Christchurch, New Zealand: One of the world's five gateways to Antarctica

Within an hour I've learnt more about Antarctica than in all my previous years on Earth. I've read up on its first discoverers, learnt about early Antarctic survival, gawked at the gear worn by those who visit, read up on Antarctic meteorology, climbed on board the Antarctic Ski-Doo and learnt about the hardy wildlife species that call the icy continent and its frigid waters home.

I could well be in Antarctica, but I'm actually in Christchurch, ambling my way around the Canterbury Museum, home to one of the world's most significant exhibitions about the heroic age of Antarctic exploration and discovery.

Christchurch is one of the world's five gateway cities to Antarctica, hubs that are closest to the world's coldest continent and relied upon as bases for scientists and academics who work there. . The others are Hobart, Punta Arenas in Chile, Ushuaia in Argentina and Cape Town in South Africa.

For the everyday traveller, these cities can offer insight into life on the cold continent. Christchurch, for example, celebrates its connection to Antarctica through exhibitions, talks and various activities throughout the year. Locals even go as far as to say that Antarctica is embedded in the city's DNA. Most residents know the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who travelled from Christchurch to Antarctica twice. He was beaten to the South Pole by Norwegian explorer Roald Amunsden while on his second expedition. Sadly, Scott perished on his return trip, along with his team.

There's a statue in the centre of Christchurch that pays tribute to Captain Scott and his team. It was carved from Carrara marble in Italy by Scott's widow, the acclaimed sculptor Kathleen Scott. Unveiled in February 1917, the statue was fell toppled from its platform during the devastating earthquake of February 2011 and was reinstated in October 2017 after a lengthy and innovative repair process.

The arrival of the USA Antarctic Program's Globemaster C-17 heralds the start of summer season flights to Antarctica, and in recent years members of the public have been able to climb on board during its launch celebrations. Christchurch's port is also of key importance and in 2020 will welcome icebreakers, research vessels and supply ships from the USA, Korea, Italy, Russia and China.

Christchurch's role in early Antarctic expeditions meant its museum – the Canterbury Museum – was in a prime position to receive objects from the explorers and many of these remain on permanent display. Historic highlights in its Antarctic gallery include: Scott's Polar medal; Roald Amundsen's pocket knife; and a primitive motorised sledge that members of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Ross Sea team attempted (unsuccessfully) to use on the ice.

The first thing I notice when entering the gallery is a huge, bright-orange Tucker Sno-Cat vehicle, which was used by British explorer Vivian Fuchs on the 1957-58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition – the first expedition to cross the Antarctic continent. A Massey Ferguson tractor that was modified for Antarctic travel is also on display. A group led by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary used it to support Fuchs' party.

Make sure you don't leave without rubbing the nose of the bronze bust of Amundsen – according to local tradition, giving it a quick polish will bring you luck if you're headed to Antarctica.

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The Canterbury Museum also puts on special, temporary exhibitions about Antarctica, often timed to coincide with the opening of the summer season. Other venues around Christchurch also hold Antarctic-themed events.

The International Antarctic Centre, near Christchurch Airport is another extremely cool way to get a taste of the world's coldest continent. .

The centre was opened in 1992 in an effort to show visitors the importance of Christchurch Airport for Antarctic scientific programs and has since grown to become one of the city's most renowned attractions. The experiences on offer here include breakfast with penguins and a Hägglund ride – an outdoor adventure on an Antarctic vehicle designed to navigate its way across rough icy terrain. You can even hang out with the centre's Husky rescue dogs.

The centre's snow storm is another highlight. An ice-filled glass-fronted room is designed to replicate a mild summer day in Antarctica and so is set to a balmy -5°C. A number of times a day a wind-chill machine creates gusts that whip through the room and make it feel more like -18°C. Blizzards in Antarctica can last for days, so this is just a tiny taster … it's enough for me.

Nearby, visitors can dip their hands into a water exhibit to experience just how cold it can be in Antarctica. Judging by how quickly people pull their hands back out, I'd say it's pretty icy.

I'm still feeling chilly after my blizzard experience so keep going to check out what else is around. There's a mock-up of one of the planes used to make the often-turbulent journey to the cold continent - no business class seats here.

The other way to get to Antarctica is by ship and the centre offers a simulated cruise with plenty of jerky movement and water spray.

The 3D wildlife and nature imagery set to inspiring music elevates the experience. It feels as if you are in Antarctica on a beautiful day surrounded by wildlife - from seabirds and seals to penguins and whales.

A number of researchers base themselves in Christchurch before and after their travels to Antarctica and they will often share their insights and stories of adventure at events in Christchurch. If you're planning a trip to New Zealand, do some research, and you might be lucky enough to hear them yourself.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN CHRISTCHURCH

CATCH A HERITAGE TRAM

A number of restored trams weave their way around the centre of Christchurch and the drivers provide informative commentaries. An all-day pass allows you to jump on and off. See christchurchattractions.nz

VISIT THE AIR FORCE MUSEUM

You'll find a great collection of exhibits spanning everything from early aircraft and military planes to photography and interactive displays. The city's Antarctic aviation history can also be explored here. See airforcemuseum.co.nz

EXPLORE THE BOTANIC GARDENS

Take your time strolling around admiring the plants and flowers or take a tour in an electric vehicle. If you've got kids in tow there's a great playground. See christchurchattractions.nz

CHECK OUT THE ART GALLERY

The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu is the South Island's largest art institution and home to a diverse range of public art. Check the website for special events and family-friendly activities. See christchurchartgallery.org.nz

SHOP AT THE TANNERY

This shopping emporium inspired by Edwardian and Victorian design houses more than 50 boutiques, , a few cafes and The Brewery – an edgy bar that was opened in 2010. See thetannery.co.nz

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

newzealand.com/au

christchurchnz.com

christchurchartgallery.org.nz

iceberg.co.nz

FLY

Air New Zealand flies direct to Christchurch from Sydney and Melbourne. See airnewzealand.com.au

STAY

The George is well-appointed luxury hotel opposite Hagley Park and close to the centre of town. It's the city's only five-star boutique hotel, with 53 rooms and suites, and two restaurants. See thegeorge.com

Tatyana Leonov travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

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