developed multiple flight plans to deal with any weather situation that may arise and to maximise sightseeing conditions, with jets carrying a reassuring 360,000 litres of fuel for any eventuality.
By the time we reach Antarctica there is an understandable excitement in the filtered cabin air, with Sydney now 4000 kilometres or so behind us across the vast Southern Ocean. When the coast (or is it just one massive iceberg?) finally comes into view, our hearts aflutter, it resembles a slice of ice-cream cake cut with a blunted knife. At its thickest, the ice-sheet below us is more than four kilometres deep and there are icebergs that could be the size of the Australian Capital Territory (no Canberra jokes, please).
We are told Antarctica is the coldest, most windy and driest continent on Earth, with only 2 per cent of the land not covered in ice. As I gaze down, during my designated window time, it's sobering to note that if the Antarctic ice-sheets were to melt, the seas everywhere would rise by 60 metres to 65 metres. From my window, the shadow of our expeditionary 747 is a tiny black ball tracing its way above what is effectively white desert. Ironically, our aircraft is called the "City of the Nullarbor", named after another expanse of nothingness between Adelaide and Perth.
Here and there are cracks across the barren landscape like the fine shatter-line on a broken mirror. It's an eerie, utterly uninhabited world above which we spend hours of compelling and companionable cruising. Although the world below us is essentially a monochrome one, there are bursts of dazzling colour with the combination of sun and ice throwing up shades of stunning deep purples and soft blues. The unimpeded view from the cockpit must be even better.
Pilots, I'm told, love these flights because they get to fly the aircraft in a unique and spectacular environment. At times, our 747 flies half its normal speed so the passengers can see as much of the white continent as possible.
We cross the South Magnetic Pole where we view the rugged mountains of the Antarctic mainland, with the aircraft flying figure-of-eight flight patterns over the various points of interest so they can be viewed on both sides of the aircraft. We fly at about 3000 metres above sea level, which brings us within 600 metres of the highest ground with this altitude. We are told the flight provides excellent viewing opportunities while "still respecting the wildlife habitats at sea level".
It's only when we fly low over the French Antarctic base called Dumont d'Urville, the loneliest cluster of buildings imaginable, that we encounter the first sign of humanity at ground level since we left Australia. Soon after, our jet climbs back up to 11,000 metres as we begin our journey back to Australia. It's time to chill out, as it were, and to reflect on an extraordinary experience. Dinner is about to be served in the business class cabin. Now, I wonder whether it's too late to request a pair of those cozy Qantas pyjamas.
Anthony Dennis is national travel editor. He travelled as a guest of Antarctica Flights.
FIVE MORE FACTS ABOUT ANTARCTICA
1. Due to its icecap, Antarctica is the highest continent, averaging 2300 metres above sea level.
2. Antarctica has no government and no country owns the continent as it's governed by the international Antarctic Treaty.
3. The average annual temperature ranges from about minus 10 degrees on the coast of Antarctica to about minus 60 degrees on the highest parts of the interior.
4. While ice comprises about 98 per cent of Antarctica's surface, there are areas of bare rock, the greatest being in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Transantarctic Mountains.
5. There are about 120 fish species known to live in Antarctic waters and birdlife is abundant, from tiny storm petrels to albatrosses.
The Antarctica Flights season begins on November 10 from Sydney, with flights from Melbourne on December 31, and February 16, 2014. There are additional flights from selected capital cities. Seats start from $1199 (economy class centre) to $7499 (ice class) a person.
The full-day Antarctic experience includes sightseeing over Antarctica aboard a Qantas 747, two full international Qantas meals including drinks, information kit and Antarctica experts on board.
1800 633 449, antarcticaflights.com.au