The cheapest way to experience Antarctica: Hobart launches first ever Australian Antarctic Festival

Taking a trip to the world's most isolated continent, Antarctica, can cost you upwards of $20,000 and that doesn't even include the gear you'll need to trek across the ice. But the price tag doesn't have to be that steep – you can experience Antarctica for a fraction of that price without even needing a passport.

Australia's most southern capital, Hobart, has long been a gateway to Antarctica. The connection runs so deep that there's even a saying that every native Hobartian is related to someone who has been to Antarctica. In fact, the city has been a port for many expeditions to Antarctica dating back to the early 1900s, and even today tour company Chimu Adventures operates an annual expedition from Hobart to Cape Denison, a journey that takes travellers 3000km south of Australia.

But there's no need to set foot outside of Hobart to get that icy, cold Antarctica experience. The city will this year host its first ever Antarctica Festival, running from eight to 11 September. The four-day festival will be an immersion into Hobart's surprisingly deep-rooted Antarctic history. It'll be a deep dive into the drama, tragedy and triumphs surrounding Australia's territorial claim over Antarctica and into the man who started it all – Sir Douglas Mawson – the Aussie geologist and explorer who claimed almost half (42 per cent) of Antarctica for Australia. Yes, he's that man on the old Australian $100 bill.

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The best point to start the Antarctica experience is at Mawson's Huts Replica Museum, just around the corner from Lark Distillery; and that's where our tour begins.

The replica is a true-to-size copy of Mawson's Hut, erected on Antarctica by Mawson and his 17 men in 1911. No detail has been missed in the construction of the replica – a pyramid-roofed hut consisting of two sections – the living quarters and the workshop. The same Finnish wood has been used, and the same husky dogs stand at the front entrance, now taxidermied, a shadow of their former selves.

As we enter the living quarters of the hut, a tiny kitchen and pantry stands to one side, bunks occupy the three remaining walls and a small room is sectioned off which belonged to the man himself, Mawson. You only need to glance around the hut to know that those 18 men, no more than 30 years old, lived simply – tinned foods line the shelves, novels can be found among a collection of leather bound encyclopaedias and a gramophone sits next to a typewriter. Even their beds, made with wool blankets, striped pillow and embellished with a couple of pictures stuck to the wall, illustrates that this hut was designed purely for scientists to work.

But it's the sound of howling wind which echoes through the replica that I can't shake – a constant reminder of the mighty winds the men faced during their two years in Antarctica, sometimes clocking up to 350km/hr, the average being 74km/hr. David Jensen, Chairman Mawson's Huts Foundation, retells stories of how the men use to rub cocaine into their eyes for medicinal purposes to combat the elements. The story is a stark reminder of the bleak environment the men endured for country and for science, and begs the thought, what must they have endured over many hundreds of days and nights on that barren icy landscape.

Despite some rather horrid tales of death, frostbite and skin peeling, I leave fascinated by all the drama of the expedition, so much so that I'm almost tempted to visit the real thing. But the $20,000 price tag overwhelms me and I'm left satisfied hearing tales of Mawson's expedition from inside the well-heated museum, before heading out for nice dinner, followed by some post-dinner drinks at Salamanca Place, before heading back to my comfy hotel bed for a good night's sleep.

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The next morning, I find myself standing on the deck of the giant and distinctively orange-coloured icebreaker Aurora Australis, icy winds whipping my face, fingers frozen to my iPhone. And wow, I am just amazed at the size of her – 94 metres long. They call her a working ship, tough as nails they say, and you can see this from her chipped paint and her rusty edges. She can break ice up to 1.2 metres thick (at 2.5 knots), Australian Antarctic Festival director Paul Cullen, tells us.

We're not given any special treatment when we board the vessel at Princes Wharf; there's no leisurely stroll across a bridge like boarding a passenger cruise ship. We're piled up a steel walk-bridge and into the cold, dark empty belly of the ship.

Soon we're climbing up ladders, down narrow stairwells, through small doorways and into laboratories with apparatuses that we try not to knock over. We observe some interesting innovations, like the way tables and chairs are chained to the floor to prevent them sliding while at sea.

We take a peek into crew's tiny cabin which sleeps four; it's definitely not a balcony suite, we all conclude as we shuffle out one by one. But the highlight of the ship tour has to be seeing the Bridge – the command area where the captain steers the ship. The view from here was incredible, but more intimidating was the abundance of button and gears that stretch from one side of the room to the other, all of which served to keep this working lady running.

The Aurora Australis is nearing the end of her predicted service life, reported to be May 2017. There are plans to acquire a new icebreaker at an estimated cost of up to $A1 billion to replace Aurora Australis by 2019, which makes the opportunity to do a tour on board while she's still a working ice breaker even rarer.

Annie Dang travelled as a guest of Tourism Tasmania, Chimu Adventures and Australian Antarctic Festival.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.discovertasmania.com.au

www.chimuadventures.com

www.antarcticfestival.com.au

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Qantas fly to Hobart from Melbourne and Sydney.

STAYING THERE

Hadley's Orient Hotel is located in Hobart's CBD. Built in 1834, it is one of the oldest boutique hotels in Australia. Errol Flynn and Queen Victoria have been guests here. Room prices start from $139 a night. See hadleyshotel.com.au

TOURING THERE

Chimu Adventures is offering a special Australian Antarctica Festival itinerary hosted the company's founders, Greg Carter and Chad Carey. The package includes a guided tour of the Mawson's Huts Replica, a tour of the Aurora Australis vessel and an expedition cruise to Bruny Island. Tour price starts from $1390. See chimuadventures.com/tour/hobart-antarctic-festival

If you want to visit the original Mawson's Huts at Cape Denison, Chimu Adventures run a Mawson's Huts expedition departing from Hobart once a year in December. The next expedition departs December 2017. See www.chimuadventures.com/tour/in-the-wake-of-mawson

WHERE TO EAT IN HOBART

Aloft. Located on the top floor of Brooke St Pier, this is the choice if you're looking for Asian fusion dishes with a modern twist. The atmosphere is relaxed and the views of Hobart's waterfront is stunning. See aloftrestaurant.com

Fish Frenzy. For a quick bit to eat, and arguable the best fish and chips in Hobart, this Elizabeth Street pier restaurant offers delightful views to match. See fishfrenzy.com.au

Smolt Restaurant. Head here if you want Italian and Spanish-inspired small plates to share. Located in Salamanca Square, Smolt is opened seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. See smolt.com.au/

Daci & Daci Bakers. This Murray Street bakery will make you feel like a kid in a toy store. From cakes to custards tarts, pastries, sausage rolls and quiche; you can have breakfast, brunch, morning tea or lunch here any day of the week. See dacianddacibakers.com.au

Frank Restaurant. This South American inspired restaurant and bar, situated on 1 Franklin Wharf, is a hip spot for dinner or a pre-dinner cocktail. See frankrestaurant.com.au

MORE THINGS TO DO IN HOBART

Museum of Old and New (MONA). Take a 25-minute cruise to MONA in the Posh Pit (the VIP section on the MONA ferry) and get access to an exclusive lounge, bar and private deck. You'll receive complimentary bar service, canapés, pastries and table service, so you can arrive refreshed for a visit to one of the world's coolest museums. Tickets for the post pit costs $50, or $20 for a standard return ticket.

Lark Distillery Cellar Door & Whisky Bar. You can come by for a whiskey tasting and sample local Tassie varieties, or just drop by for just a drink or two. Located on 14 Davey Street, Lark Distillery is open late on Fridays and Saturdays. See larkdistillery.com/history/

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Check out the Antarctic exhibition Islands to Ice and learn all about the history of the continent that we know was Antarctica to. Highlights include patting taxidermied penguins and seeing real ice from Antarctica. General admission to TMAG is free to all members of the public. See www.tmag.tas.gov.au

Maritime Museum of Tasmania. Opened by Queen Elizabeth in 2000, the museum takes a look into Tasmania's rich seafaring past from it naval history to whaling, and Antarctic expedition. The museum is opened daily. Ticket costs $10 for adults, accompanied children (under 13 year old) enter for free and a family ticket costs $20. See www.maritimetas.org

The Mawson's Huts Replica Museum. Located at Constitution Dock, the replica is a reconstruction of the historic huts in Cape Denison, Antarctica, built in 1911. The museum is open daily, and entry costs $12 for adults, $4 for children up to 16 years old. See mawsons-huts-replica.org.au

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