There’s an intriguing line of footprints leading away from the arrivals hall at Christchurch Airport. A giant in work boots has apparently walked through a puddle of blue paint before heading off across the car park. I have four hours to kill before my onward flight, so I follow his tracks over to the International Antarctic Centre.
This is a serious scientific base, home to the New Zealand and Italian research programs, and to US Antarctic Operation Deep Freeze, but it also has a section open to the public, billed as ‘The World’s Best Antarctic Attraction’. That may sound like a big call but how many Antarctic attractions does the world have? Most of us have little chance of ever getting to real life Antarctica so this may be the next best thing.
‘If you hurry you’ll catch the next blizzard,’ says the friendly ticket lady, ‘it starts in five minutes.’ I never like to miss a blizzard, so I dash through to the Snow and Ice Experience room. Attendants issue me with a padded jacket and rubber overshoes. They warn me I’ll be walking on real snow and that snow is slippery; then let me through an airlock between two heavy doors.
I join a dozen fellow chill-seekers in an Antarctic diorama. There are mounds of snow (I check, yes, it’s really slippery), an ice cave and rows of black and red flags. An Indian family looks cutely incongruous as they photograph each other standing by a snowmobile, with a backdrop of Antarctic mountains on the wall behind them.
The thermometer above the door shows the room temperature to be minus 8degrees,
which is not so good for those of us wearing shorts under our padded jackets. ‘Warning! Storm approaching!’ announces the PA system. Sound effects wind howls, hidden fans start up, and it starts to get seriously cold. Other people, warm people, watch us through the large glass windows in front.
The wind machine cranks up to 40kph, and the gauge shows that, with the wind chill factor, we’re now at minus 26.3, so this is the coldest cold I’ve ever experienced. After a couple of minutes I’m looking anxiously towards the marked shelter points where people are escaping from the icy blast and getting back to that toasty minus 8 we were basking in a few minutes ago.
But before anyone gets really uncomfortable, the wind dies down and we can take off the jackets and move on to the next attraction, penguin feeding.
The Little Blue penguins on display at the centre are the species commonly found on the coast of Australia and New Zealand. They don’t live in Antarctica. Nevertheless, they’re very popular with the visitors as their keepers feed them fish. The ones here have all been rescued because of various injuries and would not survive in the wild. The most popular is the one wearing little blue booties over his flippers.
Apart from these entertaining exhibits, the centre also provides rooms full of serious, interesting information about the wildlife and daily life in Antarctic, focussing on Scott Base, the New Zealand facility. We can try on the clothing residents wear there, leaf through their safety manuals and photo albums, and crawl into replicas of their tents. There’s a stuffed leopard seal (slightly the worse for wear, though I suppose he doesn’t mind now) and a small aquarium with strange ugly fish collected from below the ice at McMurdo Sound.
In the audio-visual room we watch a short, spectacular film about the Antarctic continent. I’ve seen so many documentaries about it, but until now I didn’t realise it was quite so dry (dryer than the Sahara), so big (twice the area of Australia) or so high (average elevation 2300m), or that there are spectacular rocky areas that are not covered in snow.
Finally I step outside for a Hagglund Ride. I don’t know what a Hagglund is, but the centre’s legal advisors seem keen to have me not ride in one. A sign warns that I shouldn’t do it if I’m pregnant, prone to motion sickness, have a back problems or a nervous disposition. Signs like that make my disposition nervous. Nevertheless, in interests of Antarctic research I ignore my dodgy back and board the thing anyway.
The Hagglund, invented for the Swedish army, is the Antarctic workhorse. It’s a boxy little tractor with caterpillar treads, towing a trailer. Inside there are industrial strength seatbelts and handgrips everywhere. Driver Alastair speaks with the gentle, reassuring voice of a dentist about to extract a wisdom tooth. ‘This trip might cause some slight discomfort, but I think we’ll be fine.’
Behind the Antarctic Centre is an assault course where Alastair can put the Hagglund through its paces. We crawl up hills at a seemingly impossible 45degree gradient. One hill is split down the middle by a crevasse, one and a half metres wide and three metres deep. Black flags on either side warn of its danger and there’s a roadside cross near the summit.
Needless to say, we make it over safely. The cross, Alastair informs us later, was for a daredevil rabbit that tried to run under a Hagglund and only made it halfway. We try tilting the vehicle up to 31degrees, and then drive into a lake. As the water laps up towards the windows, the caterpillar treads become paddles and the amphibious Hagglund swims across at a stately 3 knots.
Shaken but not stirred, I uncoil my white knuckles from the handgrips, stumble out onto solid ground and retrace the giant’s footprints back to the airport. I’m more enthused than ever about getting to real Antarctica some day. Four hours very well spent. It’s certainly been a lot more exciting than sitting in the Christchurch departure lounge.
Getting there: The International Antarctic Centre is right next to Christchurch Airport. The Penguin Express bus runs hourly from Cathedral Square Christchurch. Cost $NZ10 return.
Further information: Entry to the International Antarctic Centre costs $NZ48 for adults, $NZ36 for children. Family passes are also available.
First published Sun-Herald Sydney