Antarctica sightseeing flights from Australia: How Elon Musk nearly ruined my Qantas flight

 Compared to a normal long-haul flight, a scenic trip to Antarctica should be easy, right? After all, very few commercial routes fly over the frozen continent and there are no busy airports to contend with. Surely, it's just a case of heading south until you see ice?

The reality, of course, is that a sightseeing flight takes months of planning. Approval is required from several agencies, including the Australian Antarctic Division, and as the trip approaches, complex meteorological forecasting tools are used to determine which of 20 routes to take for the best viewing experience. And then, there's Elon Musk to worry about.

Musk was scheduled to launch 50 satellites using his Falcon 9 reusable rocket the day before our flight. "Had he delayed," explains Qantas pilot Alex Passerini, "we would have had to liaise with US Space Command because the debris field covers 1000 miles of the Southern Ocean between Sydney and Perth."

Not that these factors are a concern for the excited passengers arriving at Sydney's domestic airport for this inaugural Antarctica sightseeing flight by Chimu Adventures. Crewed and operated by Qantas, the 14-hour trip uses a Qantas Dreamliner 787-9 – the ideal aircraft for a scenic jaunt because of its larger windows and quieter cabin.

Clutching boarding passes marked "Mystery Flight", we take our seats and settle in for the 4.5-hour journey to the planet's coldest, highest, windiest continent. Also onboard are experienced Antarctic expedition leader Howard Whelan, Australian Antarctic Station Manager Narelle Campbell and award-winning photographer Matt Abbott. Throughout the flight they'll provide illuminating insights into the harsh realities of exploring and living in this unforgiving wilderness.

Following a hearty breakfast and a three-hour box set binge-fest, we begin descending through a thick blanket of cloud towards Terra Nova Bay on Antarctica's eastern side. After a few tantalising glimpses of icebergs, we clear the cloud cover to reveal a maze of fractured sea ice floating on a vast sapphire-blue bay.

We're now at 18,000 feet in "uncontrolled airspace", a kind of aviation no man's land that isn't governed by air traffic control. Passerini is constantly broadcasting our position and intention to the nearby Antarctic bases, including the US McMurdo Station, which is regularly serviced by resupply flights from Christchurch (known as Operation Deep Freeze).

Having been lucky enough to visit Antarctica by ship, I had low expectations for what we'd be able to see from this height. But the views are astounding. And they are of terrain you simply can't access from a cruise ship. For the next four hours, we fly over a mesmerising wonderland of snow-smothered mountains, sweeping blue glaciers and "dry" granite valleys that are kept snow-free by ferocious 300km/h katabatic winds.

On the way to Ross Island, we cross the Drygalski Ice Tongue, a 90-kilometre-long frozen peninsula that pokes out to sea like a, well, icy tongue. And then there are the soaring volcanic peaks of Mount Terror and Mount Erebus, the latter emitting puffs of steam as an ominous reminder of its potency.

Advertisement

Even though we're more than 1500 metres above Mount Erebus, Passerini says the crew often has to reassure passengers because the clarity of the Antarctic air means it can look as if we're flying below it.

In addition to seeing evidence of human exploration, from research stations to the ice runways used to service them, we also learn about the extraordinary hardships faced by the region's early pioneers. It's humbling to hear how Scott's northern expedition party endured the winter of 1912 in a hand-dug snow cave on Inexpressible Island, particularly when the most taxing decision you've faced today is choosing between rigatoni with oyster mushrooms and beef fillet with Paris mash for lunch.

After two hours, there's a seat swap to allow those in the middle sections to have a turn by a window, but even before this choreographed switch, there's plenty of gracious view sharing. In fact, the atmosphere onboard is the most convivial of any flight I've been on. There's a constant soundtrack of "wow's" and "amazing's" and even the cabin crew are excited, frequently whipping out their phones to take photos.

Passerini has flown over Antarctica numerous times, both on sightseeing jaunts and trips to South America, but the continent continues to astound him. "Until you see it, you can't quite absorb it," he says. "But it stays with you. It's just a remarkable part of the world."

THE DETAILS

Chimu Adventures has a range of sightseeing flights during 2021/22, including Antarctica scenic flights from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth; Southern Lights flights and the first commercial scenic flight from Australia to the South Pole. Fares for Antarctica scenic flights start at $1195 for limited view economy seats and go up to $7995 for business premium class. See chimuadventures.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/antarctica

Rob McFarland was a guest of Chimu Adventures.

Comments