On Sunday, we enjoyed the Christmas present that Jill and I had given each other – a flight over Antarctica. Run on a chartered Qantas long-range 747, these flights operate only six times per year and this one was the last flight for the season.
Jill wouldn’t get to see the white continent any other way and even though I have been to the Antarctic Peninsular twice, this area is very different. Where the Peninsular has a geography of rugged mountains, islands, bare rock and glaciated valleys. the area over which we flew is more typical of Antarctica with its enormous flat ice cap and a very white environment.
Our plane left Melbourne a little late at 8:30 am and flew south over Tasmania, directly to the Australian Antarctic base at Casey. This took about 4 1/2 hours and we were served a brunch on the way. It was cloudy for most of the way, but about 150 kms out, we could see our first icebergs and then we began to see large patches of sea ice. The Captain called Casey Station and got a weather update from the Meteorologist who had access to the latest satellite images. He decided that the clearest skies were to the west and charted a flight plan along the coast to a deserted Russian Station called Mirny. This gave us a look at a typical section of the edge of the Antarctic Continent.
The area around Casey Station was clouded over with enough cloud so that we could not see its brightly coloured buildings. As we flew further west, we could see lots of ice, extensive glaciers and some large areas of exposed rock around the Bunger Hills Region. The plane had descended down to around 10-12,000 feet, but even at that height we were too high to see any people or wildlife. We reached Mirny after flying for about 2 hours. We had done some ‘figure of eight’ loops around some of the more interesting features so that people on both sides of the plane could see and then we headed back to see if the cloud above Casey had opened up. Along the way, we had a commentary from two Antarctica experts who had both spent time in Antarctica and the had quite lot of knowledge and some interesting stories to tell.
Casey was still covered in cloud so, as a consolation, the Captain took us out to see Wilkins Ice Runway which is about 70 kms away. This runway is 4 kms long and is used by the The Australian Antarctic Research people who fly in and out on an Airbus 319. It allows scientists to come and do experiments over a much shorter time frame than would be possible if they had to travel on the annual supply ship.
We left Antarctica at around 5:00pm and headed back to Melbourne. We had a fantastic 4 1/2 hours over the ice. It took just over 4 hours to reach home and we arrived at 9:30 pm after 13 hours in the air. A nice dinner on the plane with a couple of glasses of wine topped of a stunning day!
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