19th March 2000
By Roger Thiedeman
Last week, I described the first exciting phase of my recent sightseeing flight over Antarctica in a Boeing 747 jetliner of Qantas Airways. Reaching the shores of this vast continent some four hours after departing Melbourne, we got our first clear view of the visual treats spread out below. Earlier, we had glimpsed, through gaps in clouds, isolated icebergs drifting away from the cold clutches of Antarctic seas. We had flown over the South Magnetic Pole, lying offshore directly south of Hobart, Tasmania, and observed compass needles spinning aimlessly in disoriented confusion.
Now, Antarctica was revealed to us in all its breathtakingly rugged beauty and glory. Yes, it was showtime! We began to feel we were finally getting our money's worth! Cruising along the coastal stretch lying closest to Australia and New Zealand, Captain John Dennis, our aircraft commander, obligingly descended to 10,000 feet. We gaped and exclaimed in awe at the ice shelf that clung like a shimmering white fringe-or a two-dimensional free-form sculpture -to the edges of the continent, extending its already vast expanses even further out to sea.
Our track would later take us over the now-abandoned Leningradskaya Russian research station. It served as a reminder that scientific research was the sole reason for human habitation in this part of the world. Antarctica is the only continent on earth without an indigenous population. Here, international cooperation is vital to the management of the region. Under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty signed in Washington, D.C. in 1959, Antarctica is preserved as an international zone for peaceful and scientific pursuits only. Mining and oil drilling have been forbidden for 50 years, effective from January 1998.
Today, Britain, New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile and Argentina claim territory on Antarctica. Curiously, Russia and the United States of America refuse to acknowledge any other country's territorial claims, thereby claiming access to all of Antarctica on behalf of each of their nations! Nevertheless, men and women from approximately 18 nations maintain year-round operations there, even wintering through the long, lonely and dark nights and days of 24-hour darkness, all in the interests of scientific advancement.
At their stations and bases, scientists conduct unique research into such diverse subjects as continental drift, climatic changes, ocean current circulation, and pollution. Satellites and the Global Positioning System (GPS) are used to measure the Antarctic ice sheet as a means of accurately determining whether global warming is occurring. Other specialists study the eight varieties of penguin indigenous to the continent and surrounding sub-Antarctic islands, as well as the five seal species, and even whales, that visit the area. Because of Antarctica's extremes of climate, its winter darkness and scarcity of ice-free land, plant life is virtually non-existent, and limited to only some grasses, lichens and mosses-of great interest to botanists.
Glancing at my map, I noticed something significant about Australia's remote base named Davis, 3,800 kilometres to the right of our flight path, and lying almost on the 80-degree-East line of longitude. If one were to depart Davis proceeding northwards along that longitude, the next landfall would be the island of Sri Lanka! A tantalising and sobering thought indeed.
Next item on our visual extravaganza was the awe-inspiring Trans-Antarctic Mountain Range. Extending 3,500 kilometres in a north-south direction, this chain of mountains more or less divides the continent into two halves. It separates the high eastern plateau, featureless and almost four kilometres high, from the near-sea-level West Antarctic Ice Shelf. The grandeur of these peaks, stretching in serried ranks from one horizon to the other, was one of the most stirring sights of the entire trip.
Gazing down at the snow-covered slopes, it is difficult to comprehend that Antarctica is, strictly speaking, the world's biggest desert. Ridiculous as that theory may seem, it is supported by discoveries of petrified trees and dinosaur bones, showing clearly that the area was once warm. Some scientists have ventured to suggest that ago Antarctica and North America were joined -at Texas! More plausible is the belief that Antarctica moved to its current location 160 million years ago, after separating from the huge land mass or super-continent called Gondwanaland, of which Australia, South America, South Africa, India and Sri Lanka also formed a part.
Another spectacular sight was Mt. Minto, at 14,000 feet one of the highest peaks on the continent. Carefully descending to a safe height, yet within excellent viewing distance, our aircraft performed gentle figure-of-eight turns using Minto's peak as a pivotal point. This allowed passengers on both sides of the airplane to take photos or just look out the windows in awed wonderment.
As we circled the mountain, my thoughts reached out to Mt. Erebus, some 600 kilometres to our south. Topping 12,450 feet, this active volcano achieved notoriety on November 28, 1979, the day 257 passengers and crew died when their Air New Zealand DC-10, on a sightseeing pleasure flight just like ours, slammed into its icy slopes. Poor visibility and an incorrectly-programmed navigation computer (not the pilots' fault) contributed to one of the world's worst aviation disasters.
But today, thank God, we were enjoying visibility unlimited! Indeed, Captain Dennis told me that in all the years he had been flying these trips over Antarctica, this was some of the best, clearest weather he had experienced. He added that the cover of snow was the most abundant he could remember in a long time. This was evident from the dense, snowy blankets draping not only the slopes of the mountains almost to their peaks, but also on the numerous glaciers we flew over.
And what a sight the glaciers were, too. Great, spectacular hills of ice and snow -with sharp ridges like knife blades-slowly, inexorably carving their way from mountain to sea, leaving wide valleys in their wake. With all that snow, it was hard to believe that the annual snowfall in most of Antarctica's interior is less than two inches. For obvious reasons, rain does not fall here, yet Antarctica holds more than 70% of the earth's fresh water, while 90% of the world's ice is locked within the continent's ice sheets.
Because of our high altitude, we didn't see any penguins, as most of us had hoped. For environmental reasons, pleasure flights are not permitted to get too close to penguin colonies. When they see an aircraft overhead, these amusing birds apparently crane their necks upwards in curiosity, then overbalance and fall flat on their backs! So the closest we got to Antarctic penguins was the penguin-shaped chocolate with our in-flight dinner later that evening, and the tie with penguin motifs I purchased from the on-board shop!
Speaking of food, there was another nice touch from the Qantas catering staff. While flying over the ice, along with a light lunch of sandwiches and chocolates we were treated to unlimited supplies of ice cream. The latter took the form of aptly-named "Splice icy poles" (popsicles)!
All too soon it was time for the sightseeing part of our journey to end. Cape Hallett, on the shore of the Ross Sea, marked our turning point before heading home- another three hours' flying time ahead. But there was yet another surprise in store, of a more human interest nature, for the happy trippers aboard the Qantas 747.
A passenger named Robert asked his girlfriend Margaret to marry him, in full view of everyone aboard. His airborne, polar proposal, in the aircraft cockpit, was relayed to the cabin via an on-board video camera. When Margaret said "yes", everybody cheered loudly.
And so, while Robert and Margaret pondered their newfound status as an engaged couple, the homeward portion of the flight allowed the rest of us to reflect upon and marvel at the wondrous sights we had seen over Antarctica. A land of stark and rugged beauty, grandeur and majesty, of infinite vastness and splendour, a place of desolation and unforgiving harshness, all blended by Mother Nature into a unique, breathtaking package.
When the wheels of our 747 finally kissed the Melbourne runway that night, spontaneous applause erupted throughout the cabin. It was applause that spoke volumes. It spoke not only of appreciation and joy, but echoed the sentiments of 400 people who had witnessed one of the greatest and most memorable experiences of their lives. I am truly fortunate to belong to that select few.
Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to