Country number: 186
When? March 2018, going on to Copenhagen
How? On foot, boat, plane, dog sled, minibus
I’m really excited, as today I get to fill in the giant gap on my map. I’m flying from Copenhagen to Greenland. It takes me a while to realise that the cloud cover beneath the plane has broken up and I have a direct view of the colossal ice sheet. Some crags peep up at us as we descend. We circle and approach up a frozen fjord to land at Kangerlussuaq. The captain has announced that the temperature is minus thirty degrees. That’s the coldest weather I’ve ever encountered. My Danish neighbour assures me that dry cold doesn’t feel nearly as bad. I think she’s trying to convince herself too. Through the window I can see the ground staff on the tarmac muffled in huge hoods and surrounded by clouds of steamy breath. I brace myself for the fifty yard walk to the terminal. It’s not too awful, although the hair in my nostrils freezes instantly. They have to keep the engines of all the baggage equipment running constantly or the engines stall. From the safety of the buildings I can admire the red liveried Air Greenland planes, beautifully framed by snowy peaks and a blue and white sky. There are three scarlet prop planes nestled around the huge Air Bus I came in on, a mother and her litter. Kangerlussuaq, just inside the Arctic Circle, was founded as an American air force base, hence the long snow free runway.
The next flight is a short hop up the coast, a small stretch of the vast Baffin Bay, in a prop plane –a Dash 8- to Ilulissat. It’s sunny and clear all the way and the pilots open their door so we can queue to ooh and ah at the view from the cockpit. No-one is worried about security here. The whole country is one huge white blanket, and this time we loop in over Disko Bay and the ice fjord, huge glistening icebergs sailing beneath us. It’s a spectacular welcome.
I’m staying in the Hotel Arctic, advertised as the world’s most northerly four star hotel. It’s built on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which contains the biggest glacier outside Antarctica and my room has stunning views across the bay. Ilulissat means ice berg in Greenlander, (the town used to be called Jakobshavn). It’s the third largest town in Greenland and has a population of 5,000 people and 1,800 sledge dogs. The dogs are chained in groups next to tiny wooden kennels and indulge in a great deal of yelping and eerie howling. Mostly howling, when they are being fed and when they think there’s a chance they might go out with a sled. Dog sleds are the main form of transport here; there are very few roads.
I’m signed up for a ‘city’ tour this afternoon. It moves exceedingly slowly and seems to involve a lot of shops where the local people make things out of whalebone. The people aren’t there, presumably because it’s late on a Friday afternoon. I wander off several times, firstly down to the harbour, where the boats lie oddly askew, scattered on deep ice and covered in snow. It’s hard to tell which is land and which water at times. Whirring cranes are unloading packed crates of cod and enormous halibut. There are some great views across the bay from a stone marker at the top of a little hill, which I climb cautiously. There are no tracks to follow and there are pockets of deep snow lying in wait for the unwary. The photographic expedition is already fraught. My sunglasses fog over instantly. The camera LCD also mists over every time I look through the view finder. In both cases the condensation immediately freezes.
Back with the group, I can see other tourists are also struggling. One lady has tiny curly icicles hanging from the peak of her red hat. I’ve returned in time to hear the guide talking about the re-housing of some Greenlanders from Disko Bay Island to some new apartment blocks in town. There was a rush to provide the requisite steel tables after it was discovered that the new tenants were butchering their walrus catches on the wooden floors. The state of the art laundry rooms in the basement had to be abandoned after the Greenlanders decided that the tumblers were a great way to dry their fish.
In my scandi super stylish room to thaw out. It has at least 20 power sockets, I’ve given up counting. The TV is an uber cool Bang and Olufsen, though I can’t manage to get any sort of picture on it. I suppose I have to be content with admiring the TV itself or there’s a glorious sunset over the bay and all the bergs to look at instead. The shower has an ultra-modern large head, but the water doesn’t drain away properly, so I quickly have a one inch deep flood across the whole of the bathroom floor. That’s what you call a wet room.
Despite this happiest people in the world survey I’m not finding the Danes very sociable- more Nordic cool or even melancholy. Tonight, is an included ‘Welcome Dinner’. I’m seated with two separate couples from Copenhagen, who speak Danish most of the time and share a bottle of red wine. I’m not offered so much as a sip. The food is delicious though, smoked whale, scallop carpaccio and cod.
I think it’s time to take to my bed. Greenland is three hours behind GMT and four hours behind my early starting point in Copenhagen. But I glance out of the window as I’m about to undress and notice some green flashes above the bay. So I grab my coat and camera and hurry out for an impressive Northern Light display on my door step. A kind little German man lends me his tripod so I can take some decent pictures. A very long and very special day.
Waking up to sunrise over the icebergs. I have a desk that faces the window. It would be easy to sit here all day watching and taking pictures. It’s a hopeless challenge to attempt to write. The rosy hue over the peaks has given way to turquoise patches, where the sea is not frozen. The little fishing boats are having to carve another channel out of the ice sheets as they chug into the harbour to my left. A trail of squawking gulls follow. To my right is a colossal berg that wouldn’t look out of place in a Stalinist city centre. In the centre, a patch of them, the pointy one in the foreground a massive whipped ice cream. The sky is still beautifully clear, I’ve been exceptionally lucky so far and I feel I should capitalise on it. Make hay while the sun shines. Sort of.
Today, I have a dog sled ride. I’m wearing normal underwear, long johns, a thermal vest, a fleece, two gilets, ski socks, a ski jacket, salopettes, a balaclava, a neck warmer, two pairs of gloves, a woolly hat and my new Sorel snow boots. They could use me in the tyre adverts. When I get there the woman in the office tells me the rental of sealskin clothes is not included in my package, but she thinks I will be fine anyway. ‘It’s only two hours’. And I can’t take my camera on the sled as I have to be prepared for emergencies. At the dog enclosure the man tells me that I have already paid for sealskin clothes and it is very cold, so I will need them. He also tells me to put my camera round my neck. So the sealskin goes on top of all the other gear. It must be bad if even the locals keep saying it’s cold. It’s minus 25 degrees today, but there’s a wind wafting powdery snow around and taking the feel of the temperature (as they say) down to minus 35.
It’s a very different ride from the Iditarod style excursion in Alaska. Here, it’s a much slower pace, through fairly deep snow (much less chance of falling off at least) and the ten dogs (all cute huskies) are individually tethered to the sleigh. (There they were hitched in pairs.) So they all do their own thing, which includes running back to try and poo, and so getting jerked forwards very suddenly as the sled moves on, or getting tangled up in the traces of overtaking sleds. The musher deftly untangles the strings whilst both sleds are still moving. The dogs seem very happy and playful, eyes on the musher, watching out for their pals, bright eyed and tongues lolling. It’s all very Call of the Wild, and we’ve also been warned not to go near them. ‘They’re working dogs’.
Even with all those togs on I’m only just warm enough. Comfortable would be pushing it too far. My camera battery keeps dying in the freezing temperatures. It usually lasts a week, here two hours, if I’m lucky. I have to remove it from the camera and warm it in my hands every so often. This necessitates taking my glove off, a foolish move. My hand instantly goes bright red and totally numb.
It’s a very long two hours. By the time it’s finished I’m dusted white all over (passing snow mobiles complete the job the wind has begun) and have lost the feeling in my toes, fingers and nose. I’m spending the whole afternoon defrosting and catching up on a little sleep.
Today, and every day now until I leave (according to the forecast) is thick cloud cover. So it will be warmer, even if I can’t see as much. It’s definitely atmospheric, the white snow stark against the brooding grey backdrop. The bergs have drifted. The Soviet monolith is now centre stage and the ice cream cone has retreated, west, across the bay. I’ve read that the small bergs are called bergy bits and the very little ones growlers, because of the noise they make when they melt. A proper berg has to be at least five metres wide. These are 100 metres, and much more. The craggy ones are upright, the smooth rounded ones have rolled over and inverted. Mist gradually descends, there’s only a few bergy bits left in view. The huskies are howling like wolves, and ebony ravens are cawing overhead. It’s like a scene from Game of Thrones-Winter has definitely arrived here.
A walk through town and down to the Icefjord. I’m adopted by two loose huskies, which is a little disconcerting. The waiter last night was explaining how wild the dogs are, ‘They’re related to wolves you know’. He gossiped happily about recent occasions when they had attacked people. ‘Then they have to be shot and any dogs who were watching too. Once they’ve got the taste of blood that’s it.’
I’m hopeful my new companions are large puppies. They’re frisking and seem quite friendly, but I’m relieved when they trot off after meeting a third dog. The man at hotel reception has told me that this is an easy walk, well signposted. Needless to say there aren’t any signposts visible after the start and I’m unsure which way to go when the track veers left instead of south as expected. I’ve left my phone behind so I don’t have a compass or, indeed, any means of communication if I get lost, or there’s a blizzard. I wish I had thought of these things before I set off. I shamble up a long hill to find a ranger with a rifle, smoking and surveying the scene. He points me back down the hill, naturally. I wonder if I should point out that his rifle won’t be any use against the White Walkers before I return the way I came. I eventually find a semi snow covered boardwalk which I can follow, almost down to the fjord edge. It’s treacherous in parts as there’s a hidden ridge of ice down the centre, so I have to concentrate hard. There are warning signs forbidding access to the beach as ‘calving bergs cause tsunamis’. The mammoth bergs themselves are now in view, lining the horizon. Imagine the tsunami if one of these giants turned over.
It’s an incredible view, peering right up the fjord, though the glacier itself is eight miles away and out of sight. This is where the majority of northern hemisphere bergs spawn, taking as long as a year to sail out into the Disko area (they get stuck on the bottom as they exit the fjord), roll down Baffin Bay and into the North West Atlantic, where they lie in wait for ships like the Titanic.
A tasty meal of reindeer in the restaurant tonight. The café upstairs is like Fawlty Towers, with queues of people at the bar, waiters ignoring them and glasses smashing on the floor.
Unsurprisingly, my Northern Lights Safari tonight has been cancelled. That’s ok- I saw them without having to travel anywhere on Friday.
The sun has defied the weather forecasters and is peeping through the clouds, which is helpful for my boat trip into Disko Bay. I’ve now seen the ice bergs from every possible angle and, I reiterate, ‘They are huge’. It’s an exciting trip. We have to ram our way through the ice, which is up to a foot thick at times. Several times the boat has to reverse and try again as the ice won’t break the first time and the bows are forced upwards. Once, the captain retreats entirely and chooses another route, creating jagged, ever spreading tessellations across the water to the front and side, huge slabs of paving stones . To the stern, a churning mass of smaller cubes, a giant cocktail shaker. Up close to the megaliths, glistening formations, ice chimneys and triangular pinnacles. There’s even a Great Wall with a watchtower perched on top. If I squint I’m sure I can see Jon and Sansa leaning out of the window.
Greenland is a massive island, the largest in the world. (Australia and Antarctica are deemed to be continental land masses.)
It is geographically part of North America, but politically it is part of Europe. The inhabitants of Greenland are Inuit, coming from Canada, but originally from Central Asia.
The Vikings ‘discovered’ Greenland in the tenth century, and the exiled Erik the Red called it Greenland in the hope that the name would attract more settlers It was a Danish colony until 1953, when it became a country. It attained full home rule in 1981. There is a 31-member parliament called the Landsting, with a prime minister. The nominal head of state is the Danish monarch and the country sends two representatives to the Danish Folketing.
The official languages are Greenlandic and Danish; kayak” and “igloo” are Greenlandic words that have been adopted directly by other languages.
Most of Greenland is in the Arctic Circle, so almost eighty percent of the land mass is covered by the second largest ice sheet in the world and glaciers. Though a minority of land, the ice-free area is nearly as large as Sweden. Scientists have estimated that the Greenland ice sheet about two miles thick and between 400,000 and 800,000 years old.
The sun does not set from May 25th to July 25th. June 21st, the longest day of the year, is a national holiday. July is the only month when Greenland’s temperature rises above freezing.
The currency is the Danish krone
To see more of my photos of Greenland, visit this page.