It was mid-summer in Christchurch, but here it was snowing. Light snowflakes fluttered down, dusting the floor, and I shivered in response. We were at the International Antarctic Centre, a place where visitors can learn about the frozen continent and experience a little of the magic for themselves.

The Gateway to Antarctica

I have always wanted to visit Antarctica and so I was keen to explore the centre. Situated at Christchurch Airport, it is more than just a tourist attraction: it is part of a complex of stores and offices servicing the New Zealand Antarctic programme. Over 100 direct flights leave from here every year, making Christchurch the “Gateway to Antarctica”.

We went for the basic entrance to the Visitor Centre, bypassing the 4D film and the Hagglund ride through simulated Antarctic conditions that attracts many visitors, especially the younger ones. There was plenty to see without it.

Snow Storm at the Antarctic Centre

Thermometer at the Christchurch Antarctic Centre

– 8° in the snow room!

Antarctic Centre, Christchurch

After walking through the snow shower it was time to experience an Antarctic snow storm

The snow room has been constructed to resemble an Antarctic landscape, with ice underfoot, although the temperature of – 8° may have been rather warmer than the real thing. We had to put on a jacket and overshoes before entering but it was still chilly, especially for those who had turned up in shorts!

I walked carefully on the ice and watched children running into the mock igloo and slipping down the slide on the other side. Then it grew dark, the wind began to howl and cold air whipped about us. It got very cold and several people left at this point. I stayed, and speculated how much more terrifying it must be to be caught in a real Antarctic storm.

Life in Antarctica

Christchurch Antarctic Centre

The daily photograph shows the long summer coming to an end

Back in the warmth we explored the exhibits showing life and work in Antarctica. I had not realised that so many people, from so many countries, were based there, and it was fascinating to read the accounts of their everyday life, of the hardships and the attempts to build a community. I was particularly interested by daily snapshot from the New Zealand mission: on the day of our visit (mid February) the picture was of the first sunset since October, a sign that the continuous polar summer was coming to an end.

Little blue penguins -

Little blue penguins at the rescue centre

There are lots of reminders of how isolated the bases are, even at times completely cut off from the rest of the world. But for those with the right skills and attitudes, it looks like a great experience.

Of course most of the life in Antarctica is not human. One of the most popular attractions is the Penguin Encounter, a rescue centre for a group of penguins that would have perished in the wild (including one that is reputedly afraid of the water!). We watched them huddling on a rock at the side of the pool or swimming underwater. One of them waddled down the rock, slipped, and fell into the water.

History of Antarctica

We moved on to the history (natural and human) of Antarctica, reading about the formation of the continent, the early exploration and the signing of the Antarctic Treaty. Ratified by over 40 nations, the Treaty allows scientic research but bans all military operations in the area. Both of these elements are essential to the long term survival of Antarctica.

Finally we watched a short film “Beyond the Frozen Sunset”. This panned across the entire continent, showing people, birds and miles of emptiness. It included some stunning images of the Antarctic landscape. Whether or not I ever manage to visit Antarctica, I will at least have experienced a flavour of the place.


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