This place is totally a tourist trap, but nonetheless, as you can tell from my grin, it’s pretty damn fun. The International Antarctic Centre was one of the first places I added to my list of “must-sees” when we decided to take this trip, and I spent the week before we left reading about Mawson’s Antarctic expedition to put myself in the mood for it (not that I really needed to. I LOVE the “heroic age” of polar exploration. It was so brutal). The reason the Antarctic Centre is in Christchurch is because this city is the departure point for many modern Antarctic expeditions; being the closest large city to McMurdo Station, many countries, including the US and of course New Zealand, have special training facilities here. The Antarctic Centre aims to give you a taste of these facilities (in a less extreme way), albeit for a premium price.
Yes, it costs 59 NZD for the full package, or $39 for the “express package.” And this is one case where I don’t recommend cheaping out, because the $59 package includes unlimited Hagglund rides, and that was the best part of the whole experience. Actually, I found a $10 off voucher that was good for up to 4 people in one of the Christchurch tourist brochures from the car rental kiosk in the airport, so there are ways to avoid paying full price (though $49 is admittedly still expensive). Because many of the activities in the museum are only offered once or twice an hour, the woman at the admissions desk made us a schedule when we arrived, which was actually quite helpful. They feed the penguins twice a day, at 10:30 and 3:30 (so it might be good to visit around one of those times), and we arrived right before the earlier feeding (we came straight from the airport; it’s literally a five minute walk away), so we headed there first.
The Antarctic Centre has eighteen little blue penguins, which are the penguins you’ll see down the southern coast of New Zealand (in theory; I never ran into any in the wild). These particular penguins are rescue penguins with various disabilities that wouldn’t allow them to survive in the wild, which is why they’re in here. As you can probably guess from the “little” and “blue” in their name, these are very cute penguins. There’s an underwater viewing area where we watched a few of them swim around and do their thing before feeding time, when a woman came out with a bucket of sprats (imported from the North Sea, as apparently these penguins are too spoiled to eat local fish) and fed them all whilst telling us about each penguin. One of them apparently has a paralysed tongue, so has to have the fish physically placed in the back of its throat to be able to eat (that’s why she’s holding it in the picture above). I mean, the penguin feeding is nothing you probably haven’t already seen at a zoo or evil old Sea World or something, but penguins are cute regardless.
After penguin feeding, we had to rush outside for our first Hagglund ride of the day. These are offered every half an hour, and while they are in theory “unlimited,” there’s a catch: you have to have a timed ticket to get on one, so unless you want to hang around all day, there will probably be a limit to how many you can do, especially if the museum’s busy. It was not busy on the day of our visit, so we got the entire back car to ourselves. And take it from me, the back is where you want to be! You get bounced around a lot more, so it is obviously more fun. Hagglunds are these vehicles that were first invented in Sweden (hence the Nordic sounding name), but are also used in Antarctica because they’re well-suited to the environment there. They run on four treads, and can do all kinds of crazy manoeuvres like crossing a crevasse up to 1.8 metres in length, running up an extremely steep gradient, and floating for up to three hours, all of which you’ll get a taste of on the obstacle course they take you around. It was so much fun that we did it again, though we had to wait an hour and a half to get another time slot, which gave us plenty of time to see the rest of the centre in the meantime.
The other attraction included in the full $59 package, but not the $39 one, is the 4D movie experience. It was basically like every other 4D movie I’ve ever seen, where there’s an occasional smell piped in, but mostly you just get squirted with water. This one was an Antarctic exploration (of course) by boat, so the seats shifted around a bit to simulate seasickness (I was still feeling a bit queasy from the Hagglund, so I’m glad this didn’t have the intended effect), and we kept getting squirted in the neck (if you’re in the front, cover your neck!) with water meant to represent everything from sea water to bird poop. And some bubbles came down at the end. If this was all you were getting for the full package, I’d say skip it, but the Hagglund makes it worth your while, even if the movie is just ok. They also had a 4D screening of Happy Feet, but we didn’t go to that one, so I can’t say how it is.
The other attraction I was excited for was the storm chamber, where you got to experience an Antarctic storm (this was kind of shaping up to be like my dream destination of the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre, what with the chance to experience seasickness and changes in temperature. I still haven’t made it up to Grimsby though, so I can’t say how it compares). This, again, only runs once or twice an hour, so we had to time everything carefully, but we rocked up a few minutes beforehand to put on our rubber overshoes and special parkas. (I was wearing leggings with sockless Converse, because it was pretty warm outside, which meant my ankles were exposed; even with the overshoes, this proved to be something of a mistake.) You enter the chamber, which already has fake snow on the ground, and is pretty damn cold to start with, but then the winds pick up, and it gets WAYYY colder. I was legitimately worried I might get frostbite if I stayed in there much longer (there’s an igloo you can shelter under when you’re in there, and the whole thing only lasts six minutes anyway) but I stuck it out so I could get a very teeny taste of what Mawson, Scott, Shackleton, et al went through. Utter misery, I’m guessing.
The last main section of the centre consisted of a museum room about life in the Antarctic, and geology and all that. One corner held a mock-up of a polar tent, along with jackets, snow pants, and mittens you could put on to pose for pictures in, which is where the opening photo comes from. I love to dress up in stuff, which is probably one reason why I had such a good time here! There was also a small replica of Scott’s hut (though they didn’t seem overly concerned with authenticity), an “ice cave” which took about ten seconds to walk through, and some kind of flight thing where you could watch pilots preparing for a flight to the South Pole.
I have to say that the museum section was rather lame, but that’s not really what people are here for. The penguins, storm room, and most of all the Hagglund rides did not disappoint. I’m not convinced that it was worth $49 (with the discount), but didn’t feel quite as swindled as I do at most tourist traps (disregarding the photo package they tried to sell us at the end, including postcards of ourselves already printed out. Why would they print them out already? What a waste of paper! Do most people really buy them?!) simply because some of the things here were genuinely really fun, and all of the staff seemed very concerned about us having a good time (as in, they kept asking us if we’d done certain activities yet, and then checked to see if we enjoyed said activities. They were extremely enthusiastic). If you’re not that interested in polar exploration, you could safely skip this (unless you really want to ride in a Hagglund), and even if you are, there are definitely museums that offer a more comprehensive history of Antarctic exploration and more accurately portray the misery associated with it (look out for my Canterbury Museum post in a few weeks); the whole aim of this attraction is entertainment, so you really only get to experience the fun bits of the South Pole. So although I enjoyed my time here, I could see how others wouldn’t, and the admission price still chafes a bit. 3/5.