There is great excitement as the continent comes into view - sheer jagged ice cliffs and flat-topped bergs that look like the swimming platforms you might find anchored in Mediterranean beach resorts.
We're on a flight from Brisbane on Australia's east coast. It’s the only country in the world that offers day flights to Antarctica and pre-Covid, people would come from as far away as the US to make this trip. The flights have been operating for around 20 years, in the southern hemisphere summer, taking about 4 hours to reach Antarctica from Brisbane - less of course from Australia's more southern cities: Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Hobart.
It’s a charter flight, using the 787 Dreamliner and Qantas staff, (including captain Lisa Norman). The stewards tell us they are thrilled to be back in the air for the first time in a year. There’s also a glaciologist on board, who gives us frequent updates on what we’re seeing and lots of other interesting information, including the history of famous expeditions. We also have a phone call with the station leader at Casey (we interviewed last year’s station leader, Alison Dean on the podcast, you can listen here) who told us all about life on the station.
I was surprised to hear just how many countries have stations in Antartica – Australia is a major player, but there are 50 stations in total, belonging to countries from South Africa to Japan. There is major concern over China’s interest in the region – they are currently developing their 5th station. Peter, the glaciologist touched on the fact that China is currently constructing a mega Antarctic krill-fishing ship which is a big worry.
This article in The Atlantic about it is worth a read.
We spend around 3 hours in total over the ice cap and it really is awe-inspiring. I’m surprised at how mountainous the region is and the sheer scale of everything - Peter tells us that there are icebergs as big a France - it’s utterly incomprehensible
As well as mountains like Mount Melbourne, who we’re told is particularly clear on our trip we see spectacular glaciers that look for all the world like ski-smoothed black runs, ice-floes, crevasses that can be hundreds of metres deep and fields of pristine ice.
Despite the many research stations based there, it's humbling to see mother nature's power and gratifying to see there is one place that mankind has yet to trash. The rarity of that is very moving and I think affects us all. As Alison Dean says in our podcast, when we asked her if she was against tourism to Antarctica, it is only if people come to see the wonder for themselves will they be inspired to want to save it and fight for action for climate change.
Would I prefer to be down there photographing emperor penguins and crunching my way across fresh snow? You bet! But these are unusual times and the idea of ‘travelling’ by simply observing from a distance rather than being an active participant doesn't seem as strange as it once would have.
These days, I feel like getting just on a plane is a great privilege.
How it Works
People who’ve paid extra get a window seat but have to exchange it for an aisle or middle seat halfway through. In theory, it means that everyone who’s paid extra gets a view one way, but in practice, due to the route, the right-hand side get a far superior view, as the left-hand side as you reach the continent is water while the right is land. There also seemed to be many more sights on the right. Constant grumbling from the left as there was yet another “and on the right…”.
Classes & Seats
I wouldn’t bother at all with “Explorer Economy” class – seats are windowless and the tiny windows near the galley on the Dreamliner at the back don’t make for great viewing.
If you’re travelling as a couple and don’t mind being separated (perhaps a couple who have been together for a loooooong time!) I’d book separate seats, as if there is two of you, only one will get a window seat one way (that was lucky me, poor husband was stuck in the middle, then on change around, an aisle.)
I presume that premium economy gets more leg room, but they and ‘standard’ economy look over the wing. “Superior economy.” presumably the next level down in comfort, has better views.
Even business class and business class deluxe have to give up their window seat half way though, but if you can afford it, this is how to do it!