Antarctic Flights on Qantas 747 jumbo jet review: What you'll see and what to expect

Diana Patterson, also known as the Ice Maiden or Lady Di of Antarctica, is one of the few Australians who have been pulled by huskies across the world's most inhospitable continent.

What was it like?

"The wind howled as I lay snug in my two sleeping bags in my polar pyramid tent on a remote islet surrounded by a frozen ocean," she explains. "But it wasn't enough to drown out the chorus of huskies outside.

"We'd just completed a 350 kilometre, 10-day dog-sledging journey. At night the temperature dropped to minus 20 degrees. My body was exhausted, but my spirit felt incredibly refreshed."

It's three decades since Patterson became the first woman to command the Australian Antarctic Division's Mawson Station, having endured years of male chauvinism to achieve her dream.

Patterson had applied four times in eight years before she finally broke through "the ice ceiling" (as documented in her biography, The Ice Beneath My Feet: My Year In Antarctica). At 38, she was making history.

In the "Heroic Age", Antarctica had been explored by those expedition leaders wise enough to use dogs: Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson among them. Famously, Scott hadn't when he died, along with his four companions, on the way back from the South Pole.

"Mawson Station was the last in Antarctica to use dogs," Patterson explains. "The huskies I ran were the final ones to come off the continent. Now dogs are banned."

Did it feel special to be connected to the pioneers of polar exploration? "In a tent, 250 kilometres from base, lots of things didn't seem to have changed: the unpredictable weather, the conditions, the silence, the awesome landscape, the dogs.

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"I not only saw the hardships Mawson and the others faced, I felt them – and had the scars from the frostbite to prove it."

This Antarctic summer also marks another Patterson milestone.

It will be 20 years since she took her first trip as an expert guide with Antarctic Flights in a chartered Qantas 747 for the world's only sightseeing flight over the frozen landscapes that once were so difficult to reach.

Patterson has now commentated on at least 40 of the 150 Antarctic Flights since the first one in 1994. Yet, before we get into her recommendations about how to get the maximum out of the understandably expensive joyrides, let's get back to those nicknames she earned as Mawson Station's "officer in charge" in 1987/8.

"The main one was 'Lady Di' because she was very much in the public eye – and still alive – when I first went south," Patterson says. "I had a similar hairdo, and the same name, but I was much shorter.

"At one point, the guys called me 'Mum', which I really objected to. If I'd complained, it would have stuck, so I avoided any reaction.

"I was also called the 'Ice Maiden' for a while, even though I was far too old to be a maiden. Still, when you're one of two women among 40 men, it set up a little barrier which was quite handy."

So what are Patterson's tips on flying over a continent she has witnessed by land, sea and air?

BEFORE THE FLIGHT

You'll be provided with excellent pre-departure notes on what to expect. "Don't forget your sunglasses – they are essential when over the ice," says Patterson. "You'll know you at the right departure gate when you see the giant penguin." Most flights depart at 8am on a Sunday and return around 8pm. But the New Year's Eve flight is timed for the 747 to reach its furthest point south around midnight (when the sun is still shining brightly).

TAKE OFF

"Every time I do one of these flights, I get excited," Patterson says. "But we have at least three hours before we see our first iceberg which is the signal that everyone on board is about to realise their dream of seeing Antarctica."

YOUR SEAT

On any 747, you get the seat you paid for – and obviously, on a scenic flight, it's all about how close you are to the windows.

The cheapest seats (hardly surprisingly) are the middle seats between the two aisles in economy. The most expensive are the window seats in business class deluxe.

Many of the seats on an Antarctica Flights ride "rotate". That doesn't mean they revolve – it means you are obliged to swap your seat half way through the flight with your designated seat partner.

See the current seating and pricing plan, and consider the options carefully before you book, but let's face it, you are probably only going to do this once in your life.

THE MEAL

Again, you'll get the meal (and service) you've paid for. But it will be served early, long before the pilot spots the Antarctic ice, so just relax for the first couple of hours as you head due south.

THE FIRST SIGHT OF ANTARCTICA

"I've seen Antarctica by cruise ship, and by land," says Patterson. "But only from the air do you really get a sense of how difficult it was for the pioneer explorers to race to the South Pole.

"From a cruise ship, you are close to the ice, and you may even be able to step onto the ice from a zodiac. But from a 747 you see the immensity, the desolation, the beauty and the hazards encountered by the explorers. Sheer ice cliffs, crevasses and glaciers, 20 kilometres wide and 60 kilometres long.

"You can appreciate the extent of the glaciers in a way you never can from a cruise ship or zodiac."

YOUR FELLOW PASSENGERS

Unlike most flights, you'll find yourself talking not only to the person sitting next to you but chatting to the whole cabin. Each of you has splashed out for an adventure that your friends and family might find an inexplicably expensive day (or night) out.

"Some of the Antarctica Flights passengers are there for the history, to make the connection with the explorers," Patterson says. "Others are there because it has been a long-held desire to see the Antarctic, and they know they are never going to see it on foot or by ship."

At some point, you're bound to invite a stranger to invade your personal space to get a fabulous photo or a better view.

"Visiting Antarctica is like experiencing a total eclipse of the sun," Patterson adds. "You suddenly feel part of a bigger universe."

WHAT YOU'LL SEE

It depends where you fly from (it has been four years since Brisbane last featured as one of embarkation airports while Hobart – Australia's Antarctic capital – is included for the first time in 2018). But that's secondary to the weather and visibility over Antarctica. Every flight is different.

Since that sounds like a cop-out, I ask Patterson for her favourite three highlights from the Antarctica Flights she has commentated on.

TOP SPOTS #1 CAPE ADARE

"Commander Carsten Borchgrevink, a Norwegian, was the first explorer to spend a winter with his crew on Antarctica in 1899. It was the beginning of the heroic age of exploration," Patterson says.

"His story is not very well known, but the hut he built is still there on Cape Adare. Flying over for the first time was overwhelming.

"If the light is right, and the cape is not covered in cloud, you can see his two huts on the beach."

TOP SPOTS #2 MOUNT EREBUS

"It's an emotional experience seeing one of the world's most active volcanoes in an ice landscape," Patterson admits.

"Knowing it was named by James Clark Ross, who first discovered what is now known as the Ross Ice Shelf, makes it doubly important.

"Not many of our flights make it as far as Mount Erebus – it's a long way south. But if the conditions are really good, and the air is clear, the view is sensational.

"I remember the first time I saw it from the air 20 years ago. Erebus was a beacon for those early explorers – Scott, Shackleton, Mawson – who were heading back to Ross Island. It lifted their spirits when they saw Erebus smoking in the distance."

TOP SPOTS #3 MAWSON'S HUTS

Don't get confused (as I did). Mawson Station – which Patterson commanded – is due south of South Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Mawson's Huts are south of Australia. Built in 1912 by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Dr Douglas Mawson (later knighted), the collection of huts are now an iconic symbol of polar exploration.

"From the air, whether you approach them from the east or the west, you'll pass over kilometres of huge ice cliffs," Patterson says.

"Suddenly you come to this rocky outcrop, perhaps one kilometre by half a kilometre, that is exposed from the ice.

"As a commentator, I explain how Mawson stumbled on this spot at the point of giving up.

On a warm January day he found this gorgeous harbour that met their needs to build their huts and finally achieve their targets of exploration.

"Of course, it soon became the Home of the Blizzard (the title of Mawson's famous account of their adventures).

"From the air, you can interpret the whole history of the Heroic Age. We can usually point out the crevassing areas, talk about ice movements, and why Antarctic exploration has always been such a hazardous arena."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Traveller.com.au/antarctica

FLY

Standard economy (rotating) seats from $1999. The next scheduled departures are from: Sydney (November 25, 2017); Melbourne (December 31, 2017 and February 11, 2018); Brisbane (February 18, 2018); Hobart (November 25, 2018); see antarcticaflights.com.au

Steve Meacham was a guest of Antarctica Flights.

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