Christchurch: As good as the real freeze

By Jim Eagles

A realistic Antarctic experience offers only half the danger, writes Jim Eagles.

Penguins at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. Photo / Simon Baker
Penguins at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. Photo / Simon Baker

At -8C it was pretty cold when I first set foot on the Antarctic ice. But when it started to blow the wind chill factor took the temperature down to -10C, -12C, -14C and finally a breathtaking -18.3C.

For the few minutes it lasted my body stayed warm enough inside the special polar jacket but my ears and nose were soon tingling and my legs, clad only in thin trousers, started to chill.

Fortunately we weren't at the actual South Pole but in the Antarctic Storm Experience at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch.

And, even more fortunately, without realising it I was standing in one of the sheltered corners, something I discovered when I wandered out to take a photo and thought I was going to freeze.

If you can't get to the pole then this place - rated as the best Antarctic attraction in the world - must be the next best thing.

True, it doesn't have the adelie, gentoo or chinstrap penguins you can see by the thousands on the Antarctic Peninsula but there are lots of cute little blue penguins, the smallest penguins in the world.

They're reasonably common around the New Zealand coast but you'd rarely see them so close up.

These are, apparently, animals that have had to be rescued and cared for and several obviously still have disabilities.

One little chap had a false foot and another was sporting a bandaged flipper.

I happened to be there at feeding time, which is when the little blues come popping out of the burrows of their enclosure. The more confident take chunks of fish direct from the hands of their keepers. Others prefer to dive into their swimming pool to catch a piece of fish for themselves.

There aren't any ice floes, giant crevices or drifts of snow to beware of, either, but you can still go for rides in a polar vehicle, the caterpillar-tracked Hagglund, across terrain that's nearly as scary as the Antarctic.

My crazy driver had everyone screaming on his way out of the car park, after managing to run over every bump and kerb in sight, and when he raced over the Hill of Terror and into a pond so deep we started to float, the Japanese girls in my cabin were just about beside themselves.

The centre also manages to recreate the amazing beauty of the Antarctic with a 17-minute film on a giant high-definition screen, so realistic I felt chilled watching it.

Fortunately, nearby there's an exhibition of Antarctic equipment, including heavy outer clothing, tents designed for polar conditions that you can crawl into, sleds, ice axes and everything else needed for survival.

If you're lucky enough to be going to the real Antarctic, the setting off point is just across the road at Christchurch International Airport, where the United States, New Zealand and Italian bases are. During my visit, a plane from the US National Meteorological Service was sitting on the tarmac being loaded with supplies.

But, if not, you can get a feel for what it's like with the twice-daily snowfall. And every 30 minutes there's one of those Antarctic storms.

Actually, I have been to the Antarctic, and I can say that the few minutes of artificial storm at the centre was quite as cold as anything I experienced on the ice.

I was glad when it stopped and we could all troop out into the warmth and enjoy a coffee.

That's one area where the centre is actually better than the real thing. I don't think there is a decent cafe in Antarctica, yet.

CHECKLIST

Further information: You can find out about the Scenic Rail Pass, the cheapest way to see the country by rail, at tranzscenic.co.nz/services/scenicrailpass

The Hotel Grand Chancellor is on the web at ghihotels.com

The International Antarctic Centre is on the web at iceberg.co.nz

For information about visiting Christchurch and the wider Canterbury region see christchurchnz.com

Jim Eagles visited Christchurch with help from KiwiRail, Air New Zealand and Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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