Christchurch: New Zealand gateway to the ice

As the official gateway to Antarctica, Christchurch - New Zealand, has developed strong links with the white continent that go well beyond just being the stepping-off point for expeditions.

Christchurch is home to the Antarctic research offices of New Zealand, the United States and Italy, where explorers, scientists, artists and tourists have prepared for their challenging voyages to the ice.

Tributes to early Antarctic explorers are visible throughout Christchurch, and today the city enjoys a relationship with the icy continent that spans business, research, tourism and art.

Christchurch International Airport

For visitors who fly into Christchurch the link with Antarctica is obvious, as planes taxi in amongst the specialist aircraft that use the airport as a base for flights to the ice.

Since the 1950s when Antarctic scientific expeditions began, the United States Air Force, Air National Guard and the Royal New Zealand Air Force have been stationed in Christchurch as part of Operation Deep Freeze.

During the Antarctic flying season - generally from August to February - large Hercules and other specialist aircraft can be seen on the Antarctic Apron north of the main passenger terminals, loading freight and personnel for the 4,000km flight to McMurdo Sound.

During the season, military aircraft make around 100 flights to the Antarctic and move more than 5,500 passengers and 1400 tonnes of cargo. Over 75% of the world’s scientists flying to Antarctica depart from Christchurch.

International Antarctic Centre

The airport’s link with the Antarctic is further enhanced for overseas passengers as they disembark through a themed air bridge that bears large images of the ice shelf and emperor penguins - complete with sound effects.

An Indian totem pole of friendship at the entrance to the airport complex was carved in 1959 and donated by the United States in appreciation for hospitality given to personnel of Operation Deep Freeze.

In 1992 an International Antarctic Centre was opened at Christchurch Airport. It is a few minutes’ walk from the passenger terminals, and has become a major tourist attraction.

With genuine Antarctic experiences like a penguin encounter, thrilling rides in a Hagglund all-terrain vehicle, a four-season Antarctica weather adventure that includes a blizzard, and the chance to play in snow and on ice, has made the centre a popular destination and provides an educational window on what is the fifth largest continent in the world.

Heritage walking trail

Throughout Christchurch historic links with Antarctica are evident in many areas, and a central city walking trail takes visitors on an enlightening journey that covers three centuries of exploration to what locals affectionately refer to as "the ice".

In the heart of Christchurch, a statue of Robert Falcon Scott commemorates the great explorer who left the Christchurch port of Lyttelton to sail to Antarctica on his second mission in 1910 and never returned.

Lyttelton, which has farewelled a number of Antarctic explorers from early days to current times, continues to provide the refuelling station for Antarctic supply vessels.

Canterbury Museum’s Sir Robertson Stewart Hall of Antarctic Discovery, celebrates over a century of Antarctic exploration and features an internationally significant collection of items - many from Scott, Shackelton, Amundsen and Hillary - as well as unique Antarctic photographs and archives.

South Magnetic Pole

The Christchurch Botanic Gardens has a Magnetic Observatory established to assist in locating the South Magnetic Pole, and is one of only three in the southern hemisphere. The observatory was used by early Antarctic explorers and operated until 1969.

Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu exhibits works from the Artists in Antarctica programme which involves artists spending up to three weeks at Scott Base. And the Christchurch Central City library and Canterbury University both have extensive collections of Antarctic material that further depict the city’s link with the ice.

Ferrymead Heritage Park in Christchurch, features a restored DC3 plane used for US Antarctic supply missions in the 1960s, and the city’s Air Force Museum has a collection of historic aircraft including original Beaver and Auster aircraft used in early Antarctic aviation.

More information

Christchurch - Canterbury