by BELINDA MERHAB || AAP
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.
IF YOU GO:
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.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Cross the Antarctic Circle before heading for Cape Denison and a rare visit to Douglas Mawson's historic huts, built for the 1911-1914 'Australian Antarctic Expedition'; or explore the Ross Sea region including Scott and Shackleton's bases still surviving from the 'Heroic Era' of Antarctic exploration.
These timber buildings are rare in a world context. Just six complexes surviving from the 'Heroic Era' of Antarctic exploration: a period of great human adventure, exploration, research and discovery on the last continent to be explored.
Whipped by ferocious katabatic winds, it is a wonder that there are any remnants of buildings left at all. Yet, remarkably, in addition to the historic buildings, there are plentiful examples of clothing, food, crates, sleds, ropes and kerosene tins remaining, literally frozen in time.
At over twice the length and 10 times the weight of Douglas Mawson's wooden ex-whaling barquentine, Aurora, the purpose built expedition ship Orion (with the benefits of oversized stabilisers, retractable sonar and ice strengthened hull) provides her 100 guests with the needs of today's adventurers: technology, safety and creature comforts that include fine food and wines, a gym, boutique, hairdressing, sauna and massage facilities - as well as 80 staff, specialist lecturers and polar expedition crew to look after every need.
These are true expeditions - both cross the Antarctic Circle, voyaging further south than the position of the South Magnetic Pole. Magnetic compasses are useless in these waters, an area that remains largely unsurveyed.
On Macquarie Island the King penguin colony alone is estimated to have in excess of 170,000 breeding pairs. So rare are visitors here that they are usually ignored by birds, seals and penguins alike as they go about their daily business. See Elephant seals, some weighing as much as three tonnes - more than a car - and the massed gathering of Royal penguins coming and going from the sea.
Never to be forgotten expeditions to some of the most exciting and wondrous places on earth.
Mawson's Antarctica - Commonwealth Bay 2010
18 night expedition: Dunedin / Antarctica / Dunedin
Expedition departs 28th December 2010 Dunedin / Snares Islands / Auckland Islands / Commonwealth Bay region / Macquarie Island/ Dunedin
Fares from $19,365 per person for an Ocean View category B Stateroom
Suites from $26,710 per person for a Junior Suite
Orion's spacious Owners' Suites are $40,555 per person
Scott and Shackleton's Antarctica - Ross Sea 2011
21 night expedition: Hobart / Antarctica / Christchurch
Expedition departs 27th January 2011 Hobart / Macquarie Island / Ross Sea region / Campbell Island / Christchurch
Fares from $22,590 per person for an Ocean View category B Stateroom
Suites from $31,160 per person for a Junior Suite
Orion's spacious Owners' Suites are $47,315 per person
NOTE: Please note that all Antarctic voyages are subject to possible variation according to prevailing weather conditions and as such are opportunistic in nature. On occasion intended destinations will need to be changed for safety or other reason.
Further information on Orion Expedition Cruises can be obtained by visiting the website www.orionexpeditions.com
For reservations or to obtain a brochure call Orion Expedition Cruises: 61-2 9033 8777 (Sydney callers) 1300 361 012 (regional and interstate) or your travel agent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ranked #2 expedition cruise ship in the world in the current Berlitz Cruise Guide, Orion is the world's latest purpose-built luxury expedition cruise ship, featuring an unmatched range of onboard facilities.
With 80 crew and a maximum of 100 passengers for Antarctic voyages Orion offers the highest staff to guest ratio and guest to public space ratio of any ship based in Australian waters.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
We are now in the depths of the southern winter, the snow is low on the mountains and we had a -5ºC frost here in Christchurch earlier in the week. That is as cold as a cool summer’s day in Antarctica, but despite looking there were no icebergs and penguins were a little thin on the ground as well! If you have always wanted to see icebergs and penguins, you could wait till the next ice age or you could join us for the experience of a lifetime in Antarctica!
Heritage Expeditions continues to offer its very successful expeditions to the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica, and after many years of planning we are pleased to bring you a full range of expeditions to South Georgia & the Antarctic Peninsula. Our Antarctic Peninsula expedition’s sail aboard the former Swedish icebreaker MV Polar Star which carries just 100 passengers is supremely well suited to polar navigation with its icebreaker hull allowing us to explore where others are unable. Aboard the expedition program has the same focus on experiences ashore and education that we have always valued.
As an introductory offer Wild Earth Travel has for a limited time the exceptional one off rate of AU$5,844 per person in a double berth with private bathroom on our 9th December and 6th January 10 night departures from Ushuaia.
That is a huge 35% discount of the regular price!
Alternatively if you want to turn a classic adventure into a once in a lifetime trip this offer is extended to our 19 night expedition taking in The Falklands Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica on which double berths are now only AU$10,702 per person on our November 21st departure!
If you have already been to Antarctica and have Antarcticus Feverus or you have always wanted to experience Antarctica there has never been a better time.
Contact us today for further details – offer ends August 10th so don’t delay!
‘Small Ships, Big Adventures’
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Small Expedition Ships Won’t be Affected by New Bans That Will Keep Large Cruise Ships Out of Antarctica Starting in 2011
The International Maritime Organization adopted a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil for ships sailing in Antarctica this month, effectively meaning that beginning August 1, 2011 most large cruise ships will no longer be able to sail in Antarctica. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ two expedition ships, the 5-star* MS HANSEATIC and the 4-star* MS BREMEN have always used diesel fuel, state-of-the-art waste disposal systems (rubbish-incinerator and biological sewage treatment plant on board) and environmentally-friendly underwater paints (TBT-free), which will allow both ships to continue this very popular route in 2011 and beyond. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ expedition ships carry no more than 184 passengers. Zodiac (small motorized boats) landings, under the guidance of experienced experts who give detailed instructions to passengers about proper conduct while in Antarctica, never exceed 20 people.
łWe support all changes to current regulations, if they are geared towards protecting and conserving Antarctica, said Sebastian Ahrens Managing Director of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. łWith our passengers, cruises to Antarctica have not suffered a loss of fascination in that the secret of an unforgettable cruise to Antarctica is to have a small-ship operator that offers trips off the beaten paths. And this is exactly what our expeditions are all about all under the premise of leaving the environment intact.˛
Hapag-Lloyd cruises is an active member of IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) a voluntary union of Antarctic tour operators that have agreed to promote ecologically sustainable tourism in the Antarctic continent and, at the same time, benefit from the experience of the other members.
Hapag-Lloyd Cruises will be offering two Antarctica international (German/English) cruises in early 2011 on the MS HANSEATIC and the MS BREMEN. Both ships are well equipped for travel in difficult waters, with both holding the highest ice class ranking for passenger vessels (E4). Also shallow drafts and high manoeuvrability allow the ships to enter waters larger cruise vessels cannot reach. Guests explore the world’s best-kept secrets in zodiacs (small motorized boats) with only 10-12 guests. Onboard experts include a team of experienced scientists, expedition leaders and specialists who guide landings and offer guests the rare opportunity to observe plant and animal life up close. Both ships also have warm parkas and rubber boots for all passengers on-loan.
The Antarctica itineraries below offers guests a once in a lifetime experience to view the gigantic colonies of birds, particularly penguins as they gather for the start of their summer in Antarctica. In addition to observing the massive bird colonies, guests will also have the opportunity to hike on the Falkland Islands, explore South Georgia, bath in the hot waters on Deception Island and observe the gleaming icebergs and whales in the Antarctic Sound.
MS BREMEN: ANTARCTICA and the ANTARCTIC CIRCLE
(South Georgia, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctic Circle)
Dates: January 5 24, 2011 (19 Days)
Embarkation: Ushuaia/Argentina, Disembarkation: Ushuaia/Argentina
Rate: Starting at $11,710* per person based on double occupancy for an outside cabin, rate includes flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia.
MS HANSEATIC: ANTARCTICA
(South Georgia, South Orkney Islands, South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula)
Dates: January 726, 2011 (19 Days)
Embarkation: Ushuaia/Argentina, Disembarkation: Ushuaia/Argentina
Rate: Starting at $13,640* per person based on double occupancy for an outside cabin, rate includes flights between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia.
For more information on other HANSEATIC AND BREMEN international cruises,
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
The ban goes into effect Aug. 1, 2011, and will mostly impact large cruise ships that carry more than 500 passengers and briefly pass through Antarctica waters, without disembarking passengers, while traveling from South America. Designed to minimize the potential for accidents involving heavy fuel oils, the ban will force larger ships to deplete any banned fuel onboard before traveling into the region.
As a result, it is expected that a number of these ships will alter their itineraries to avoid the area, which will result in a projected decline in tourism from a current annual estimate of 35,000 visitors for the 2010-11 season to roughly 27,000 the following season. “Our mission remains the advocacy of responsible tourism operations geared toward the safety of human life and the protection and preservation of the Antarctic environment,” said Steve Wellmeier, executive director of IATTO. “As a result, our members are receptive to those changes that help accomplish these objectives.”
Unaffected will be the majority of smaller, expedition-type cruise vessels -- those carrying 60 to 500 passengers -- which in recent years have relied on lighter distillate fuels such as marine gas oil and marine diesel oil. These fuels are not included in the ban.
IAATO is a member organization founded in 1991 to advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. IAATO currently has 110 members. IAATO members work together to develop, adopt and implement operational standards that mitigate potential environmental impacts. For more information, visit www.iaato.org.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The Antarctica season beginning in November 2010 is likely to be the last one as it has been known. Proposed changes to the type of fuel ships are allowed to burn and carry in this fragile ecosystem have now become a reality, making the future of big cruise ships in Antarctica uncertain.
A rule was passed last year by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) banning the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils, the type of fuel commonly burned by big ships, in the Antarctic. The reasoning is that a spillage of this type of fuel is considered too much of a risk—and accidents do happen, as we witnessed in 2007, when Gap Adventures' M/S Explorer was holed by ice and sank.
Read full story (opens a new site)
Friday, May 14, 2010
A specific critical study of polar cruise tourism is therefore timely. The industry has moved beyond its infancy, and is now entering a maturing phase with increased numbers and types of vessels, more demanding routes, and more regular and predictable patterns of activity. A range of factors is likely to support this maturing phase, including increasing tourist demand for travel to remote places, overall popularity of cruising worldwide, more sophisticated promotional activities by tour agencies, increasing awareness at the political and community levels about the benefits and costs of cruise tourism, and changing ice regimes in the polar regions. The increase in cruise activities, and the associated risks of accidents, as well as the potential and actual impacts of the large numbers of tourists in the polar regions bring with it management challenges for sustainable use of these regions. This book discusses critically the issues around environmental and social sustainability of the cruise industry in Polar Regions. Authors from Canada, USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are experts in their respective fields and take an innovative, critical and at times controversial approach to the subject.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
For South Georgia February was one of the busiest months in the 2009/10 tourist season with sixteen cruise ships and six yachts visiting the island.
According to the February edition of the South Georgia newsletter the 11th cruise was an especially busy day at Grytviken, with two vessels bringing the largest numbers of passengers in a day this season. “Delphin” with 355 passengers visited in the morning and “Minerva” with 300 in the afternoon.
Six yachts have been around the Island this month: three on private visits, two on charter to small tourist groups and one as support yacht to a kayak expedition.
Three yachts gathered at the north end of the Island awaiting better weather before launching back to the Falkland Islands. With the weather unrelenting the yachts were trapped long enough for passengers and crew to miss pre-booked flights.
One yacht that did head out had a very rough voyage and another 15-metre long yacht ended up having to be singled handed back by the skipper when its two crew members joined a cruise ship to get back for their flights.
Continued stormy weather and a wetter than average February disrupted schedules and prevented many landings as the ships sought out the more sheltered potential landing sites on the worst weather days.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
For the month of March, it's not just the temperature that's plummeting in Antarctica! World Expeditions is offering an earlybird 5% off 2010-2011 season voyages for bookings made during the month of March!!!
Now you can get a range of hot discounts to the coolest destination on the planet. Antarctica can tell a thousand stories; its wildlife, sculpted icebergs & interesting history; the ambitions of those who've tried to conquer it; its peril in the days of global warming.
With an emphasis on animal encounters and maximum shore time, our range of Antarctic programs are thought provoking and adventurous with the opportunity to kayak, dive and even camp on the Antarctic mainland for a night!
And there's no better way to see Antarctica than through the eyes of Antarctic expert and biologist Lesley Gidding. Lesley is treading lightly in the land of ice and rock and, through the Southern Ocean Research Partnership initiative, making sure research efforts are combined rather than duplicated to reduce impact on the fragile environment. Lesley will impart invaluable information about ecology, the history of whaling as well as the delicate ecologies and what science and conservation are doing to protect Antarctica.
Here's your chance to get in on a great night of imagery and information and a jump on a great deal on the 2010/2011 Antarctica season.
Antarctica with Lesley Gidding, Sydney
When: Tuesday March 16th - 6pm
Where: Level 5, 71 York St
Come Prepared! Visit our Antarctica webpage, find something that suits you
and Lesley will be able to answer your questions on the night.
The special is valid for all departures in the 2010/2011 season and all expeditions such as the classic 11 day voyage and the longer 20 day 'Spirit of Shackleton' route.
Director of Chimu Adventures, Greg Carter, believes the deal gives people the opportunity to pick up a real bargain in getting to Antarctica. Carter claims, "with the 25% off discount, prices are starting from around $AUD 3775 for the 11-day classic expedition. This is really unbeatable value!"
The offer is available for bookings made before 30th April 2010 and is commissionable for agents.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
The economic downturn has frozen tourists' enthusiasm to travel to one of Australia's most remote and inhospitable Antarctic outposts with tourism operators reporting a sharp downturn in bookings.
In January 2009 the Australian Antarctic Division reported a record five cruise ships carrying over 400 visitors visited the site of the Mawson's Huts in Cape Denison, base of one of the most significant expeditions in Antarctic history.
However, only one cruise company, Australia-based Orion Expedition Cruises, was expected to visit the remote outpost in January this year, carrying about 96 visitors.
"We've had a slower year based on the recession. That means Antarctica hasn't been in the front of people's minds," Chris Perkins, sales and marketing manager for Orion Expedition Cruises, told Reuters on board the polar cruiser The Orion.
Commercial Antarctic tourism dates back to the late 1960s but interest surged in the late 1980s, leading to a wide range of tourist and adventure activities -- and prompting a list of regulations to protect the pristine Antarctic environment.
Orion Expedition Cruises runs an 18-day trip that visits the historic wooden Mawson's Huts, set up by geologist Douglas Mawson who led an Australasian Antartic expedition from 1911 to 1914, as well as Port Martin, the site of 100 grounded icebergs.
But if the tag price of between USD19,000 to USD40,500 is not a deterrent then the idea of spending seven days crossing the gruelling Southern Ocean to visit one of the world's most inhospitable regions can be off-putting to many travellers.
Some, however, are determined to make the trip to Cape Denison in east Antarctica, with the voyage best undertaken in the southern hemisphere summer between late December and March.
"As far as the economic climate goes, that goes up and down, but I'm getting older and that means I've only got a limited time to do all the things I've want to do," Fred Pernat, a tourist from Melbourne, Australia, told Reuters on board The Orion.
"I suppose I've got a bucket list and coming to Antarctica is one of the things I've always wanted to do."
Rising tourist numbers have sparked a debate on the pros and cons of commercial visitors to the remote wilderness of east Antarctica which is far less accessible than the Antarctic Peninsula that is a two-day sea trip from South America.
But while the risk of contamination to the environment is always a possibility, tourism to the area is bound by strict guidelines set out in the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).
Professor Pat Quilty of the University of Tasmania says tourism is not doing as much damage to Antarctica as research stations, which can be occupied by up to 1,000 people in summer.
"It's very clear that whatever humanity does is going to have some effect. The question is whether it's transitory," said Quilty.
In order to minimise the impact of tourism in the area, Orion Expeditions has designed its five star cruise ship to operate on low fuel and carry a mini-decimalization plant which reduces the amount of water used and carries all "grey water" or sewage back to port for disposal.
"We don't dump anything. Nothing goes over the side," said Perkins.