10 February 2002
We left Sydney after a week of rain, electric storms and hailstorms. Only the opera (all four performances) lived up to our expectations; just about everything else was a wash-out. We could not do any walks or cycling; the famed harbor cruise in gray and windy weather was not appealing. We congratulated ourselves that the weather was finally fine the afternoon we set out on the Bridge Climb to the top of Harbour Bridge over Sydney Harbour. After an hour’s preparation and walking along a catwalk tethered to a wire rope, an electric storm came out of nowhere and we had to return. So when our Antarctic idea didn’t work out it was no surprise. My plan was based on there being lots of empty seats on the plane so that, at the last minute, we could buy the cheapest seats and find an empty space by a window. When the agent said the plane was nearly full it wasn’t such a big disappointment; after all it was a wild idea.
We had already left the caravan park for the Blue Mountains, when there was a call from the travel agent offering us the last premium seats on the Antarctic scenic flight at an unprecedented special price. Who could refuse an offer like that?
At 7.00am the following morning when we arrived at the designated gate there was a palpable air of excitement and even the crew was in good spirits. We weren’t the only ones to photograph the departures screen.
My biggest worry had been what does one wear to a thirteen-hour scenic flight over the Antarctic. I felt the need for something rakish, so insisted Eitan wear his pink underpants (the result of washing a new red towel.) No need to worry, on the plane there were Antarctic clothes. Suitably dressed I felt I could face the minus 67 degrees Centigrade weather outside the plane, should the need arise.
As we prepared for takeoff, the pilot said the plane was very full with 160 tons of fuel and not to be alarmed if it seemed as if we’d never take off. Once in the air the lecturers, a glaciologist, biologists and a meteorologist, were introduced over the video. They gave lectures and explanations and walked around the plane speaking to everybody.
Just before Hobart Tasmania, as breakfast was being served, we hit the roaring 40’s. The pilot told the crew to go to their seats ‘immediately.’ The plane was buffeted about like a feather in a hurricane. The turbulence was quite alarming, and we had never felt anything quite like it. Afterwards the meteorologist explained that these air pockets are like a fierce river of water – quite calm in the center even when the wind was racing along at 150kph as it was then. At the margins, which twist and turn and have eddies, you meet the rough stuff. The wind started as a tailwind and ended as a headwind. It went on for about 20 very long minutes; luckily there were no casualties (except for breakfast!).
As we flew toward the Antarctic Circle the pilot contacted the stationmaster at Macquarie Island, far below us. He said they were excited that seals, almost wiped out in the 1920’s, were now returning to the island. The number of albatrosses was in decline, they think because of longline fishing. Rats, rabbits and cats had been introduced to the islands. They have successfully eradicated cats and were working to contain the rats and rabbits. They were pleased that petrels were returning and breeding for the first time in 100 years. He said that part of his job was to monitor the rubbish that swept up to shore. Their station, a permanent subantarctic station, is halfway between Hobart and the Antarctic continent. He said that plastic bottles, plastic bags and a lot of other junk landed on these shores. You can’t throw anything away and think it doesn’t matter. Plastic has a terrible effect on seals, penguins and birds, which swallow the plastic and can’t feed, or get their necks caught in it.
What would you take with on a 13 hour scenic flight over Antarctica when all you’re allowed is 4 kilos? Well, in the end we took sunglasses against the glare of the ice, a camera, binoculars, a pen, and a compass. When we flew over the Magnetic South Pole we were fascinated to see our compasses swing wildly. The needle of the compass has just swung 270 degrees and is pointing to what had been west a few minutes before.
The cloud cover had been very heavy but 3 ½ hours after leaving Sydney we sighted our first icebergs. The whole plane was invited to get up and walk over to the left side and take a look. Not to worry, the plane wouldn’t tip over. After that the only people who remained seated were those who had window seats. The pictures were taken from 10,000 feet (3,300 meters) - the icebergs are about 150 meters high!
We passed the 60th parallel and entered the Antarctic Circle. At our
first sight of land, French Dumont d’Urville, the plane descended to
10,000 feet. At that altitude, the pilot was free to fly wherever he
wanted; we were the only plane in the sky. We continued east
flying over Commonwealth Bay and Mawson’s Hut. Mawson led an expedition
in the Antarctic in 1911-13. They set camp in what appeared to be a
sheltered bay but was later known as ‘Home of the Blizzard’ and
they experienced winds of up to 360 kilometers an hour! The following
summer he led an expedition inland. His two companions died, and he
walked back alone over 300 kms. He had no food and survived by eating
his huskies. He painfully made his way back to Commonwealth Bay only to
see his relief ship disappearing over the horizon. He had to spend
another dark winter there until a ship arrived the following summer. It
later became known that dogs’ livers have a dangerously high Vitamin A
concentration, and he had been poisoned. Ironically missing the ship
may have saved his life - the best remedy is total rest. Well, he must
have had enough of that. He helped lay the foundations for Australia’s
A little further along at Mertz Glacier we clearly saw the ice tongue extending into the sea.
Each time there was something of particular interest, the plane did lazy figures of eight to ensure that people on both sides of the plane had good views. Our simple digital camera couldn’t do justice to the splendour.
In addition to champagne, we were served ices over the ice.
Because of bad weather the pilot
changed the flight plan and we flew west over the ice to Casey Bay, an
Australian Antarctic research station. (We had a good overhead
picture of the buildings but erased the picture by mistake! This
picture is taken from their website, http://www.antdiv.gov.au/casey
). Here again we listened as the pilot spoke to the stationmaster. Down
there were 17 people – the winter staff to look after the equipment. In
summer their numbers will swell to 55. The people down there were
really excited to see our plane and talk to us. They hadn’t seen a
plane since November!
On the way back we were treated to cake; many people had celebrated birthdays or wedding anniversaries by taking this trip. There was a raffle followed by an auction. The seat next to the pilot during landing was auctioned for Aus$3100. All proceeds went to a “clean Australia” project.
We had a great day. The only way to better it would have been to land on the ice.
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