Sunday, November 14, 2010

Visit the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch


Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth.

It is twice the size of Australia, drier than the Sahara and temperatures can get as low as minus 89C.

More interestingly, it's a place to party, with concerts, bars, a bowling alley and a hefty supply of condoms.

This is what I discovered when I visited the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, one of New Zealand's most popular tourist attractions.

It isn't Antarctica, but it's the closest thing to being there, without actually being there.

The city of Christchurch is one of five official "gateways" to Antarctica, where some 70 per cent of travellers to the icy continent leave from.

The centre is home to the US, Italian and NZ Antarctic programs as well as the Antarctic passenger departure terminal.

During winter, there are roughly 500 people based at 34 stations across Antarctica.

The population, made up of scientists, researchers and station support staff such as cooks and cleaners, swells to a couple of thousand in the summer months.

Centre manager Mike Hyde and our guide, Sue Best, are two of Antarctica's most passionate ambassadors, who promise to give us a taste of what it's like there.

Having arrived in Christchurch to torrential rain and gale force winds, weather described by the locals as the worst they've seen in a decade, their promise shouldn't be too hard to fulfil.

Our first Antarctic experience is a ride aboard a Hagglund, a Swedish all-terrain vehicle, strongly resembling an army tank - it was originally designed for military use - used in Antarctica since 1985.

I climb into the first of two carriages, joined by caterpillar tracks, and don my headset, as we make our way across a series of small earth mounds.

Our driver explains that the only difference between this vehicle and the Hagglunds used in Antarctica is the padding on the seat, for which I am very grateful.

He then sets out to show us what this beast can do: we drive over a 1.5m crevice and climb the Hill of Terror which is followed by a seven metre drop straight into a pond, demonstrating the amphibious capabilities of the vehicle.

Back on dry land, Sue tells us what life on Antarctica is like.

She should know, she's spent five summers and one winter there as a cook.

According to Sue, Antarctica is a place to "party hard" and she jokes with us about the number of condoms shipped there each year and the drinking that goes on.

But on a serious note, Antarctica is not for the faint-hearted.

Those wishing to travel there are subject to psychological testing before departure.

You must be able to work well in a team environment and you have to be resilient.

Once the polar winter sets in around March, the continent (depending on where you are) is subject to four to six months of constant darkness.

At Scott Base, the main NZ station, there is darkness from April to August.

The weather leaves some areas totally cut off from the rest of the world, as the temperature becomes too cold for aeroplanes and freezes the sea, making ship access impossible.

Over 10 years ago, American physician Dr Jerri Nielsen made headlines around the world after discovering an aggressive form of cancer in her breast during the Antarctic winter, in March 1999.

The extreme weather conditions meant her station was closed off from the outside world until the end of the year.

With help from doctors via satellite email and colleagues that she trained to care for her, Dr Nielsen treated herself.

She performed a biopsy on her breast and treated herself with anti-cancer drugs delivered in an airdrop by the US Air Force in July 1999.

That October, she was rescued by the Air National Guard in minus 50C conditions.

According to Dr Bryan Storey, Professor of Antarctic Studies at the University of Canterbury, the continual darkness during the winter months can bring on the winter blues.

"People do get affected by the continual darkness," says Dr Storey.

"People are made aware of it, the station always try to keep some structure to the day, so people get up and have a breakfast, and lunch, and dinner and have activities and work to do.

"It keeps people in a routine.

"On Scott Base, there might be 20 people and they look after each other and organise events that keep things ticking on."

Sue tells us that the darkness "can be depressing".

"You want to sleep all the time," she says.

In summer, you have the opposite problem: perpetual daylight.

From November to January, the sun does not set and Sue says people hang sheets on their windows to get some shut eye.

There's also a two-minute limit on showers - water needs to be conserved in order to put out the frequent fires that occur as a result of the dry atmosphere.

It is so dry, you must drink two to three litres of water every couple of hours to prevent dehydration and if you walk outside in normal clothing, 60 seconds is all it will take to freeze the moisture in your lungs and kill you.

To get a feel for just how cold it is, Sue takes us to the Snow and Ice Experience, a snow-filled room, designed to make you feel as though you are actually in Antarctica.

There's even an igloo.

We are given rubber socks to put over our shoes and coats, to experience what it is like in Antarctica on a hot summer day. It's a scorching minus 8C.

Thirty seconds of simulated Antarctic winds is all I can handle before leaving the room. But apparently, it's very popular among tourists from warm countries and it can actually be difficult to get them out.

Finally, we see the fairy penguins, or Little Blues, all of whom have been rescued from the wild and have disabilities.

Some are wearing pink booties - seriously.

Apparently, penguins can get calluses on their feet if they stand for too long, and don't spend enough time swimming, and if this happens, they are given pedicures and are forced to wear the shoes.

After watching the penguins eat their lunch, we head over to the centre's cafe for some refreshments of our own.

Upon returning to Sydney later that week, I spread the word about Antarctica's sea of condoms to all my friends and family.

For once, they seemed to be interested in the tales from my travels, confirming the theory that sex sells.

A quick Google search of Antarctica+condoms confirms the rumours.

In 2008, 16,500 condoms were reportedly delivered to Antarctica's McMurdo base station, the main US base, where just 125 people were stationed - I'll let you do the math.


The International Antarctic Centre, 38 Orchard Road, Christchurch. Call: 64-3- 353-7798


The centre is open every day of the year from 9am.

Entry for adults is $55, children aged 5-15, $36, and family passes are available for $145.

Entry for children under five is free.

The writer was a guest of the Antarctic Centre, Accor Hotels, Christchurch Tourism and Pacific Blue.

No comments: