Night of cold lang syne

Forget Sydney Harbour, Matt Collins attends a New Year's Eve do with the ultimate views.

'The scenery you just can't describe. It's no good trying to explain what you'll see. You can only know once you've seen it." The words of Qantas Captain John Dennis ring true about five minutes after he utters them, when we catch our first glimpse of icebergs off the coast of Antarctica.

Passengers rush from one side of the cabin to the other as the excitement runs through the aircraft like a wave. There's a lone iceberg visible through some light cloud on the left. Soon there is what looks like a small flotilla of bergs visible on the right and we rush over to see and take photos we hope will do justice to the experience.

In what seems like no time, the sea is awash with ice of varying shapes and sizes - small bergs, patches of sea ice that resemble confetti and, as we draw closer to the coast, pack ice spreads as far as we can see.

Antarctica Sightseeing Flights has been chartering Qantas aircraft for flights over the southern continent since 1995, including an annual New Year's Eve expedition. But our New Year's Eve trip is special for one particular reason - it's the first commercial flight over the continent by an Airbus A380.

The occasion has drawn together an eclectic mix of people. Among them are those who want to mark a piece of aviation history, enjoy an unusual New Year's Eve celebration, make a grand marriage proposal or just catch a rare glimpse of the world's last great wilderness.

Members of the First to Fly group are the most highly visible passengers in their bright-red T-shirts, which have been made just for this flight. These "first-timers" make a habit of being first in the queue for historic flights - many of the group's members were on the first ever commercial flight of an A380.

Four hours after take-off from Melbourne, we cross the Antarctic coastline above an old Russian base near Cape Hudson and almost immediately the scale of this icy wilderness becomes apparent.

Soaring peaks seem to be almost within an arm's length of the wings and the sheer cliffs and icefalls inspire excited chatter among strangers. The sweep of glaciers is stunning and only magnified by the valleys they have carved out of the surrounding mountains. I can only gasp at the velvety landscape as it unfolds.

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It pays to have a guide on any expedition into the wilderness and we are lucky to have Ian Allison on-board. Allison is a research scientist with the Australian Antarctic Division and specialises in the study of glaciers. His knowledge after 20 expeditions to the continent is obvious and his passion for it comes across clearly in his commentary.

Even as the natural beauty of Antarctica strikes us, we can't forget this is a New Year's Eve party and our hosts ensure it's a good one. The flight attendants seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the guests, donning crowns and spreading a genuine festive cheer throughout the plane.

Champagne flows as midnight approaches, the Abbey Jazz Band wanders around the cabin playing old favourites and an already pleasant atmosphere becomes decidedly convivial.

Soon the magic hour arrives and Phil Asker, of Antarctica Sightseeing Flights, leads the countdown over the aircraft's PA system, before the band leads a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

But the excitement is not over yet because we still have an hour or two left to appreciate the beauty below and the enthusiasm does not wane. Necks still crane to catch every possible view and guests sitting by windows happily vacate their seats for a few minutes to allow their fellow travellers a better view. Cameras are handed around to ensure the moment is captured.

All too soon, Dennis and his flight crew nose the magnificent A380 north and we begin our journey home. The flight path tracker on the inflight entertainment system shows we have only covered the smallest corner of Antarctica and again the scale of this continent is brought home.

Even as Antarctica recedes and the night wears on, sleep seems unlikely for many of us as we compare our highlights and chat with new friends. Then we are back in Melbourne, tired but exhilarated.

And you'd like to know how spectacular the scenery is? Well, it's no good trying to describe it. You can only know what it's like once you've seen it for yourself.

The writer was a guest of Antarctica Sightseeing Flights.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

There are two more Antarctic flights this summer. The first, aboard an A380, departs Sydney for the South Pole next Sunday, returning at 8.30pm. The second flight, aboard a Qantas Boeing 747-400, departs Melbourne on Sunday, February 14 at 8.30am, returning about 8pm.

Prices start at $999 for economy seats in the centre of the aircraft to $6299 for first class. There are eight seating classes available on the A380 and seven on the 747.

To book, phone 1800 633 449, see antarcticaflights.com.au.

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