Qantas jumbo 747-400 jet's spectacular southern journey over Antarctica

The Qantas check-in lady at Gate 7 of Sydney airport's domestic terminal three on New Year's Eve is sounding a bit flustered. 

"This is a reminder to anyone holding a lanyard pass to fly on the special flight to Antarctica and back this evening. Please do not board THIS plane. 

"YOUR plane will arrive at Gate 7 when this one has departed. If you do board THIS plane, you'll be flying to Melbourne, not the ice continent."

How disappointing would that be? Boasting to all your mates that you were just flying down to Antarctica for New Year's Eve, then finding yourself on the Yarra instead?

Nothing for it. Better head for the Qantas Lounge - an advantage of having scored a business class ticket on what is undoubtedly one of the most glamorous and frivolous travel excursions in the world.

Antarctica Flights - brainwave of Phil Asker who also runs Captain's Choice, the upmarket escorted tours company - has been operating these sightseeing tours over Antarctica since 1994. 

Most years there are five flights, from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, with the majority being daytime flights, leaving around 7am and returning 12½ hours later.

But each year, the company also runs a New Year's Eve flight from either Sydney or Melbourne, leaving around 6.30pm to maximise the time spent in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Southern-style. 

It's a well-worked formula. The Jumbo 747-400 (in our case, Qantas's flagship carrier, Longreach) always leaves at a perfect time to celebrate crossing the Southern Ocean and reaching the least populated continent at midnight. There's always a champagne toast over the ice. The on-board jazz band (yes, some perfectly reputable RSL has been deprived of their services for the night) will play a few suitably jaunty but melancholy tunes. And the passengers - whatever class they've paid for - will begin to mingle and take in the unique experience.

When we're finally called back to Gate 7 to show our lanyard and receive our boarding card, I discover we get one, not two boarding cards - even though it's a circular flight and we are not intending to land. 

It's a conceit, of course. But it also has a practical purpose. Those in premium window seats on the way to Antarctica are contractually obliged to swap at the half way point with those seated next to them. (I'm giving away no secrets here by revealing several husband and wife combinations ignore that rule altogether, without being ejected.) 

As we queue to board, I'm amazed at the varying dress sense. There are no penguin suits tonight, sadly. But while some are wearing pearls and other expensive jewellery (women, mainly), others (men, mainly) are wearing shorts and golf polo shirts.

Don't you think you might be a little under-dressed, I ask one couple. What happens if there's a problem and we have to land on the ice? "I'll be ok," laughs the lady. "I've bought a cardie." 

Ah, but this time, there is a problem, even before we take off. Ninety minutes after our departure time, we are still stuck on the tarmac outside the domestic terminal buildings. 

Apparently there was a delay refuelling Longreach (why? didn't they know this is New Year's Eve?).

More importantly, there's a problem with Longreach's entrance door: it won't close. The very loud know-it-all in the business class centre seat (price: $4299) behind me thinks this the perfect time to describe, very graphically, his encyclopaedic knowledge of every plane crash of 2014.

Frankly, if I hear the word "black box" uttered one more time from his lips I'm going to put him in one, and preferably drop it over the snow-white graveyard of better men than either of us.

But just as I'm about to commit a criminal offence even Agatha Christie might have been proud of - Murder on the Jumbo to Antarctica - the engineers arrive. Somehow an errant piece of "Velcro" got stuck in the door seal, and now we're safe.

But the 90 minutes delay means Phil Asker's meticulously planned itinerary is out of whack. There's no way we'll be over Antarctica when the midnight champagne is popped. Like Scott of the Antarctic facing Amundsen's dash for the South Pole, we're running behind.

Would Scott have shared my stoicism when my "Neil Perry-inspired" dinner is arriving later than expected? Perhaps, but unlike Scott, I had planned for such a disaster, having devoured the "Neil Perry-inspired" cheese platter in the Qantas Club earlier.

By the time port is served, around 10pm, I had intended to be asleep, so I can be fully alert in those crucial four hours over Antarctica.

Yet now something totally unexpected happens. If we'd taken off on time, we'd have been in sunlight all the way down to the Antarctic. Yet now I'm watching a sunset over the ocean - something we Sydneysiders never see unless we strike lucky on a late night flight to Tassie and glimpse a fleeting view of the sun going down over Bass Straight.

This sunset is so spectacular, it's blinding - and I have to ask the lovely couple in the business class window seats to my right (price: $7499 per seat) if they'd mind me lowering  the shade on one of their three windows.

Ten minutes later, I'm embarrassed. Why did I make such a fuss?. It's now pitch dark.

But wait! Within half an hour, we're back flooded in light. As we fly further south, we'll be in a circle of perpetual light for the entire time we're south of the Antarctic Circle. This is, after all, the reason why we can take a night flight over Antarctica on New Year's Eve. Wouldn't be much point if we couldn't see anything.

Somehow, I still manage to fall asleep, but I'm woken up again at 11.55pm by the sound of popping corks, the jazz band in their cheeriest mode, and a tannoy invitation to see in the New Year with 383 total strangers (353 fellow passengers, and 20 crew). It would be churlish to refuse.

Yet I'm so tired by now I fall asleep again in mid-celebration. Only to be woken up again around 12.30am by the passenger in the seat next to mine, saying: "You're missing it! We're over the ice bergs now! Get up!"

She says I was quite grumpy (surely not?). But now the real adventure begins.

Professor Pat Quilty, 75, is one of the legends of Australian Antarctic science, a former head of the Australian Antarctic Division's research programme and presently vice president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. Professor Quilty has moved to the cockpit of our jumbo (alongside Captain Cameron Hartman, the Qantas captain who usually flies this Antarctic adventures) and has begun delivering his commentary, telling us what we should be looking at.

Before take off, Professor Quilty had disabused me when I'd asked if we would be getting to the Geographic South Pole on this flight (Captain Hartman has 19 different flight paths to choose from, depending on the weather reports issued from the Met Bureau in Hobart).

"The bulk of Antarctica is like a Christmas cake your grandmother or aunt might have made. Perfectly iced, but perfectly featureless," the good professor had lectured. "Just hour after hour of smooth but boring white. Why would we go to the Geographic South Pole, rather than concentrate on the interesting parts?"

Normally, Antarctica flights head over the South Magnetic Pole, now located several hundred kilometres out into the Southern Ocean. There, passengers are entertained, watching the compasses going crazy. 

After that the jumbo usually heads further south over the sea ice to the French base at Dumont d'Urville before heading east along the coast of Commonwealth Bay. Here passengers see the things that matter most to Australians: Mawson's Hut and the graves of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Merz who died on that epic polar adventure in 1913 that made Sir Douglas Mawson an international hero. 

Tonight, unfortunately, the visibility in Commonwealth Bay is poor. Captain Hartman is allowed to take the jumbo down to just 2000 feet (615 metres) above the highest ground within a 180 km circle, which means we could fly under any high clouds. But the Met Office  says the cloud base over Mawson's Hut is even lower, making it pointless to head in that direction.

Instead, Professor Quilty explains,  we've headed further east, passing over the Balleny Islands and crossing into Antarctica itself around Davies Bay.

For four hours, Professor Quilty keeps up his commentary as our jumbo performs a series of loops and weaves, designed to maximise the viewing opportunities from both sides of the plane. You can see why the flight crew find these trips so much fun - they're able to treat this jumbo like a sight-seeing Cesna, the exact opposite of what they're expected to do on a normal commercial flight.

We follow the line of the Transantarctic Mountains and the dramatic coastline south towards the Ross Ice Shelf. Beneath us, we see massive glaciers, ice falls and the gigantic ice tongues - Drygalski and Nordensgkold - poking rudely into the Ross Sea.

Professor Quilty points out each landmark, each a part of polar history - Mt Minto, Mt Terror, the now deserted Russian station Leningradskaya, the environmentally friendly Italian station named after Mario Zucchelli, the landing strip built by the Americans on the Ross Ice Shelf itself.

When we get to the end of McMurdo Sound, we can see the New Zealand Scott Base and the American McMurdo Base, both on Ross Island. 

"This is as far south as any of these commercial flights go," announces Professor Quilty. "We've been very lucky."

And we're just about to get luckier still. For me, the highlight of the entire trip is seeing Mt Erebus, at 3795 metres the largest active volcano in Antarctica. What's more, Erebus is putting on a natural New Year sulphuric spectacular to rival the fireworks that began exploding on Sydney Harbour Bridge just a few hours earlier.

"It was by far the best eruption I've seen in Antarctica in my 29 flights," Professor Quilty tells me when I "shirt front" him as he emerges from the cockpit. "The flume was going up so nicely, then being blown to the north by the winds. If we had flown over the top of the mountain, we'd have seen a red lava lake. And if we had been on the land, climbing the mountain we'd have been pelted with stones and other material."

The sight, he says, would have seemed very familiar to Professor Edgeworth David and Sir Douglas Mawson, the two Australians who were among the six men team which made the first ascent of Mr Erebus in October 1908 during Sir Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod expedition.

"Erebus seemed to be quiet when they set off," Professor Quilty explains. "But suddenly lava bombs started raining down around them. They were very lucky not to be struck."

It's a reminder that we are still celebrating the elongated centenary of the so-called Heroic Age. Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, Mawson and the others created a legend of human ambition, achievement, frustration, disaster and survival that will echo in history forever. 

Professor Quilty has already reminded us as we flew over McMurdo Sound that exactly 100 years ago, on 17 January 1915, the ten members of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party had arrived arrived on Ross Island.

Those ten men sometimes known as "the Forgotten Heroes" - including four Australians, Irvine Gaze, Andrew Jack, Lionel Hooke and Dick Richards - were stranded when their ship, the Aurora, disappeared after a sheet off sea ice broke away from the shore during a blizzard in May 1915. Fortunately they had packed rather more than cardies.

Lacking adequate provisions, they weren't rescued until 10 January 1917 when the Aurora - which had been locked in that sea ice for almost a year before sailing to New Zealand for repairs - reappeared on the horizon. 

Such stoicism! But I have to say, there's a similar degree of sacrifice and forbearance displayed by the passengers in the more expensive seats on this journey. To be honest, I'd been dubious when I'd read the briefing notes: "You'll find this flight unlike any other...passengers are free to walk around the aircraft and view from any door or window in the appropriate cabin."

Yet, on this flight, it was even more egalitarian. Economy passengers (price: from $1199 per person) wandered through to the business cabin, engaged in conversation, and were allowed to take their photos by people who had paid seven times as much.

Soon we've turned north and are heading home. Mt Minto is now in cloud, but there's still plenty to see - not least the massive ice bergs of the Ross Sea, laid out like a gigantic crazy-paving patio.

We leave Antarctica around 4.30am, and the 364 passengers return to their seats and try to grab a bit of sleep before breakfast is served at 6.30am.

It's been a long, but unforgettable night. A perfect, hopeful start to another New Year.

Take a look at the views from the flight in the photo gallery above.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION 1800 633 449 or antarcticaflights.com.au

OTHER FLIGHTS IN 2015

Brisbane: 18 Jan.

Perth: 26 Jan.

Adelaide: 8 Feb.

Melbourne: 15 Feb.

Melbourne: 31 Dec.

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