Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year...Same Old Ways

Earlier this season, a number of us in the office
poo-pooed when we saw that people were going to
spend anywhere from $1000-6000 for the chance to
take a 12 hour flight, spending just a few short
hours over the continent of Antarctica. Are we
jaded? Are we cynical? Maybe. I guess living
here for months on end will do that to you. I
realize that this is the trip of a lifetime for
many, but in a moment of charitable thought, I
have to wonder if that $6000 could have been spent
in a better way...a way that might have changed
some one's life for the better. Who knows. Another
case of having too many toys...too much "stuff"
Anyway, the first of those three flights took off
recently and here is a story about it (as well as
the photo above) from the Sydney Morning Herald:

"The flight over Antarctica from Melbourne has
not taken off yet but has started as it will go
on because a man in a penguin suit is mingling
with passengers in the departure lounge. He is
wearing flippers, but his ankles are showing.
A jazz band is also lurking.

When they begin, old blokes in a Dixieland style,
they are jolly but rumpled. The mute trumpet and
all. Is this to do with the golden era of aviation,
the faded romance, the lost glamour?

There will be 450 passengers on board the Qantas
Airbus A380 ''super jumbo'', which is about to
fly to the edge of Antarctica for sightseeing
alongside the glaciers and ice floes. It's a
12-hour round trip through the night on New
Year's Eve.

The cheapest seat is $999, the dearest more than
$6000. It's the first time an A380 has done such
a trip. The travel company involved has run these
Antarctic flights since 1994, until now on Boeing
747s. In a way it's a voyage to nowhere, take-off
and landing in the same place. It feels somehow as
if it shouldn't be happening. The plane has orange,
yellow and purple streamers inside. At midnight we
find ourselves with champagne and party whistles.
In a plane.

"It's a party flight and also an expedition,"
says the travel company's head, Phil Asker.
"Passengers are welcome to dance to the jazz band
if that is what they want.''

I meet June Preece like this, dancing alone in the
economy aisle. It's 8.35pm. She's from Warrnambool
and came to honour husband Max, whose dying wish was
see Antarctica. He died almost exactly 10 years ago,
of cancer. "I have to live my life even though he is
gone," she says.

The first iceberg is seen from the plane's left side
at 9.50pm. It triggers a rush of excitement, but it's
an exercise in diplomacy to get near a window. Head
pilot John Dennis is lounging in first class at the
time, letting his underlings fly. He's done 40 of
these missions. The pilots are treated like celebrities.
Later they will sign autographs.

Captain Dennis waves off that first iceberg with the
air of someone who knows what will happen next. "Don't
worry about it," he says. "There will be more."

He's right. The block of white becomes endless white
and it becomes clear the real truth to be learned is
the continent's sheer scale - twice as large as Australia
when the surrounding seas freeze. Just as Australia's red
centre gives an impression of nothingness, so does
Antarctica's whiteness. Sinister, somehow, and alien. But
beautiful, too, as the summer night sun glints off sharp,
mirrored edges below.

One couple gets engaged as the flight rolls on, dipping
and leaning for better views, premium windows in high

One man has a suspected heart attack but it turns out to
be respiratory and he lies hooked to a drip up the front
all the way home. There are 18 birthday parties going on.
Two 50th wedding anniversaries. And also a 49th, for
70-somethings Alan and Elaine Horsfield of NSW, perpetual
travellers who want to see everything in the world.

Next year they'll party again. Mrs Horsfield says she wants
to do a flight like this again but go first-class for all
the comforts. Her husband, a writer, wants to go one better.
He wants to buy a flight into space."

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