Ice Bound

In downtown Christchurch stands a striking statue of Robert Falcon Scott, the famed British explorer who died returning from the South Pole in 1912.

While the site of the towering figure seemed somewhat out of place next too the lush manicured riverbank, one trip to the town's highly recommended International Antarctic Centre explained the importance of the southernmost continent to New Zealand's history.

Christchurch, it turns out, is both the historic and present day launching point for most trips to the Antarctic. Scott, Shackleton and others all stopped in Christchurch before making history down south. The museum -- just across the street from the U.S. Antarctic Program headquarters and a stone's throw away from the airport -- is a terrific exploration of a unique land that most people will never have the opportunity to personally visit.

The Centre staff convinced us of the worth of a combo ticket, so we started our visit with a quick but thrilling ride around the back of the building in a Hagglund.

These $250,000-dollar tracked vehicles are built to climb steep inclines, traverse crevices and even propel through water. Because of these extraordinary abilities, they are the primary means of transport in Antarctica. As our driver took us through a course designed to show visitors what the Hagglund can do, we bounced, squealed and struggled to maintain composure by holding tight to the "oh-crap" handles, but still fell into rather intimate contact with our fellow passengers. Though traveling up and down the inclines and around and around the bowl at breakneck speeds received a higher decibel reaction, the most impressive part of the demonstration was the much slower float across the pond. The treads were far from touching the bottom, but their movement pushed us forward as the water lapped at the windows. We stayed dry and somehow this 13,669-pound vehicle managed not to sink.

The other highlight of the museum is also a physically memorable experience. At regular intervals in the "Arctic Storm" chamber, anyone who wishes to know what -18 C (-40 F) and 40 km/h (25 m.p.h.) winds feel like can slip into jackets and boots and "enjoy" the show.

This interactive feature was inaugurated by Sir Edmund Hillary, who also narrates the museum's audio-guides in a somewhat mushy-mouthed manner. But the difficulty of understanding him is outweighed by the personal experience and star-power he brings to the endeavor. His remarks about changes to the Antarctic research facilities since he began exploring were particularly revealing.

Not surprisingly, being immersed in all the adventurous spirit of the Antarctic Centre got us interested in seeing the place for ourselves. While this is certainly not impossible (they were selling the Lonely Planet guide to the Antarctic in the giftshop), it isn't something that can be done on a whim. However, a hike on one of New Zealands' glaciers is easily arranged and far less pricey. More importantly, it was the closest we were going to get to the permanent ice of the Antarctic in the near future.

A reluctant wave of nervous laughter spread through the crowd as our guide explained that we shouldn't go near the back of the helicopter. The rear propeller turns so quickly that you can't actually see it and as a result, people have been known to walk into the blade (though not in the history of this tour company, of course). She also said that we wouldn't have to crouch-walk up to it a la M*A*S*H*, which was a bit disappointing. But it turned out that we did need to crouch down and cover our heads as the pilot took off again, which more than made up for our uninteresting approach.

After an arial tour of the glacier, the countryside and the waterfalls that surround it, we touched down on a small square landing pad marked out on the ice by darkly-colored stones. It was impossible to see until we were right on top of it. It also didn't help that the pilot began executing maneuvers which are only called for when evading heat-seeking missiles. He must've been successful for I have lived to tell the tale. But I can't be sure due to the trauma my sense of perception took from such punishing G-forces. The important thing is that it was our first helicopter ride ever and it was stunning.

Having recently been in many a aeroplane, the feeling of lifting straight up is hard to describe. It just doesn't seem believable. And in the only benefit I've yet found in being small, I actually got to sit in the front to witness it all, rubbing elbows with the pilot and close enough to fiddle with all the buttons.

You could just as easily skip aerial acrobatics and take a tour that begins on the terminal face of the glacier. While this is a cheaper option, everything we read recommended the helicopter in order to spend more time in and around some of the glacier's more spectacular features. You've probably guessed that we found the extra expense to be worth it.

When the copter had departed again, we slowly emerged from our protective crouch and began attaching the crampons we were handed. We wound them around our boots, which the company also provided, and fastened them off by means of a buckle. That accomplished, we picked up a walking stick and set off behind our pickaxe wielding guide. For two hours we crunched our way around the glacier, ducking into ice caves and stepping over crevices.

Rather than the post-snowfall silence you might expect, we were surrounded by the sounds of small streams cutting abstract shapes into the frozen landscape. The glacier (pronounced "glassy-er" by everyone on the tour but us) can also appear surprisingly dirty, until your guide reminds you that a snowflake requires a speck of dirt to form. Dust and dirt from the air and surrounding mountains were scattered beside rocks and boulders being slowly pushed with the flowing ice. In addition to doing a great job explaining the dynamics of the glacier, our guide also managed to prevent us from tumbling into any "caverns of death." And it's a good thing too, because I doubt they would have erected a statue of me in downtown Christchurch if I had perished on the ice.


By Meredith Bragg |  April 5, 2006; 9:52 AM ET  | Category:  New Zealand
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Comments

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Nice story, but your link to the Intl Antarctic Centre is busted. The correct link is: http://www.iceberg.co.nz

Cheers!

Posted by: Rob | April 7, 2006 04:36 PM

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