I’ve always been fascinated by cold places. Maybe it’s my distant Finnish ancestry that led me in July to a part of the Northern Hemisphere that in summer was colder than the winter I was leaving behind – to Greenland. The first thing Baldvin, my Icelandic guide, said about Greenland, was “throw away your itinerary”. Apparently things never go to plan – boats get trapped in ice, planes are grounded and everyone is at the mercy of the weather. I become immediately excited, imagining myself stranded in Greenland, perhaps with a glamorous helicopter rescue once I’ve run out of whale blubber and dried seal meat.
My Iceland-Greenland flight is delayed due to had weather in Narsarsuaq, the small southern settlement next to one of Greenland’s only patches of ice-free flat land. My six-day Greenland trek becomes five, then four, then … cancelled. My British tour companions take the next plane home, but my obsession drives me on. I book myself on the next available flight, giving me only one night in Narsarsuaq, before leaving to connect with my return flights to New Zealand.
Lucky trans-Atlantic travelers might catch an aerial glimpse of Greenland, and from the air it is a dramatic sight. The vast island is the world’s northernmost country and 84% of it is covered in icecap. Only on the rocky coasts and in the fjords of the south do the 55,000 inhabitants of this marginal country live.
We approach Narsarsuaq from the south, our twin-prop Fokker Friendship making a steep descent into Eric’s Fjord and landing on the narrow airstrip. As we land the passengers burst into applause. I look around and it’s the local people, a mixture of Inuit and Danish descent, who are clapping. Maybe they know something I don’t.
Stepping outside, onto Greenland, and walking the 500 metres up the gravel road to the hostel, I feel stupefied – eyes popping and mouth gaping – as I look around. I’m between a wall of steep green cliffs with thin layers of misty clouds floating among their high tops, and a fjord full of drifting blue icebergs.
After checking in to the hostel, I walk to the Hotel Narsarsuaq for some Greenlandic hospitality. At the restaurant, I ignore the when-in-Narsarsuaq dictum and bypass the whale and reindeer soups and steaks, opting instead for local trout, baked in foil with herbs and lemon sauce.
In the habitable southern fjords of Greenland, in a town with a population of 180, I am astonished to find two New Zealand wines on the menu. I look around for someone to tell. The other people in the restaurant appear to be a mixture of scientific crews, locals and adventure tourists. The Canadian drillers sitting next to me are wearing moustaches and baseball caps, eating whale steaks – “how do we know this isn’t beef?” – drinking beer and discussing helicopter hydraulics and drilling in the permafrost.
I leave the restaurant in the 11pm Arctic dusk and stop on a little rise above the beach to listen to the icebergs in the fjord sizzle, pop and crack in the water. It’s like nothing else on earth, like being on another planet.
In the morning, I hitch a ride across the fjord to Qassiarsuk. Karen, who has chartered the dinghy, is a researcher for a British Channel 4 documentary on Eric the Red’s ill-fated Viking colony. She’s on her way to an archaeological dig a few miles inland. (She also happens to have been born in Invercargill, New Zealand.)
In Qassiarsuk I wander up the dirt road that runs parallel to the fjord. On the grassy slopes just above the beach are the stony ruins of Norse and Inuit dwellings, some almost 1000 years old. I shiver in the breezy summer 10°C and wonder how they survived the winters here.
Greenland’s summer is short. In September it starts snowing and the water in the fjord freezes from the edges in, and soon all the boats are frozen in the harbour and the fjord is crossable on foot, skis or snowmobile. The glacier at the top of the adjacent Qooroq Fjord continues to push forward, so in spring, when the sea ice melts, the glacier ‘calves’ off great icebergs that float hazardously down the fjords, providing an obstacle for the boats to manoeuvre around.
The film crew arrives in the next boat. I help them unload, then accept a ride back to Narsarsuaq in time for my incongruously named Arctic Safari. Frenchman Jacky Simoud is captain, taking our group of mostly elderly American visitors up the Qooroq Fjord, dodging icebergs, to within a few kilometres of the Qooroq Serimat glacier. Here Simoud rams his boat into a ‘berg, his first mate hacks off a hunk of ice, and they break out the martinis. Comprising a hunk of slushy ice, a splash of vermouth and a black olive, it‘s probably the most dreadful martini I’ve ever tasted, but for setting, it can’t be beaten.
I pull my (faux) fur collar more tightly round my neck and offer my plastic cup for another. We see a seal, who blows a few bubbles then smartly disappears – he’s rifle-fodder in this part of the world. As I sip on my second martini, a pair of huge black crows flies over the boat, croaking menacingly.
While waiting for the tourist season Captain Simoud works as an electrician in Qassiarsuk, gives a few French lessons and exports ice. Last year, he sold 11 tonnes of glacial ice to French-based Shiseido subsidiary Carita to use in their Bio Polaire range. After breaking the ice into 500 kg blocks, he ships it by refrigerated container to Denmark, then overland to France. The cosmetics company receives the delivery as ice, and melts it to … yes, water, to use in their expensive cosmetics. The products boast that: “Polar water fully restores exceptional purity, the source of life and longevity.” Grand claims for some old ice.
Back in the warmth of the hotel, I share a Carlsberg with an American travel writer who tells me the South Island of New Zealand is his favourite place in the world, then stroll back to the airstrip for the flight home. I decide to consider my 24-hour visit a reconnaissance trip. I’m definitely corning hack to this end of the earth.
This story – my first published travel article – was originally published as “A feeling for snow” in GRACE in May 1999.