New, un­tamed – and not a tourist in sight

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

Fool­ish is the trav­eller who dares to play Scrab­ble with a Green­lan­der. They won’t say uto­qqat­sis­suti­gaa (sorry) when they trounce you, for theirs is a polysyn­thetic lan­guage where en­tire ideas can be ex­pressed in a sin­gle – of­ten very long – word. So you don’t get heart­burn, you have tarnikku­tu­u­luni (food that hurts the soul in­side the ch­est) and a Green­landic woman never dates, she has qun­gu­jut­ta­gaq (some­one she smiles at). This tongue-ty­ing com­bi­na­tion of con­so­nants and vow­els is also used in nearby Ice­land, lead­ing many trav­ellers to as­sume they’re the same. And, right now, that plays to their ad­van­tage be­cause Green­land is start­ing to po­si­tion it­self as the new Ice­land.

Hap­pily, the tim­ing might be right. Trav­ellers are in­creas­ingly wary of Ice­land’s rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing over­run. They’re in search of a new un­tamed en­vi­ron­ment to act as a salve for their har­ried city lives. And Green­land does wild in abun­dance.

Lo­cals call it Kalaal­lit Nu­naat, mean­ing “Land of the Peo­ple”, which is ironic, be­cause for large swathes of time the world’s largest is­land was un­in­hab­ited. Cov­ered by an ice cap the size of Spain, its mea­gre pop­u­la­tion – still only 56,565 – clings to the fringes ek­ing out a liv­ing mainly fish­ing and hunt­ing. Here, na­ture rules with such an icy fist that a per­son’s age is mea­sured in win­ters and le­gends of a fin­ger­less sea god­dess are still told hud­dled around hearths. I’d joined Dis­cover the World’s “Es­sen­tial West Green­land” tour to see what this frozen land can of­fer.

“Wel­come to Green­land,” com­mented my dread­locked guide, Lise Kalle­soe, rather wryly as we passed the ceme­tery en route from the air­port to Ilulis­sat, Green­land’s third-largest town. In thick mist, a small dig­ger was scrap­ing away plots be­side rows of white crosses. “They have to pre-dig graves in the sum­mer for those they ex­pect to die, or the per­mafrost makes it im­pos­si­ble in win­ter,” said Lise. “Gal­lows hu­mour,” laughed Si­mon, our bearded driver.

He de­posited us at Ho­tel Arc­tic, the world’s most northerly four-star, which over­looks the frigid wa­ters of Disko Bay. Aptly, Ilulis­sat means “ice­bergs” and clus­ters of the mov­able moun­tains waltzed slowly in the har­bour. Houses, bright as Lego bricks, hud­dled around the slen­der chim­ney of the fish fac­tory that puffed skeins of smoke into the high blue sky as it pro­cessed “pink gold” (prawns) and hal­ibut. “The colours used to have mean­ings,” ex­plained Lise, as we strolled around town. “A yel­low hut had med­i­cal sup­plies, red was for traders and blue meant it was a fish­er­man’s house, so if you came in by boat in need of help, you knew where to go.”

Founded in 1741 as Dan­ish colony Jakob­shavn (Ja­cob’s Bay), towns­men traded the blub­ber brought by the whalers that hunted hump­back and bow­head whales in their thou­sands to keep the street lamps of Europe burn­ing and their ladies caged in (whale bone) corsets. To­day, the town is a col­lec­tion of cafés, the Pisif­fik (which trans­lates as “the place where you get stuff ”) su­per­mar­ket, a su­perb art mu­seum and the red clap­board house-turned-mu­seum where po­lar ex­plorer and an­thro­pol­o­gist Knud Ras­mussen was born. Half-Dan­ish, half-Green­landic, his draw­ings and not­ing down of lo­cal oral sto­ries made him the Father of Inu­itol­ogy.

Like the nearby Ilulis­sat Ice­fjord glacier, life here flows as slowly as cold honey. There are no roads be­tween towns; you get around by foot, boat or he­li­copter. In mid-Novem­ber, even the sun packs up and heads south for two and a half months, leav­ing the land with the lights off. And un­til the Fifties, lo­cals lived in turf-roof homes not dis­sim­i­lar to the pit houses the very first set­tlers, the Saqqaq, erected here in the Ser­mer­miut Val­ley more than 4,500 years ago.

The Un­esco-listed, 44-mile (70km) Ice­fjord is born from a pit­ted tongue of glacial ice that pro­duces the most ice­bergs in the north­ern hemi­sphere. “Every day, it re­leases the same amount of fresh­wa­ter as they use in New York City,” said our skip­per, Claus. Once loose, the Ir­minger Cur­rent car­ries them north­wards and across to Canada. It’s be­lieved the berg that sunk the Ti­tanic calved ed at Ilulis­sat.

We put­tered out on n Claus’s boat Blue Jay, jig­saw pieces of ice bump­ing the hull ull and the dry wind claw­ing our cheeks and un­gloved fin­gers. The bergs, raked with deep fis­sures, glowed as if some­one had drib­bled d blue cu­raçao be­tween n the cracks. Rais­ing my y cam­era to cap­ture the re­flec­tions, I saw a black nose pro­trud­ing g into the pic­ture. “Hump­backs!” called Claus. The mother and d calf spouted foun­tains s of sea­wa­ter be­fore div­ing g A six-night Es­sen­tial Green­land ad­ven­ture with Dis­cover the World (01737 888413; dis­cover­ costs from £3,144 per per­son based on two shar­ing and in­cludes sched­uled re­turn flights be­tween Reyk­javik City Air­port and Ilulis­sat with Ice­landair Con­nect, two nights in Reyk­javik on break­fast ba­sis, two nights at Ho­tel Arc­tic with break­fast and din­ner, two nights at Ili­manaq Lodge (full board), air­port trans­fers and guided Ilulis­sat city walk. Op­tional ex­cur­sions in­clude a sun­set cruise to Disko Bay from £94 and Ice­bergs of Ser­mer­miut from £54. Re­turn UK air­fares start from around £100 per per­son. See also vis­it­green­ be­neath the boat. “Time for a drink,” de­clared Si­mon, fish­ing his arm into the ocean and scoop­ing up chunks of ice that he plopped into a thumb­nail of Mar­tini Bianco. It started to crackle like Rice Krispies. “It’s the re­lease of the high-pres­sure air bub­bles. Some of this ice is 250,000 years old and in­cred­i­bly clean be­cause the air trapped in­side comes from a time be­fore there was any pol­lu­tion – un­less, per­haps, you count mam­moth farts!”

I si­dled around the side of the boat to find Claus hi­ber­nat­ing in his cabin and asked him how he feels about tourism in Green­land. “Ev­ery­thing [es­pe­cially the fish­ing] is so heav­ily sub­sidised, it’s un­sus­tain­able,” he lamented. “If we don’t em­brace tourism what else will we do?”

Ili­manaq, a com­mu­nity a halfhour boat ride from Ilulis­sat, is do­ing just that. Once a tra­di­tional whal­ing vil­lage, to­day it’s re­defin­ing it­self as a tem­plate for sus­tain­able tourism and how to pre­serve cul­tural her­itage. Fif­teen A-frame cab­ins have been built along its shore and two 18th-cen­tury pine chalets – the old­est pre­served ex­am­ples in Green­land – have been re­stored to serve as the restau­rant and re­cep­tion for Ili­manaq Lodge.

Here, dogs out­num­ber the pop­u­la­tion of 48 by two to one. This is au­then­tic fron­tier liv­ing. In­side the only shop, bul­lets are on sale next to stick-on Bar­bie nails, and salted whale blub­ber be­side snow­mo­bile gloves. Rein­deer antlers are dis­played in back­yards in place of ro­tary wash­ing lines, and work­ing Green­landic dogs howl for the miss­ing moon. “No pet­ting,” warned Lise, as we wan­dered past them and the 1908 church. There are no cars or pave­ments. In these

Vil­lages cling to the coast, main; a hump­back whale and Arc­tic fox, be­low; tasty Nordic-rus­tic snacks, bot­tom

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