Better bring your own penguin

On a day trip to Antarctica, Kathy Marks gets a bird's eye view
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The Independent Travel

Three hours south of Hobart, 10,000ft below us, the first iceberg floated serenely by. Aboard the Qantas 747, cabin crew drew our attention to some unusual safety equipment: blankets and woolly jumpers to don "in the unlikely event of the plane having to land".

Three hours south of Hobart, 10,000ft below us, the first iceberg floated serenely by. Aboard the Qantas 747, cabin crew drew our attention to some unusual safety equipment: blankets and woolly jumpers to don "in the unlikely event of the plane having to land".

Flight QF911 had left Sydney that morning bound for Antarctica, but – barring unforeseen emergencies – there were no plans to land on the frozen continent. We were on a day trip to the bottom of the world, a sightseeing excursion that would offer sublime views, but where earth's last great wilderness would remain tantalisingly distant.

The flights operate out of Australia during the brief Antarctic summer, when visibility is optimal and outside temperatures rise to 20C. The chartered plane crosses the South Magnetic Pole and swoops down over the icecap for four hours before returning to Sydney.

The 13-hour trip offers a peculiar travel experience. Inside the cabin, cameras click incessantly, window seats are rotated and the camaraderie flows with the free drinks. Passengers pose for photos in full polar gear and snap up souvenirs such as penguin toys.

Outside are scenes of mesmerising beauty. There are immense glaciers, tall coastal cliffs, frozen waterfalls and sweeping mountain ranges, all of a whiteness so intense that you need sunglasses to gaze at it. The unpolluted air means that the vistas extend for hundreds of miles.

Linking these two worlds, the mundane and the ethereal, is a group of senior Australian Antarctic scientists. Two or three travel on every flight to provide a commentary on the continent's history and environment and explain the scenery as it unfolds.

On board that day was Di Patterson, the first woman to run an Antarctic station, and Syd Kirkby, a legendary explorer. Syd spent six winters on the ice between 1955 and 1981, leading dog-sledding expeditions that discovered the King Charles Mountains, a vast inland range, as well as glaciers and river systems. "Every step took you over a horizon that no one had ever seen," he recalls.

Syd believes that Antarctica gives people a sense of perspective. "When you sail past icebergs 95 miles long by 45 miles wide, you get an intimate sense of the grandeur of nature," he says. "You realise how infinitesimally small we are in nature's scheme of things."

Scientists at Antarctic research stations endure six months of winter darkness and a brutal climate; one Australian explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson, woke up one morning to find that the soles of his feet had dropped off. At Vostock station, a record low of -89C was recorded in 1983.

The plane flies at least 2,000ft above the highest terrain – a wise precaution, given the fate of an Air New Zealand DC10 that crashed into Mount Erebus in 1979, killing all 257 people on board. Sightseeing flights were suspended until 1995 and they now operate only out of Australia. The public's increasing interest in Antarctica and renewed fascination with Scott and Shackleton ensure a high demand.

Di Patterson has seen the landscape dozens of times, but her voice still cracked with excitement as the plane flew over the Ross Sea, where icebergs as big as city blocks bobbed in an expanse of brilliant blue. "It's addictive," she says. "It's a visual and sensual experience without parallel."

Di, who ran Australia's Mawson station in 1987, recalls "an enormous sense of freedom, an intensity that you keep trying to recreate". She adds: "That's why people keep going back. Someone called it the sound of silence calling, and you can't get enough of it."

At Mawson, she was in charge of 25 people, mainly men, whose only link with the outside world was a supply ship that called every three months. The compensations were numerous. "My office looked out over sea ice to icebergs 100ft high," she says. "I would see lines of penguins trotting over the ice."

The strange and endearing creatures that inhabit the Antarctic are, sadly, not visible from the aircraft, but one of the in-flight videos provides a reminder of how attitudes to the wildlife have changed. It shows the early explorers teasing penguins, riding seals and holding up spreadeagled albatrosses to ridicule.

Husky dogs are no longer used on expeditions. Syd Kirkby mourns their passing, although he admits that the work exacted a heavy toll on them. "There is a tendency to romanticise dog-sledding, but it was a dirty, brutal business and generally a death sentence for the dogs," he says.

From the comfort of the 747, passengers see more of Antarctica in a few hours than most expeditioners see in a lifetime. But the trip whets an appetite that it ultimately fails to satisfy. You long to leave the plane, to get down there and feel the crunch of ice beneath your feet. How much is that Antarctic cruise again?

Flights operate out of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide from November to February ( www.antarcticaflights.com.au). Prices vary according to class and viewing potential; for example, economy seats are $899 (£330) in the middle of the aircraft and $1,299 (£480) at the sides. Flights can be booked in Britain through Travel Australia (01603 488664) and Travelbag (01420 541441).

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