Greenland: Ferry to the Ice Giants

After my fabulous scenic flight over the ice cap I had to once again try to navigate the small yet somehow confusing airport of Kangerlussuaq.  I was flying to Nuuk in order to catch the Arctic Umiaq ferry up the coast to Ilulissat, a 2-night trip with a handful of short stops on the way.  Nuuk airport was closed to due fog that morning, a regular occurrence that far south and it played havoc with the flights in and out of Kangerlussuaq.  Mine was the only one that managed to stay on time but that didn’t make the airport any less crowded or confusing.  There is only one gate for domestic departures and it showed a non-existent flight to Ilulissat on the screen above it.  I eventually figured out that the computer was broken so they couldn’t adjust it from whenever that earlier departure had been.

In any case I made it to the plane eventually, an Air Greenland Dash-8 that was jam packed with a few tourists but mainly locals.  There is no assigned seating on these domestic flights but I scored a window seat so was able to enjoy the wonderful views over the inland portions of Greenland’s southwest coast.  By now I’d seen many glaciers but for the first time I clearly saw a glacier terminal from the sky that immediately turned into a river spawning ice into the bay.  The flight was only about 45-minutes long so we were soon descending past rocky cliffs and onto a short runway perched on an outcrop.

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Nuuk airport was small yet no less confusing than Kangerlussuaq had been.  I retrieved my bag from the tiny carousel and with some difficulty managed to find the exit and eventually a taxi.  Whilst Kangerlussuaq had been an interesting experience it is more of an outpost then a town so has very little local population.  Nuuk was to be my first experience of seeing how Greenlanders live today and I can’t say it was a good one.  The first thing I noticed as the taxi drove me into town was a prevalence of massive rundown concrete apartment blocks.  As usual I hadn’t researched much about Greenland before I arrived other than how to get around so I was surprised by this nasty looking housing and subsequently unsurprised to find out that the town has a problem with unemployment and substance abuse as these things tend to go together.

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As I walked through the centre of town looking for museums and shops to visit I noticed groups of drunk men sitting around park benches and teenagers looking for trouble.  Despite the fact that it was the middle of a workday I saw a few people already passed out with half empty bottles of booze beside them and I generally felt uncomfortable.  You learn as you get older that if something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t so I decided there was no way I was going to spend the rest of the day wandering solo around the town with all of its bad vibes.   I found myself a hotel for a good price and spent the rest of the afternoon contemplating Nuuk from my room.

I later found out from a local that in the 1950’s the Danish government wanted to consolidate all of the many remote Greenlandic communities into a few main centres in order to improve the economy which had the potential to be boosted through commercial fishing.  Up until then people were scattered along the coastline in towns just big enough to sustain themselves.  They only needed to catch what they would consume so there wasn’t really any industry.  This served the population well but made for a stagnant economy so the government decided to uproot many of these people and move them into horrible 1950’s apartment blocks then have them work in a concentrated fishing industry either on trawlers or in factories.  Obviously this was a social disaster and as is typical of many of these 1950’s social projects, the housing was of a terrible standard so that now there are problems with things like mould and asbestos. Not only are Greenlanders dealing with the social implications of losing their communities and old social structures but they are also dealing with health problems they just didn’t used to have as a result of things like poor housing, diet changes and the availability of alcohol and tobacco. Today the government are trying to address the problem but once I heard this history it explained everything I saw and felt in Nuuk.  Denmark certainly isn’t the first country to screw up an indigenous population by trying to impose a European social, political and economic structures on them and sadly they probably won’t be the last.

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A fog descended on Nuuk in the evening as I made my way by taxi to the ferry terminal which is a few minutes out of town.  My ship was the Sarfaq Ittuk, a passenger-only ferry that operates a weekly service up and down the west coast of Greenland for about 9-months of the year.  It serves as an important transport link for locals living along the coast but also as a bit of a tourist attraction for people like me who can’t afford a proper cruise.  You can book a private ensuite cabin but these were already sold out when I booked about 4 months earlier so I had a ‘couchette’ which is essentially a bunk berth in a dorm-style room.  There are 3 or 4 of these dorms spread throughout the vessel on different decks and each have one or two shared bathrooms with showers.  Each berth has curtains for privacy and mine was on an upper deck so had a porthole.  In the end I found it very comfortable and private so was glad I didn’t splurge on a cabin.

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There did seem to be some kind of segregation going on even though the ferry was full.  My dorm was exclusively tourists, almost all of whom were Danish.  The lower decks housed the locals.  This could simply be to make it easier for the on-board guide who provides a kind of concierge service for tourists as well as free guided trips around many of the towns the ferry stops at.  Once we departed from Nuuk he gathered the tourists together and gave us a really interesting briefing about the towns we would be stopping at, a bit of background about Greenland and so forth.  It was a service I wasn’t expecting and very much appreciated.

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As we left Nuuk the fog got thicker and stayed with us through most of the next day, only lifting when we got close to the few settlements we stopped at when suddenly breath taking views and quaint little townships would be revealed.  I spent my first evening exploring the ship, getting my bed set-up and reading.  Unfortunately my berth was right next to the bathroom and for some reason many passengers will still taking showers at 2am.  In any case I was up still up early the next morning for our first stop in Maniitsoq where I wanted to join the guided tour.  It was a foggy morning but as we entered the harbour I could make out the town perched precariously on rocky cliffs that dropped down to the water’s edge.  In fact, the name in English means ‘the uneven place’.  We were to board a small bus then drive around the main sights.  With a population of just 2,500 these were a little hard to find and I had to surpress a few giggles as our guide pointed out the rest home and the bus stop.   In truth all of these things were interesting to view in such a remote community that is so different to anything I’ve seen before, although I probably could have skipped the bus stop.  We also stopped at the old part of town that consisted of a couple of interesting historic buildings and boats.  The highlight was trying some of the local food including dried fish and dried seal.  I’m sorry but I don’t recommend the latter and will never be able to look a seal in the eye again.

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During this trip I discovered that I didn’t particularly enjoy the company of some of the other tourists, specifically group of about ten who were there as part of a tour.  They would push in front of others at queues, rush to get the first seats on the bus and generally not act with common courtesy.  At one point on the boat I was half way down a set of narrow steep stairs when three of them appeared around the corner.  Instead of doing the polite thing and waiting for me to get to the bottom they charged up 2 abreast forcing me to retreat back up to the top.  As I stood by to let them pass I smiled but they didn’t even acknowledge my presence letalone say thank you.  This kind of behaviour continued so I decided that I was going to avoid any more guided tours if they were on them, and of course they were first in line for every single one.

After a few more hours sailing through fog we arrived at the tiny town of Kangaamiut with a population of just 360.   The English meaning of the name is ‘the people who live at the promontory’ and they certainly do.  The town is built on very steep cliffs surrounding a short narrow inlet.  This meant the ferry had nowhere to dock so we anchored in the middle of a very narrow part of the fjord and a tender was sent off with the disembarking passengers whilst the rest of us stayed on board to photograph the pretty town and the mountains.

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Fog quickly enveloped us as we headed back to open sea and it got far too cold to be out on deck for long.  I made for the warmth of the lounge to spend a lot of time writing my blog and sorting through the ridiculous number of photos I’d already taken in Greenland.  That evening we were to make a 2-hour stop in Sisimuit, a fairly large town of 5,500 people where the guide would lead a long walking tour and many locals would disembark.  I figured this would be a good time for some privacy so I stayed on board to enjoy the peace along with the lovely view from the lounge of the town and the fjord.  This town means ‘the people who live at the fox burrows’ but I’m afraid I didn’t see any arctic foxes.

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The majority of the local passengers disembarked here and were replaced by a lot of tourists and expat workers heading to Ilulissat.  I had a bunkmate join me who was a medical student from the Faroe Islands.  She had been stationed at a clinic in Sisimuit for the past month and it was interesting to hear about healthcare and the challenges locally.  Everything is free including medication but she said a lot of people in that community were still reluctant to seek medical help until their conditions were well advanced and often when it was too late to help them.  I wondered what the problem was if it wasn’t cost but we never got time to discuss that.

We were now well inside the Arctic Circle so I went on deck after midnight to see what the midnight sun looked like this far north.  Despite the thick fog it was still very bright and it was a magical time to be on deck.  The sea was incredibly calm, the fog enveloped the ship and the sun cast a bright yet eerie light over everything.

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Taken at about 1am.

When we stopped at the next town of Aasiaat early the next morning there wasn’t much to see due to the persistent fog. For most of us this was our last day on board so after breakfast we all began packing our bags then anxiously waited on the freezing cold deck to try to get our first glimpse of the ice field around Ilulissat, all of us nervous that the fog wouldn’t lift so we couldn’t see anything or that for some reason the icebergs wouldn’t be there.  We didn’t need to worry.  A rumour went through the passengers that there were so many icebergs we wouldn’t be able to dock in Ilulissat and whilst that didn’t transpire when the fog did eventually lift it revealed one of the most breath taking vistas I’ve ever seen.

At first there were just a few massive ice bergs off in the distance but soon we were surrounded by these giants.  In the middle of all this we saw whales surface then gracefully dive again to reveal their huge tails.  The closer we got to Ilulissat the more bergs we saw and they were stunningly beautiful.   The ship slowed down to navigate the ice field and the water remained extremely calm so it was easy to hear and see the water gently lapping against the bergs and to spend time admiring the various colours, shapes and sizes of them.  Some were small like little boats and some were huge like 5 story buildings.  Some even had their own waterfalls carved through the melting ice.   Each one was totally unique and words can never really do justice to how wonderful this experience was.  My photos probably can’t either but I’ll stop my futile attempts to describe it and leave you with a few of my favourite shots…

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Soon we were docked in Ilulissat where I had some slightly bizarre experiences that I’ll recount in my next post.

Travel Tip:  I thought the Arctic Umiaq Line was a fabulous way to experience Greenland and you get to do it with the locals along with a few interesting tourists and expats you can chat to along the way.  It was comfortable and had good yet simple amenities.  A restaurant provided meals that were surprisingly fresh and tasty plus snacks, beers etc. were available all day.  Click here to visit their website and be sure to book early.  There is limited transport and hotel options in Greenland so everything fills up quickly during the summer months.  The on-board guide and free shore excursions topped off a wonderful trip.

And don’t let the fog put you off.  It generally lifted close to shore revealing great views of the coast and towns.   And there was something somewhat surreal and magical about being enveloped in fog in the Arctic and I didn’t think it detracted from the experience at all.

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One thought on “Greenland: Ferry to the Ice Giants

  1. Pingback: Greenland: The Last Stop – The Wandering Wincer

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