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ANTARCTIC CENTRE - Christchurch
You might not realise it, but Christchurch is the launch-place for many missions to the Antarctic. Yep, you're closer to that big white frozen continent than you might think.
For more than a century, Christchurch has been an important gateway to Antarctica .
And now for the history lesson...In 1901, Robert Falcon Scott's ship Discovery docked at the Port of Lyttleton . Six years later, Ernest Shackelton followed in the Nimrod. In 1910, Scott returned with Terra Nova to embark on his ill-fated second expedition.
In 1955, a new era began when Christchurch first welcomed planes, ships and crews of Operation Deep Freeze from the United States . This relationship continues today. The centre is now home to the New Zealand , United States and Italian Antarctic programmes, offices, warehousing, and the Antarctic Passenger Departure Terminal.
Did you know there are four seasons in Antarctica ? It's the coldest, windiest, driest and highest continent on earth. It is a cold desert twice the size of Australia , 60 times bigger than New Zealand , and takes up the same area as Europe and the Mediterranean Sea . So pretty big then. The average mean temperature in Antarctica is -35 degrees Celsius and it's -22 degrees Celsius at Scott Base, which is New Zealand 's modern Antarctic station designed to cope with the conditions. Add the wind-chill factor to that and temperatures can plummet below -100 degrees Celsius.
My experience at the Antarctic Attraction at the International Antarctic Centre started in the Four Seasons Room, with a seven minute sound and light show depicting the four seasons of Antarctica. I then stepped into the warm interior of the attraction's very own Scott Base, and checked out life down on the ice with the New Zealand Antarctic Programme. There was even a chance to look at Today from Antarctica images on a touch screen, which are uploaded daily.
Probably the best bit was the Snow and Ice Experience. This polar room has real snow and ice made on site, and temperatures drop down to a chilling minus five degrees Celsius. I was given a warm jacket and overshoes beforehand, which I soon found out were essential! Once everyone was assembled inside, the wind chill machine started cranking the temperatures down to a bone-shaking minus 18 degrees Celsius, and we also got blasted with an Antarctic Storm. We felt what it was like to be blasted with 40 kilometre winds and there was even chance to slide down an icy slope and shelter in an ice cave.
You can also meet Little Blue Penguins at the New Zealand Penguin Encounter, with a combined indoor/outdoor viewing area, so whether they're awake or asleep you can have a squiz at the world's smallest penguin. There's also a Penguin Backstage Pass available where you can go behind the scenes of the Penguin Encounter.
"the temperatures down to a bone-shaking minus 18 degrees Celsius"
From there, check out the aquarium, which displays some of the actual specimens from the Antarctic Ocean floor in McMurdo Sound .
And definitely head to the gallery area, which is packed full of informative displays showcasing modern day Antarctica, including the Antarctic Treaty partners, the human impact on the continent, the wildlife and plant systems and Antarctica's effect on the globe. You can also touch most of the exhibits, so forget what your mum used to say about keeping your hands in your pockets!
Make sure you explore the replica Antarctic field camp. You can get some great snaps dressed up in survival clothing, sitting on a skidoo or posing by a polar tent with an impressive icy view in the background.
On the way out, it was a real treat to watch The Great White South 14 minute audiovisual sound and light show. I left with a great feeling of ``having been there''. Awesome.
Next up was the chance to ride in a Hagglund. "What's a Hagglund?'', I hear you cry. Well, the Hagglund is an all-terrain amphibian vehicle used in Antarctica by a number of countries including the United States and New Zealand Antarctic Programmes. It can operate in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Celsius, and on land can travel at speeds of 55kph. It also floats and can be steered and driven in water using its tracks.
So now was the time to buckle up and experience travelling across terrain in this unique and exciting machine! I was told this ride is the only one of its type in the world...so off we went to put the Hagglund through its paces on an outdoor adventure course. Soon we were riding over mounds, speeding across open ground and through a pool of water to test the Hagglund to its limits.
The driver kept us amused with an entertaining commentary, and it was amazing to see what this vehicle was capable of. I'll definitely be getting one if I'm ever on an Antarctic mission, that's for sure.
The Antarctic Centre was established in 1992 at a cost of more than $8 million. It is located in the heart of a working campus at 38 Orchard Road , Christchurch Airport.
It is open from 9am every day of the year, including Christmas Day.
Snowphone audio guide tours are available in English, Japanese, Korean, Thai, German, French, Spanish and Mandarin.
Pre-booked tours are given an Antarctic Ranger who shows you round with interesting and entertaining commentary. Most of the Antarctic Rangers have either lived, worked or visited Antarctica so have plenty of exciting stories.
Each Hagglund ride takes 15 minutes, including a pre-ride safety briefing and time afterwards for photos and a chat with the driver. A minimum of three rides run each hour.
There's also an Antarctic Shop where you can pick up souvenirs from your visit.
Feeding in the New Zealand Penguin Encounter is daily at 10.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm.
Penguin Backstage Pass Tours depart daily at 11am, 12pm, 2pm and 3pm. Each tour lasts approximately 20 minutes.
The Penguin Express bus goes to Christchurch from outside the attraction every hour from 9.30am. It's $10 per seat.
A free shuttle is available to and from the airport terminal on request at the shop ``Next Stop Antarctica'' inside the domestic terminal at Christchurch International Airport .
Rachel stayed at Stonehurst Backpackers, 241 Gloucester Street , Christchurch , just two blocks from the city centre, with 24 hour reception. For more info call 03 379 4620 or Freephone: 0508 STONED (0508 786 633) or visit www.stonehurst.co.nz