Travellers Final Frontier – Greenland
There’s a saying amongst travelers “If you have been everywhere, there is always Greenland.” Countless times, I have flown across the Atlantic and countless times I have peered out the window looking down at the vast glacier-covered land thinking this to myself: There is always Greenland. I wonder how a land that virtually no one has travelled to could have so much allure. Finally, I decided it was time. Time to venture into the traveller’s void, this mysterious land of ice and emptiness. Now, in Reykjavik’s old central airport, I walked across the tarmac towards a prop plane from Air Iceland Connect. It’s destination, Narsarsuaq, South Greenland!
The engines fired up and the plane shifted back and forth as it lifted off the runway. The volcanic landscapes of Iceland drifted away and after an hour or so, the first sight of Greenland appeared. Jagged grey mountain peaks, as far as the eye could see dropped down to a dark sea, filled with bobbing icebergs. No signs of civilization, only raw nature. As the plane laboured its way over the mountain tops a vast desert appeared; a desert of Ice.
The inland icecap covers the entirety of Greenland’s center. Every so often, the peaks of massive mountains can be seen emerging from the ice, the bulk of their mass is hidden by a glacier. You can fly for hours over this ice not seeing anything other than the icecap.
The engines slow and the captain announces that we are near our destination. Our plane descends over an ice flow that spills into the ocean. As we came closer, the small, square houses began to appear. Then, before I knew it, we had arrived in the unknown.
Narsarsuaq, a Greenland Travellers Beginning
This is not like most destinations. I walked the runway into an old makeshift military airport building, grabbing my bag and exiting; no customs and no passport check-in. When the sun hits my face and a cool breeze blows over me, I knew I had arrived in South Greenland.
Being a small community, as most places in Greenland are, you can imagine it was not hard to find my hotel. I asked a local walking by which building was my hotel and he replied, “The one with flags.”
After checking in, I was filled with excitement. I was finally here in the unknown and in spite of being tired from travelling, I wanted to set off into nature. Following the road to the end of town, I found a trail labelled “The Ridge”.
I hiked this ridge, passing by retired military equipment, until I reached the hill that overlooks the Fjord. Here I could see all the way to the glacier, no sounds, and no people, just me. The feeling was overwhelming; to be somewhere so untouched and so indescribably beautiful. This was true travel.
Vikings of Qassiarsuk in South Greenland
The next day I was led down to the docks. There are no roads here, if you want to travel it must be done by boat; just as it has been done for centuries. My next destination was the small farming village across the Fjord named Qassiarsuk.
Qassiarsuk is not what you expect when you think of Greenland. Here instead of black rock and shrubs, you have fields of lush green grass and fluffy white sheep dotting the landscape. You also have ruins, not from the Inuit, but from the first outsiders who made contact in this mysterious land. I am speaking, of course, of the infamous Vikings.
The ruins that protrude from the green earth are shrouded in mystery. They are a valiant symbol of explorers long ago and a reminder of how remote and natural Greenland is. It truly is a final frontier. One of the ruins stands out amongst them all: the Viking church. The church has been well preserved by local farmers who most likely are related to the explorers who called Qassiarsuk home.
Getting Lost in Greenlands Nature, Igaliku
As the weather began to worsen, I made my way back to the docks to board another boat further up the Fjord. The boat left me at a remote dock. My pit stop for the day was a small community called Igaliku, which was another 4km further up a dirt road from here.
The rain poured down and the fog covered any sight to see as I walked the muddy road. It took well over an hour to make it to town. Entering my guesthouse, the warmth from the heater was intoxicating and led me into a deep slumber.
When I awoke in the morning, I peered out of my window to discover a fairy-tale land was emerging from the fog. A farming area surrounded by dramatic mountains lay hidden in a small, blue Fjord. The colourful wooden houses pleasantly plopped wherever seemed fitting made for one amazing, picturesque scene.
Igaliku is a small community, but there isn’t one sight in particular to see. It’s all the small things that make this area unique; hanging out at the local store, eating reindeer meat with its inhabitants and hiking around the stunning back-country. Most of all, it’s just about sitting back and soaking it all up.
On my second day in Igaliku, I ventured further into the mountains to the Plateau. It’s a 17km hike so be prepared for a long day. You cross frigid rivers, climb steep mountains and finally arrive at a plateau that overlooks a stunning Fjord filled with thousands of icebergs.
Into the Fjord, Whiskey on the Iceberg
Back at the docks, departing Igaliku was stunning. With the fog gone and clear skies, you can see the rolling green hills and dramatic mountain scape. Leaving Igaliku behind, our boat driver took me for a trip before heading to my next stop.
We ventured deep into the Fjord, passing by huge icebergs, some bright blue while others were white, with black lines edging through them like a piece of art.
Nearing the foot of the glacier, the Inuk boat captain stopped and explained going further could be dangerous. Climate change is causing the pieces of ice that is breaking off to be larger and more frequent. This can cause a deadly wave. So, what better to do than to pull up an ancient piece of ice from the glacier and cut it into cubes to be served with whiskey? It was quite possibly the most sublime experience in South Greenland!
Boarding the Passenger Ship »Sarfaq Ittuk« in Narsaq
My next destination was the second largest settlement in South Greenland, Narsaq. Narsaq is a cluster of colourful box houses spread out over hills overlooking the Fjord. The most important part of town is the Culinary Vocational School on top of the hill.
The principle of the Culinary School welcomed me in and his students prepared a special dinner using local ingredients incorporated into Danish dishes. Meeting the townspeople over food was a wonderful experience and I recommend any Narsaq bound travelers to stop by and see what this amazing community is offering.
If you find yourself in Narsaq for a few days, another great stop was the Qajaq Brewery. This microbrewery offers many kinds of craft beer. The owner, whom you can find at the Narsaq Hotel, is more than happy to show beer lovers the unique types of flavours his brewery creates.
After a few days relaxing in Narsaq, I was itching to venture into Northern Greenland. The AUL Passenger Ferry departs in the South and picks up people from Narsaq at 9 pm before sailing to Ilulissat. Along the way, it makes stops at plenty of remote communities to give you a taste of Greenland’s diverse regions.
Nuuk, Greenland’s Capital
The first two days leaving the south with the Passenger ship »Sarfaq Ittuk« were stunning. Our ship stopped at a few isolated and remote communities that can only be reached by boat. Here we dropped off a few families and picked up more excited locals who were all destined for Greenland’s Capital, Nuuk.
After the two days of sailing were complete, we finally arrived in Nuuk at 7:00 am. It’s a strange sight, seeing multi-level buildings and what I can honestly say is a modern city. From Narsarsuaq until now I had only seen small communities, so having a city in sight it was very exciting!
I was picked up by my friend and owner of Guide to Greenland at the docks and whisked away into the city. We made stops at the historical part of town (which looked like most small Greenlandic towns) and visited other highlights in Nuuk like the university, airport and newer parts of town.
The highlight of Nuuk for me was the food! Nuuk is the scene of a Greenlandic culinary revolution. Many chefs here pride themselves on using only Greenlandic ingredients but creating modern fusion dishes with them. How about muskox meatballs, smoked local trout, stir fried whale or a reindeer hotdog! Nuuk’s culinary scene is fascinating.
Nuuk’s shopping is also a highlight, with plenty of designers crafting clothing from Greenlandic animal skins and artists carving traditional Tupilak* from reindeer horns makes for interesting souvenirs.
*Tupilak – The Inuit are a superstitious people. They believed almost all things in nature had spirits. Shamans were believed to be able to harness the spirits, some of which are good while others are more mischievous. Carvings made from bone that depict these spirits are created by shamans and are said to have special powers, these are known as the Tupilak.
Sailing with AUL into the Arctic Circle
In the evening I boarded the AUL Passenger Ship once again. This time we were pushing north; crossing the Arctic Circle.
The next day we made a stop at Maniitsoq. Known as the Venice of Greenland for its many bridges, Maniitsoq made for a great stop to explore my first northern settlement. The air felt different here; it’s colder and humid and the landscape has almost no grass, just rock with colorful moss.
From Maniitsoq, it was a long day sailing with a quick stop at Kangaamiut, another beautiful little community of colorful houses clinging to the cliffside. Shortly after our pit stop we finally arrived in Sisimiut, the first stop after crossing the Arctic Circle.
Sisimiut, with its historic center, shows off its whaling past with the entrance of town being two giant whale bones. The town is spread out over a group of rocky hills and nearby are black jagged peaks making this one of Greenland’s prettiest areas.
Sisimiut is also the first stop where you will see an abundance of sled dogs. In the winter, hunting is life, and the sled dogs become the main form of transport to cross the frozen Fjords.
Arctic Dream, Ilulissat
Upon departing Sisimiut in the evening, I prepared for my final night on the AUL Passenger Ferry.
In the morning we awoke to a whole new world, finally arriving in the famous Disko Bay where we were surrounded by towering white icebergs. The closer we got to Ilulissat, the larger and more frequent they became. At some points, the ferry came to a complete stop just to navigate its way around the ice.
Arriving in Ilulissat may just have been one of the most picturesque moments on my Greenland trip. The massive icebergs in the bay shifting pass us providing a view of the sprawling and colorful UNESCO Ilulissat town. Fishermen zipping by on their way to hunts seals and the odd whale spouting water into the air could be seen. It was pure magic.
On my first day in Ilulissat, I wandered the empty streets. Walking by multi coloured faded wood houses and howling sled dogs. Often a hunter would walk past carrying a seal or reindeer carcass slung over the top of his forehead. This community is oozing with ambiance and is the embodiment of the Arctic in every sense.
Kayaking Amongst Giants
Late in the afternoon, I joined a kayaking crew with PGI. Kayaking was invented here in Greenland. Historically, it was primarily used for hunting and transportation. These days, kayaking is a popular sport and competitions are held in each community, including various activities like rolling.
Our instructor suited us up with a full dry suit as falling in these frigid Arctic waters without protection from the elements would surely mean freezing to death.
We then walked to the Ilulissat shoreline and began our paddle towards the Ilulissat Ice Fjord. There is something so humbling about Kayaking between gargantuan icebergs during sunset. The colors from the ice and reflecting waters are mind-blowing.
To top it off we popped a bottle of whiskey and had a drink cooled with a piece of the ancient ice flow.
Hiking in the Arctic Circle
The trails in Ilulissat are marked by color. Each trail has its own distinctive characteristics. I hiked the blue, yellow and red trails.
The blue took me along a ridge that follows the Ilulissat Ice Fjord. It’s a stunning walk that starts in a canyon and ends with a great view of the compiled ice in the Fjord.
The yellow trail is much shorter and more impactful. It starts off right away with scenic views over the part of the Fjord where the ice is less dense. Here you can often see whales dotted in between the massive icebergs.
Finally, the orange trail is a 23 km long stint. I needed a full day to complete this trail, but it takes you so deep into nature.
Starting in the town of Oqaatsut arriving by boat I began the lengthy trail. It took me up rolling hills of barren rocks across remote hidden lakes and fully immersed me into nature. By the end of it, I felt as if this awe-inspiring nature had given me an entirely new outlook on life.
Seal Hunting with Inuit
Seal Hunting is not just a favourite past time for the Inuit, but it is essential to provide meat for their sled dogs. Many locals also consume the meat, but it is not the favourite of Greenland’s many wild animals.
I had the pleasure of joining a local hunting crew in the morning. We stand in between massive ice flows trying to spot the odd seal pop up from the water.
It’s a tricky game, you have only moments to aim and shoot at the seals when they come out from the water. We, unfortunately, did not get any, but seeing the abundance of seals was amazing and so was the massive whales that often emerged from the depths near our boat!
Greenland From Above
After a few days exploring the town and delving into the Inuit culture it was time to see what the land looked like from above.
Truly the only way to see how massive the ice flows and glaciers leading up to the inner icecap are is by taking a small prop plane with Air Zafari.
In the late afternoon, I was picked up and taken to Ilulissats’ tiny airport on the edge of town. We boarded a six-seat tiny prop plane and were whisked away into the clear Arctic skies.
Simply put, the scenery was spectacular. Massive calving glaciers collapsed into the sea while the looming white desert of the inner ice cap shows off its blue lakes and impossibly deep ridges. Upon entering the Ilulissat Ice Fjord, the skyscraper-tall icebergs glimmered and their massive size could be appreciated as the blue ice beneath was visible from above.
Nearby to the icebergs were families of whales swimming by looking for food. What a perfect day this was!
The Silence of Eqi Glacier
One of the last activities I wanted to complete was the journey to Eqi Glacier. It’s a long way to one of the world’s largest and fastest moving glaciers, the boat with World of Greenland takes about 12 hours with return.
Our boat started by plying the icy waters north from Ilulissat. As we ventured further the ice began to shrink in both size and quantity. Eventually, after entering another Fjord all that remained of the icebergs were the odd drifter which seemed much more dramatic now that there was not as much ice.
Upon entering the Fjord that is home to Eqi, the landscape morphed into a bizarre world of grey.
The closer we got to Eqi, the grander it became. Many parts of the glacier towered over 90m above. Often massive pieces of ice broke off creating mini-tsunamis. The scene was surreal.
This is where we learned about the progression of climate change and how much of an impact it has made. The ice has been melting for years but in the past few its speed has accelerated to unimaginable levels. Now, Eqi will all but vanish within ten years.
Greenland, My Final Thoughts
My final morning in Greenland after a two-week adventure across the world’s largest island was here. This epic Arctic journey brought me to new worlds I had never seen before, introduced me to an incredible culture and got me addicted to this incredible place!
I wandered the streets of Ilulissat one last time before I headed to the airport, reminiscing about it all. Like most days here it was a bright morning, people moved about on their way. It was a perfect scene for my last few hours here.
My Inuit friends that I made while exploring picked me up from town and drove me to the airport. Their hospitality and friendship is something I will never forget.
As I stepped onto the runway, engines fired up and I boarded the plane. As the plane shot off into the sky I had my final look at Greenland and the Arctic, the colourful scattered houses getting smaller and smaller while the nearby glaciers became more visible. In the waters, a sea of icebergs as far as the eye can see, emerged. It was a perfect last moment before the plane soared above the clouds.
Hitherto, I have traveled to well over one hundred countries. Nowhere on this planet has been like Greenland. It’s beautiful, addictive and another world in every sense. This was only the first trip of many because now as I write this I am already planning my next adventure into the one of the world’s final frontiers; Greenland!