Flight to the Bottom of the World
FOUR days each year Air New Zealand flies to Antarctica, the bottom of the world. I was aboard such a flight on November 21, 1979, as it headed south from Auckland.
Leaving New Zealand behind, the plane gained altitude and settled down for the long haul to the ice. We too settled down as the cabin was blacked out to enable us to view three motion pictures about the South Pole. First was a black-and-white documentary of the 1912 expedition by Amundsen and his team. My, what tough, dedicated pioneers they were! Next were two color movies of more recent expeditions and the setting up of New Zealand’s Scott Base.
A Sight to Behold
The time sped by and soon we were descending through the reflected glare toward a splendid landscape—Antarctica. It is unique among landmasses, the world’s coldest continent—isolated and, until 1977 brought the era of the Antarctic “day trip” by jet plane, quite impossible for the average person like me to visit.
There could be no greater contrast, I feel, than that between the conditions met by the first Antarctic explorers and those experienced by today’s high-flying visitor. A radio report from Scott Base tells us that it is zero degrees Celsius (32° F.) down there, their warmest day for 11 months! From the comfort of our warm plane we peer out of the windows, people leaning over one another to press noses against the glass.
The ice floes resemble smooth scraps of white paper floating in an inky sea, the cracks in the thinner ice producing a marbled effect. It is all so different from what I had imagined, not at all flat and colorless. Rather, it has beautiful variety—sometimes the varying thicknesses of ice produce an opal effect. There are mountain ranges, valleys, huge glaciers, giant crevasses, lacy sea ice meeting solid land ice, steep cliffs dropping down to a sea afloat with chunks of ice.
Everyone aboard has a camera at the ready—some have more than one. A television crew is busy shooting film and interviewing some who have come from Wales, North America and France to make this special day trip. One lady is quickly sketching all she sees. But there has been a constant flow of food and drink, and, sadly, some have drunk so much that they miss much of the fine scenery.
Coming in low over Scott Base we can pick out clearly the buildings and vehicles. Soon the outer William Field Air Base passes beneath us—four aircraft lined up, the whole frozen into a silent black-and-white picture.
We catch glimpses of our plane’s shadow dancing over the ice like a speed skater. It takes us only minutes to cruise over areas that took men days and weeks to traverse early in the century. Scott, the famed British Antarctic explorer, would not have believed it. Today United States’ McMurdo Station can have up to 1,000 in population during the summer, and New Zealand is only hours away.
On board is an explorer who has just been down “on the ice” for a month. He is familiar with the layout of things and keeps up a running commentary on points of interest. To our amazement, we find an active volcano, Mt. Erebus, in this land of constant cold. Flying by the 13,200-foot-high (4,020-m) mountain, we can see that the heat within has melted the snow and ice on top, and it is capped by a white plume as proof that it is still active. It was another British polar explorer of the 19th century, Ross, who named the mountain after his ship and described it as ‘emitting flame and smoke in great profusion.’
Before long it is time to turn back for a final pass over Scott Base and McMurdo Station and then ascend to 33,000 feet (10,000 m) again for the flight home.
Time for Reflection
I close my eyes and reflect on the wonders I have seen, giving silent praise to the Creator of it all.
New Zealand comes into view again, and after a refueling stop of one hour at Christchurch, where our crew is changed, we head back to Auckland. Ten o’clock that evening sees us touch down at Auckland international airport, tired, happy and convinced that we will never forget our experience.
The memories are still fresh in mind when, one week later, my telephone rings persistently. The Air New Zealand flight to Antarctica is reported missing. Many of my friends, knowing of my plans to visit Antarctica, are very much concerned lest I be on the missing plane.
Further news comes to hand confirming what everyone has dreaded: the plane has crashed into Mt. Erebus, killing all 257 persons on board. I feel strange for days. I can’t even look at my lovely photos. News on radio and television describes how rescue teams have had to combat constantly changing weather and difficult terrain as they fly out bodies and parts of the plane left intact. I feel very sad for those with loved ones on board, including my seat companion on my Antarctic flight. Yes, his son had chosen the flight a week later, because they thought that if they took separate flights one of them would be bound to get good weather for photographs.
My journey to ‘the bottom of the world’ has left a marked impression upon me—great appreciation for the Creator’s wisdom and sense of beauty, along with an awesome realization of the uncertainty of life, that ‘time and unforeseen occurrence befall us all.’ (Eccl. 9:11)—Contributed.