There’s one continent on Earth that I am yet to reach: the little-known, little explored, white continent at the bottom of the planet. Growing up with the BBC’s stunning natural history series’ I have long dreamed of visiting there, but since moving to Christchurch, New Zealand 3 years ago, the country’s gateway to Antarctica, I have yearned for it even more. The city hosts the US Antarctic Survey as well as offices for a few other countries, and it is from this very city that scientists, photographers, videographers, and a lot of support staff head off each spring, and return to at the end of their contract. I’m insanely jealous.
Every two years, Christchurch hosts New Zealand IceFest, a celebration of all things Antarctica, and a chance to demonstrate the city’s connection with the continent as well as an opportunity for Joe Public to experience in some little respect what goes on down there. With so many Antarcticans (as they like to call themselves) around the city, I’ve found myself becoming a bit of a groupie, attending talks, open days and soaking up the atmosphere.
There was a good turn-out for the opening ceremony which involved a team of huskies pulling one of Christchurch’s famous trams through Cathedral Square. On board the tram was the city’s mayor, Lady June Hillary (Sir Edmund Hillary’s wife) and a team of children dressed up as penguins. Awaiting their arrival at the specially erected IceFest Hub was an icy ribbon to be ‘cut’, or in this case, hacked at with an ice pick. Nearby, an ice sculptor made some impressive sculptures of an emperor penguin and an Eskimo out of a block of ice. In the vicinity there was an exhibition of Antarctic photography as well as a Hagglund (snow mobile) on display. I attended a talk comparing aspects of the Arctic and the Antarctic, given by two people that had spent a combined 26yrs between them at that great continent at the bottom of the world. I listened in awe to their tales.
The following day there was sled dog racing set up at Hagley Park, where local and national competitors came to display aspects of the sport. It was rather cold and windy, and many of the dogs were easily distracted from their race but it was lovely to see so many huskies amongst many other breeds, showing off their racing skills. That afternoon, I attended a talk from 4 speakers (including Anthony Powell who has made a name for himself filming for the BBC amongst other things) who had ‘wintered over’ in Antarctica many times. They jovially described the humourous and unusual aspects of life effectively stranded in a land with no daylight for 4 months of the year, in a small community on the ice. Having previously viewed Anthony Powell’s amazing movie Antarctica: A Year on Ice last year, I had an idea of what they were talking about, but as they said, it must be an experience that is hard to describe and hard for others to fully comprehend. Like when I watched the movie last year, I listened to their stories and imagined it could be possible for me to get there too one day. So few of us in the world will ever have the privilege of spending much, or indeed any, time on Antarctica, and I really recommend the movie to give some insight on what happens down there.
People in New Zealand may be aware of a tv programme called ‘First Crossings’ made by two men, Kevin and Jamie, who recreated many of the country’s first explorations through remote parts of the country. Several years ago, they also walked to the South Pole in the first unsupported and unsupplied Kiwi attempt. I’ve found their tv show fascinating, but listening to them in person, they were very compelling speakers. It takes a special person to make tales of starvation, blisters and utter determination a funny yarn, and they captivated the audience and had us in stitches throughout the show. I had previously bought the book of their expedition, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, and they managed to persuade me to get started with it.
One of the big events on the IceFest calendar was the Antarctic Air Day out at the airport. Large air force planes from the US Air Force and the NZ Air Force take off from here during the summer season loaded with people and freight to head south to the airfield that services both Scott Base (NZ) and McMurdo Station (US). On this day, there were 3 planes on the tarmac opened up to the public to allow an insider’s view into the behemoths of the sky. It was reported on the news that evening that 7000 people turned up and queued to get their turn to wander through the planes and see inside the cockpit. The larger plane belonging to the US Airforce has a flying time to Antarctica of 5hrs, whereas the slightly smaller plane belonging to the NZ Air Force gets there in about 7-8hrs. The inside of both planes is nothing like a commercial jet (which was also available for a wander through), and every inch of wall space was taken up with wires or switches or hooks or safety devices. I can’t begin to imagine the noise that must emulate from these planes on the long, packed and potentially uncomfortable flight. The cockpits were a mass of computer instrumentation and the planes are capable of landing in a variety of weather conditions, including in complete darkness. Whilst we queued to wander through, members of both country’s airforces were on hand to answer questions and describe what it is like to work and fly in these massive planes, as well as their trips to Antarctica.
Across the road outside the International Antarctic Centre, one of the city’s family attractions, a myriad of stalls and activities had been set up outside to entertain the kids. There were Hagglund (snow mobile) rides, mock up Antarctic tents, ice sculpting, and the chance to enter the passenger terminals of the US and NZ Antarctic Programs, a privilege usually only for those flying down there. There was even the opportunity to dress up in some of the many layers of Antarctic clothing to have your photo taken. It was a beautifully sunny day which helped to bring out the crowds.
That afternoon, I headed back to the IceFest hub in Cathedral Square to attend a couple of talks relating to the use of dogs on the ice in the past, and some of the speakers had been on the ice in the 60s when it was still commonplace to use and train dogs for service and transport. It was clear to see that many Antarctic ‘veterans’ were in town to visit and many of them shared their stories of their time on the ice. That night, I headed back to Cathedral Square with my chair and jacket to attend an open-air screening of Anthony Powell’s epic movie Antarctica: A Year on Ice. This was my third time seeing the movie, and it still brings out the same emotions every time I watch it. Anthony himself was there for a Q&A afterwards, and it was a good turnout and was exceedingly well received. Two weeks into the IceFest and I’m still very much a groupie, and still very much in love with the continent that remains just outside my grasp.