Amongst penguins and ice-conquering all-terrain vehicles, David Whitley gets a taste of Antarctic life at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch.
During the winter months, it can get a little chilly in New Zealand – that white stuff on those mountains isn’t paint, you know. But for a taste of something really cold, you have to venture further south, to the frozen wilderness of Antarctica.
However, if being surrounded by scientists, having to wear a gigantic coat all the time and having only penguins for entertainment doesn’t seem like a sustainable barrel of laughs to you, then Christchurch has a brilliant cheat’s option.
The International Antarctic Centre is a little more than a cool tourist attraction. Sitting by the airport, this giant complex is the base not only for New Zealand’s Antarctic research missions, but for their American and Italian counterparts too. 70% of visitors to the Antarctic go there from Christchurch, so the centre is really as close as you can get without actually being there.
The serious work is done in the gleaming white buildings set back from the visitor’s centre, but most people don’t come here for research and training – they come to feel ice storms and look at thoroughly loveable penguins.
Flying to the Antarctic
The visitor experience begins with the science part, explaining what all those duffel coat-fancying geeky types are doing lolling around on the ice. Or more importantly, how.
There are no permanent runways in the Antarctic, so people are constantly having to fashion one from the ice. As you can expect, the Dreamliner won’t be landing there any time soon, and the planes are horribly cramped – but they do have skis as part of the landing gear.
Captain Scott’s Diary
Next comes a mock-up of an Antarctic scene, complete with sleds, plastic penguins, and a massive Snowmaster truck. And the snow starts falling as you wander through, which is a taste of things to come. The atmosphere is built with booming readings from Captain Scott’s diary, which get gradually more pessimistic and doom-laden. Well, I guess the famous South Pole explorer can be forgiven for not being overly cheery, given the circumstances.
A clear highlight of the Centre is the Antarctic Storm, which gives a proper idea just how nippy it can get. It takes place inside a large, glass-panelled room with an igloo and tent to shelter in (and, incongruously, a slide for kids). The floor is covered in fake snow and the temperature is a parky minus five degrees.
It’s only going to get worse, and that’s why we’ve been given snow storm coats and overshoes to don. Gradually, the temperature drops and a wind machine ramps up the chill factor. As it gets down to minus 18.7, a mental note is made that the Scott Base is not an ideal spot for an idyllic beach holiday.
Still, the Russian scientists get it worst – a sign nearby says that it’s currently a scarcely credible minus 48 degrees at their Vostok base. And that sort of temperature requires a little more than a scarf and electric heater in the corner of the bedroom.
Little Blue Penguins
Next comes the cute bit. There’s not been a single person in human history that doesn’t go “awww” at the sight of a penguin, and the Antarctic Centre has its own colony of the adorable furballs. The ones kept at the centre are incapable of living in the wild – they all have disabilities. They’re Little Blue Penguins, which can also be found on New Zealand’s South Island as well as Antarctica, and all have been given names. This is presumably to increase the attachment factor before you’re fed information on how they can be choked by plastic rings from drink can packaging or savagely mauled by pet dogs taken for a walk along a beach.
There is also a bit of a penguin stat barrage, and it’s great pub trivia weaponry. Did you know that penguins have a small gland above the eye to filter the salt out of sea water? Or that Pingu and pals swim the equivalent of 1,000 laps of an Olympic-sized pool every day?
To offset the cute factor, the centre also offers the chance to get a bit of an adrenalin rush with a ride on a Hagglund. Understandably, the average Nissan Micra doesn’t quite do the trick over frozen wastelands, so special vehicles are needed.
The Hagglund looks like a truck and a tank have had a baby with growth deficiencies, but its tracks and general sturdiness mean it can handle most terrains. Very slowly, admittedly, but its creators were evidently quite into Aesop’s tortoise and hare yarn.
The 15 minute ride goes over a specially designed course outside the centre, and has a touch of the fairground about it. Passengers are strapped in (rather uncomfortably), and then thrown round corners at precarious angles, up and down steep hills and through large murky brown puddles. All jolly good fun, and a lot less cold than it would be in Antarctica.
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