My journey to Greenland glamorously began with a trip to the lavatory in July 2007. Whilst waiting to use one on a Virgin Atlantic Airbus I happened to look out the exit door window to find a beautiful landscape far below of rocky mountain peaks, numerous fjords and vast sea fields of huge icebergs. I wondered how I’d missed this scene before as this wasn’t exactly the first time I’d crossed the Atlantic and I haven’t seen it since.
I later realised that usually by the time you fly near Greenland everyone has their window shades down to go to sleep so the only place you are likely to see it is from an exit door window. I gave up my place in the lavatory line so I could grab my camera from my seat then snapped a few of the pictures you can see below. I wondered who on earth lived in a place like that, what they did and what it would look like from the ground. I mentally added it to my bucket list and about 9 years later I finally got to cross it off.
So firstly a little bit about Greenland as it isn’t well known and information can be scarce. Despite the huge size Greenland has a population of just 55,000. 16,500 of all Greenlanders live in the capital city of Nuuk with the remainder being spread throughout a small number of towns, mostly around the southwestern portion of the coast. Most of Greenland is covered by the Greenland Ice Sheet, the second largest body of ice in the world after the Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of it even when you’ve seen it up close and as I glimpsed it for the first time from my Air Greenland flight it was suddenly obvious to me why just a bit of this melting could create havoc for the whole planet.
In summer the sun doesn’t set and in winter it disappears for several months when the country is covered in snow and much of the sea ices over. This snow cover along with the ice and rocky geology means that Greenland has no roads connecting towns. The only way to get around is by plane, helicopter, boat or dog sled. Even the ferry boats that make their way up and down the coast can only operate for 9-months of the year before the sea ice makes it too difficult to traverse in the dead of winter, and whilst it is still possible to travel by air to the various communities, the gusty arctic storms coupled with short icy runways precariously perched on rocky outcrops next to steep cliffs makes even air travel a bit hit and miss, effectively cutting these communities off from the outside world in the middle of winter. The lack of roads means that most people either own or try to secure access to a boat but even these are rendered useless when the sea has iced over which leaves people with dogs as their only form of transport outside and often even within their own towns.
Due to the shortage of flat land there is only one runway capable of taking large commercial airliners in the settlement of Kangerlussuaq. This place started out it’s life as a military base in World War II when the Americans took responsiblity for Greenland’s security whilst Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. It continued as a US base until 1992 and eventually became Greenland’s main international airport due the length of the runway with runways in the towns being too short to accommodate large jets.
I arrived on an Air Greenland Airbus 330 after a 4 hour flight from Copenhagen, an interesting experience in itself. After crossing over Denmark we flew over the Norwegian Sea and I glimpsed the remote Faroe Islands to the south. The approach to Greenland was breathtaking, firstly because of the gigantic icebergs and secondly due to the rocky mountainous coastline that seems to suddenly appear out of the ocean. After flying over a few fjords and glaciers you are over the white ice cap.
If you missed the arrival over the brown rocky coast you could easily mistake this for cloud cover due to the flat white unchanging scene below. However in summer there are various bright turquoise melt pools that remind you of where you are. Lines can be seen, some like veins or nerve endings, others almost completely straight lines, and these mark the progress of melting water down toward the glaciers, eventually joining other rivulets of melting ice and snow that push the glaciers into the sea, causing the formation of the icebergs.
As we approached the western coast of Greenland the pure white ice cap began to give way to grey-coloured glaciers and eventually brown tundra covering rocky hills and valleys. By now we were well into our descent and an unwelcome shot of adrenalin coursed through me as I saw the ground looming up much closer to us than it should have been when we still had 10-minutes to landing. However I soon realised we were flying over a high plateau that suddenly disappeared to reveal a low valley where we had to make a sharp turn before landing between the steep valley walls. It was an impressive place to arrive at if nothing else.
The entire airport complex comprises the original US military buildings; the hotel was the former barracks, the restaurant the former mess hall and the terminal the former base of air operations. This wasn’t a large base and was never intended to be a commercial airline terminal, so it only takes an A330 and a few domestic Dash-8 flights disembarking at once to make it feel like three fully laden 747s have just unloaded. I was incredibly confused as I entered the building and remained that way on and off through much of Greenland. I’d never come across an airport I couldn’t navigate until I got to this country which is embarrassing considering how small everything is meaning that logically that should make things easier to navigate. But that small scale was the problem along with the fact that many buildings being used for things like hotels and airports had morphed from a previous life serving another function, just like Kangerlussuaq.
So if you are a reasonably seasoned airport user you’ll arrive at Kangerlussuaq and will try follow the usual routes to places like the luggage carousels and taxi stands. You’ll look for the usual airport signage to show you the way to information counters (which you won’t find here) and departure gates. But the signs will largely be missing and the layouts won’t make sense. Even tell-tale features like revolving or sliding doors are missing so it is hard to find something as simple as the main exit or entrance. In Greenland you are more likely to find a non-descript white door with a regular metal door handle, much like one you would find in your house. If you are lucky there will be a fire exit sign above it but probably not.
We deplaned down two sets of stairs and walked up a small set of steps into a tiny immigration hall where no immigration was taking place. From there we went through another set of doors into a slightly bigger area that serves arrivals and departures for all flights and contains the only other gate at the airport that all domestic flights use. I wandered around in confusion looking for the luggage carousel. In less than 2-minutes this wandering took me into the gift shop, the restaurant, to the reception of my hotel, up to a bar, back down again, past Air Greenland check-in and some luggage lockers then out to the main airport entrance which was a patch of gravel with a few bike stands and ashtrays. Opposite there I saw the supermarket and post office, plus another smaller hotel down the road. This road was a mixture of sand and gravel and on the opposite side from the airport a handful of buildings were scattered along it, backed up to a steep rocky hillside. So in the 2-minutes I spent looking for the luggage carousel I saw most of Kangerlussuaq.
I did this entire circuit twice more, feeling sure I’d missed something and eventually asked someone where the luggage was. They pointed down a short flight of stairs which turned out to be a room not much bigger than a shipping container with the tiniest luggage carousel I’ve ever seen. Luckily there wasn’t much luggage because very few people were staying in Kangerlussuaq with most connecting onto smaller aircraft to get to main population centres like Nuuk and Ilulissat.
After checking in I found myself navigating a rabbit warren of corridors to my room, an exercise that was even more confusing. For starters the room numbers didn’t correspond to the floors. Rooms starting with 1 that should have been on the first floor were on the top floor, rooms starting with 3 were on the bottom floor. I never figured out what the story was with rooms starting with 2 as there were only 2 floors. Room 1001 was next to Room 3013 which thankfully was next to my room.
I’d planned my whole trip around doing a day trip to the ice cap from Kangerlussuaq whilst still managing to connect to the weekly ferry from Nuuk to Ilulissat. After managing to get everything else lined up I e-mailed the tour operator to book the ice cap trip only to find it operated on just about every day of the week except the one day I had free to do it. The long story short was that I wound up with almost 48 hours in remote Kangerlussuaq with nothing to do. I wasn’t leaving until 10.40am on Friday and when I got to my hotel room it was 10am on Wednesday. I flicked on the TV and at first found a picture I hadn’t seen since my childhood in the 1980’s when TV in New Zealand used to start at 7am and finish at midnight, this is what you’d see if you turned it on outside those hours. Talk about a blast from the past.
After scrolling through the channels I eventually settled in to watch the only English language show I could find; Taggert. If you aren’t familiar with Taggert it is a Scottish detective drama from the 1990’s and I kept laughing to myself because I’d spent a decent amount of money and gone to an awful lot of effort only to find myself in a former military barracks painting my toenails whilst watching bloody Taggert.
That afternoon I went for another wander around the airport terminal just for something to do and spotted a pilot standing under an advert for scenic flights so I quickly accosted him. Doing a trip by myself was prohibitive in terms of cost but he had another couple booked on a Friday morning flight that I could join for a reasonable price and he could get me back in time for my scheduled flight to Nuuk. That still left me with all of Thursday to kill but at least I didn’t feel like my time in Kangerlussuaq was completely wasted. After that brief diversion I went for another wander outside just in case I’d missed something the other 10 times I’d wandered out there but I hadn’t.
Although the sun never really set and the temperature reached balmy 20c that day, if you were in the shade it was still very cold. That afternoon I had my first experience of being really hot and really cold at the same time. I had my back to the sun which was beating down on my head and my back so that I felt uncomfortable, just as I was about to move into shade a freezing cold breeze blew from the front. It was a very odd feeling, sort of like I’d become the surface of the moon for a minute with the front half of me being the dark side. This type of thing continued throughout my trip with it varying from uncomfortably cold to uncomfortably hot, sometimes within just a few seconds. Sometimes I’d be in short sleeves, a minute later wrapped up in my fleece and five minutes after that back to short sleeves again. This is definitely a place where you need to know how to layer your clothes.
That evening and the next I went to the fairly deserted bar to have some food and work on my blog. It had a great view of the runway and the only other people present were a few local workers who’d finished their shift and the odd lonely drunk Dane. Apart from the tourists most of the people at the hotel were Danish and other expat workers either providing skilled trades that might be lacking in Greenland (electricians, chefs etc.) or working as scientists, geologists and so forth. The majority of these were only transiting through Kangerlussuaq for a night or two. Most of expats were men and whilst they generally kept to themselves I walked into the bar on the second night and a man yelled out “My God! A single woman!”. They were all harmless though and most were too caught up in staring morosely into the bottom of a bottle to pay me much attention.
Somehow I managed to fill up Thursday and soon I was boarding the scenic flight on Friday morning. We took off from Kangerlussuaq up the Valley Desert and just a few hundreds meters past the runway I spotted two Musk Oxen, a large animal that most closely resembles a North American Bison. This valley is characterised by rocky hillsides, brown tundra and a multitude of small bright blue snow melt lakes. We were traveling up the valley toward the ice cap so that the glacier ice melt was traveling in the opposite direction and was distinctive by its grey colour that is caused by sediment picked up by the glacier over the years. This offered a stark contrast to the snow melt what was clear and blue in colour.
After spotting a few more Musk Oxen we made out way over the ice cap which was simply stunning and incredibly vast. Whilst I’d flown over it on the way in from Copenhagen, this flight was at a much lower altitude. We were 1.5 kilometres about sea level but just 150m above the ice. That coupled with the perfectly clear weather gave us some incredible views of the frozen ice and deep crevasses along with occasional melt pools.
We headed back over Russell Glacier, easy to make out due to the dirty colour of the ice. Closer to the coast this turned into a raging narrow glacial river before widening into a calmer flow. It was here that I spotted a lone reindeer. It happened too fast to photograph but he was unmistakable all alone by the river. He was startled by our engine noise and as he raised his head to take a look at us I got a good look at his stunning antlers. He was a beautiful creature and when I was offered Reindeer meat later that day I’m afraid I had to turn it down because the memory of this guy by the river was a bit too fresh in my mind.
We were in the air for 50-minutes and every second offered incredible scenery, completely different from any I’d seen anywhere else in the world. In the end I was glad I’d done a flight instead of the overland trip. Sure I didn’t get to stand on the ice cap but I got to view it in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible from the ground. My next task was to catch my flight to Nuuk and start another part of my Greenland adventure that would hopefully involve more icebergs and less Taggert.
Please note that I’m currently posting updates from my African trip where I have limited internet access. Sadly that makes it incredibly time consuming to properly proof read and edit so I’m sorry for any errors. I’ll fix it all up eventually.