Some time ago - it must have been a few minutes after meeting her for the very first time - Paula made it clear to me that she HAD to see Greenland before she turns 40. I imagine she thought it better to give me plenty of notice and you can't really put a finger on her tactics .... here at only 37 I have already lived up to her expectations (in that particular matter at least) and here is the account of how it went:
When I was young and carefree in the nineties, I befriended a couple of wannabe lumberjacks from the western edges of Denmark. The friendship grew stronger and the decade grew older. Gitte and Claus came to see me when I was living in Honduras and we have many crooked memories from these days as well as our days as lumberjacks (wanna-be). But when Gitte and Claus broke up I didn't hear from Claus until the Facebook era. So it was time to catch up - just our luck that he was living in Greenland! So I started looking into plane and ferry tickets and tried to get the best out of a rather thinly spread infrastructure. It wasn't easy as we had to wait for the ferry season to start and then try and plan our stays with the ferry departures. There are basically no roads connecting the villages in North-West Greenland. And I really had no clue what to do and where to go in Greenland ... only that we had to visit Claus! So we bought the tickets and took our chances (with the Icelandic volcanic ash throwing a little twist also).
This was the easy part ... writing the intro.
Now comes the hard part ...
Should I write the story the way it was or should I taint it a little ?!? If I write the truth as we saw it, we will help promote tourism in Greenland (because it really was amazing) as well as the economy, but it is a fragile environment and can it stand the effects of mass tourism ? It certainly wasn't what we went there for. So I could chose to downplay our excitement a little and thus do our bit to protect the fragile Arctic region. A moral dilemma.....
I choose to be true to myself. You will see it through unclouded eyes and hopefully you will be a responsible tourist if you are ever lucky enough to visit this pristine place.
Our first glimpse of Greenland was in fact through clouds. Low-hanging impenetrable clouds (probably imported from Denmark!). They obscured the west coast and the ice cap as we flew across Greenland and they also made for a rather unspectacular landing in Kangerlussuaq - the old army base Søndre Strømfjord. Maybe for that reason Air Greenland was free serving cake and coffee in the departure hall. Or maybe it was to celebrate their 50th birthday. In either case it was good. In Kangerlussuaq we changed over to a small plane which took us first to Aasiaat and then on to Illulisat - our final destination. The flight experience improved immensely after as we got nearer Aasiaat, where we got a good view of the beautiful coast line, and on the Aasiaat-Illuisat leg of the journey it was plain amazing. This was where we saw our first icebergs and where we first saw the ice fjord just south of Illulisat. Such an amazing sight !!!
The Ice fjord from the plane
In Illulisat we had booked cheap-Charlie accommodation at the hostel. Cheap-Charlie in Greenland is about 2 or 3 times the prices in Denmark but in the Artic there is very little choice. Anyway - we really liked this, the world's most crooked hostel. Basically just an old barrack which was never meant to be still standing two decades later, you could get sea sick just by walking down the corridor - that is how twisted it was !! The windows didn't close and you could hear absolutely everything that was said in any of the 22 rooms at any time. But the caretaker was really nice and we soon met a nice Danish/German couple with whom we could exchange biscuits and tea !! Karsten and Rieke were just starting their world tour and were planning to stop by Chile later this year, so they were happy to get a bit of local advice.
Multi-colored houses in Illulisat
Great views from all over town
Illulisat has the feel of a frontier town. We liked the many colors of the town, the friendly people and of course the closeness of the nature. It's the tourist hub of the area but we were there outside of the season, so we felt like we were the only tourists around. We spent the first day walking around town, taking in the sled dogs, the icebergs and the view of the Disko Island, the light and SUPERMARKETS !!! We were rather surprised about all the well-known things we could buy in the supermarkets. It was just like being at home, just a little more expensive (a lot more expensive if you want to enjoy a bottle of wine with your food).
Illulisat in the late evening light
But - you don't go to the Artic to drink wine.... you go for the nature, so next day we started out on a trek to the Ice fjord. This UNESCO Heritage site is just a few kilometers south of town and easily reached by foot. 75km inland the glacier reach the fjord and millions of tonnes of ice breaks off and becomes ice bergs. The next year these ice bergs are drifting slowly out towards sea, trapped in a Korean style traffic jam ! At the mouth of the fjord the water depth is only (!) 200m, so all the big icebergs strand here until they melt or break up in to smaller ice bergs. Can you imagine what it is like to sit on a rock far above this "Holiday-on-Ice" show ? If not, then just look at the photo below:
Paula at the Ice fjord
It was so amazing !! We just went from one rock to another, not believing our luck as the view got better and better as we went along. The amazing thing about this view is that it is not constant. The ice moves slow enough for the view to stay more or less the same throughout the day, but tomorrow it can look totally different. The icebergs can have turned, broken up or plain drifted away.
We wanted to join a boat trip to the Ice fjord but had difficulties finding something that went out while we were still in town. In the end we found a tourist agency who could arrange a trip for just the two of us, so that same evening at 8:30 we headed down to the harbour where we found the good ship Luffe waiting for us. We had already been told that the skipper Jens didn't want to take another group of scared elderly people out after a not-so-successful trip the previous evening, so we tried not to look too old nor scared! We headed out of the harbour and Paula soon found out why the other group had been scared and distrusting of the skipper's ice sailing experience (all 50 years of it - they had told him that he didn't know what he was doing!). Anyway - Jens took us through all the drift ice, bumping into an iceberg here and an iceberg there making lots of noise. The trip was amazing though. The icebergs are white but they are also brown, yellow and with blue stripes. And as the sun stands lower on the horizon the colors change again. At one point Jens sailed the boat into the ice and stopped the engine. There we were right in the middle of it .... amazing.
The good ship Luffe
We stayed out until 23:20 and it wasn't one bit too long even though it got bitterly cold when we turned around and headed home against the wind.
Through this we sailed ...
Somebody had paid the big money for the Ice fjord trip
Beautiful imposing icebergs
The days are long in summer in Greenland. When the sun doesn't set and you are on vacation, then there really isn't any routine that you need to follow. There is no rush even though you are still walking around in the mountains far from home at 11pm. Why not stay up until 3am when there's no real difference from 11pm ? Even this late in the evening - early in the morning - we could see the school kids hang around on the streets smoking cigarettes and doing .... well - not much.... smoking cigarettes. I guess there's not much for the youth to do there. That is if they are not into the hunters' way of life with all that it entails of dog sledding, fishing and hunting reindeer.
We spent a three days in Illulisat, doing lots of walks around the mountains by the Ice fjord. The snow had almost disappeared but the trails were still wet from all the melting water, which limited our possibilities a little. but at least we were there before the mosquitoes!
From Illulisat we took the first ferry of the season down to Qasigiannguit. This means that we got another trip through the mouth of the Ice fjord. This time we got a bit closer to the bigger icebergs, as we were on a bigger boat now. After two hours we reached Qasigiannguit where my old friend Claus waited for us at the pier with his girlfriend Sofie.
Heading for Qasigiannguit through big chunks of ice
I hadn't had any contact with Claus for about 10 years but Facebook changed that. We started chatting last year and he was the trigger for our trip to Greenland. I always said that I wouldn't go to Greenland without knowing somebody there. So when Claus told me that he was staying there for a year, I finally got an opportunity to take Paula to (another) one of her dream destinations. And here we were - arriving at a village we were unable to pronounce but where friends were waiting for us. Qasigiannguit is a small village of about 1500 people. It is the place of Greenland's first "efterskole" (an independent boarding school after Danish design) where Sofie worked, a hospital and a fish factory. There is also a supermarket, another couple of schools (Claus worked in one of these), hotel, police station, a few shops and kiosks and an old decommissioned radio station! The village has to be fairly self sufficient as it cannot be reached by land (like all other villages/towns in North-West Greenland). In fact, ours was the first ferry arrival of the year - before that all goods and people had to arrive on helicopter. So the prices are notably higher than in Illulisat, two hours away on the ferry. But to come here as a tourist for a week is well worth the money, as you will learn.
Arriving at Qasiguiannguit - it's us in the back
Claus and Sofie waiting for us at the dock
Claus and Sofie brought us up to their apartment after the reunion on the dock. As all other apartments in the village, theirs had a fantastic view of the ocean and the southern coast line. We were given their neighbours apartment for the first three days as she was away on vacation. After settling in it was time to see their back yard. One of Claus' dogs had had puppies about a month earlier, so they were first stop on our tour. Phillip is probably the skinniest sled dog in all of Greenland and when you see her two puppies, it is easy to understand why! They were cute alright, but in a back-breaking sort of way! With the usual Danish sarcasm we named them Mini and Mikro (Micro) - should have been Big and Bigger! Here one month old they still couldn't walk much. Their legs would just give away under their weight ! So funny... ! A couple of hundred metres further away we would sit and enjoy C & S's favorite view point with a whiskey not-on-the-rocks-but-on-the-inland-ice. In Greenland you are never far away from good quality ice. The view, I hear you ask ? Well - nothing to complain about there!
Claus and Sofie at their local view point
Mini and Mikro - they were only one month old on this picture !
Big but still able to charm the pants off you (or.......?!?!)
The thing to do in Qasi.... is hiking or fishing in summer and dog sledding and hunting/fishing in winter. As it definitely was summer when we were there (late spring but with beautiful summer temperatures and no mozzies), we were planning some nice long hikes, trying to fit them in with Claus' work schedule. This was no big feat considering his few work hours and the lack of night in this place.
The day after arriving the hike camp started! We started off with the big chunk of stone called Qaqarssuaq. We took off in th afternoon after Sofie and Claus had returned from work. First we had to cross the flat stretch of land separating Flyversøen (the pilot lake) and the ocean. This is where much of the water from the melting snow drains out to either of the two, so a dry-socked crossing is a little tricky for those unfamiliar with the area. Claus had only crossed in winter, so he came under that category also. For Paula it also took a loving caring husband to carry her across the wet spots.
Off we go - Qaqarssuaq is that little rock in the back. We had to scale it from the other side even though some of the young kids would actually go up the near-vertical front side later in the year when the snow had melted. Insane !
Having married a strong Viking warrior comes in handy at times like these!
Safely on the other side we walked past Bings cave and around to the other side of Qaqarssuaq mountain. Here we were walking for hours in the shade, crossing deep snow and steep cliff sides along the way. I was very proud of Paula who had to overcome her vertigo a few times in order to continue on. 6 hours after setting out we reached the top of Qaqarssuaq where spectacular views awaited us. Even though it was now 10 o'colock in the evening it was still warm and more surprisingly not a wind stirred. The views from the backyard viewpoint had been good but here it was even better. The Disko Island, The Ice Fjord, The Ice Cap, The Paradise Bay , Flyversøen, Strømstedet ... all at our feet.
Crossing the wetlands
Here are the wetlands as seen from above. At the right of the picture the incline ends and from there the water drains down to Flyversøen. Qasi.... in the background
Almost there ...
At the top of Qaqarssuaq - with Flyversøen and Strømstedet below us.
Panorama along the southern coast
It was warming up so the snow didn't always hold us - snow in the boots .... Aaarggghhhh
We stayed on top of the world for almost two hours before returning to the village. There was no rush even though we were now close to midnight. It was really nice not to be rushed by an oncoming night ....
The trip down was done in 3 hours, now that we knew the best places to cross. The girls had done really good but were well and truly nackered when we walked into the village at 2:30am. We ended off the morning with æbleskiver and a trip up to Mini and Mikro. Such a brilliant day - Thanks Claus and Sofie!!!
Mikro always fell asleep in my arms on our evening/night run. Here at around 3 am, when the sun just dipped below the horizon (or behind the Disko Island in our case)
The girls celebrating our safe return from Qaqarssuaq at 2:30 am with æbleskiver and self-collected mountain herbal tea.
The next hike was up to the antennas the next (or same) - an easy 3 hour hike. Unfortunately Paula's boots were of the non-waterproof kind, so she was having a bit of trouble with all the melting snow - same as the day before. Although the ground looks fairly dry, there may be small rivers flowing underneath the heather even up high on the mountain sides. Anywhere we went here in Qasi... we were met with spectacular vistas. From the antennas we had a great view across the Disko Bay to the Disko Island and straight to the north the Ice fjord was still in our sight.
Paula enjoying the view of the Paradise Bay and the southern coast line
Claus fooling around
Wednesday Claus had booked a trip to an old abandoned villaged with his friend and colleague Hans' boat. we had tried to get out on a fishing trip but were not able to arrange a boat, so we were happy to get a chance to try out hans' new boat. The trip down to the village - which is now used as a holiday get-away for the Qasiguiannguit - was smooth riding. Again we were blessed with sun shine. But as we were exploring the village the wind picked up so we would be up for a rough ride back to Qasi.... - into the wind. But for now we were happy to peek around the hunter cabin, the town community hall and other holiday cabins with spectacular views. For lunch we camped out on the landing pontoon in the bay. Hans' grand daughter was the big entertainment - while we had been freezing in the wind during our tour of the village, she had walked around in rubber boots, a thin pair of sweat pants and a sweater. Happy as could be !
I don't remember the name of this abandoned village, but it was about two hours sailing south of Qasi....
Paula chatting up the granddaughter and Birthe
The trip home was a bit of a trial with the waves splashing over us for hours until we had crossed the Paradise Bay and reached shelter behind some of the islands. But even so we had a blast and really good day.
Before it started to get really wet !
In fact we were having such a good time that we decided to drop our ferry tickets for the Friday and buy new ones for Sunday. That way we could do a bit more hiking in the area. This enabled us to do a reconnaissance trip to Strømstedet - the place where Flyversøen drains out to the bay. We were hoping to cross the next day and then make a good long trek on the other side. It all looked fine and dandy, so we decided to go ahead with the long trip the next day. Sofie set out with us to Strømstedet with the intention to return to the village from there while we would ford the river. But as it happened we had not done our homework. When we tried to cross we were stopped by the strong current, the rocky bottom, the deep waters and the temperature of the same.
Strømstedet - sure we would be able to cross the next day. No worries !!
Well - up close the next day it looked a little different. Remember this is freezing cold water and it's a long way home once we crossed! (which we never did - too deep and too much current)
There was no way we could get across, so we settled for lunch in the sun and an exploratory trip across the mountains to the Antenna and then from there on to the village via the old drinking water reservoir. All unchartered terrain for Claus (at least in summer conditions).
So we settled for lunch in the sun instead
Qasi and the beginning of Qaqarssuaq behind
The old reservoir ... and Paula of course !
And this was the end of a brilliant week with Claus and Sofie. Of hiking, over-sized puppies, æbleskiver, whiskey sundowners, great food and even better company. The next day we got on the village commuter service to Aasiaat - sad to leave this great place and our good friends.
Paula and Mikro
All the way to Aasiaat I was out on the boats deck scouting for whales. It was still early in the season but there had already been reports of whale sightings. Our friends Karsten and Rieke whom we met in Ilulissat, had seen Greenland whales every day of their stay on the disko island. But they were not around this day. At least the scenery was worth the wait. Aasiaat is surrounded by islands and small bays. Seen from the air it is truly amazing, from sea it is spectacular but from land it is a little less accessible than Qasi...., where the hiking trails make it possible to reach great viewpoints. In Aasiaat we were again lucky with the weather but as it was Whitsunday we were a little stuck for options. So we just walked around town before finding a rock to sit on by the water's edge, to reflect on the past 10 days of adventure. It had really been a trip of a lifetime !!
Bye Bye Aasiaat and Greenland !
Thanks Claus and Sofie !
Slide show - tonnes of photos (including the above) ......: