Saturday, 21 May 2016

Greenland Trip

                                                 A Few Days in Greenland

Saturday 1st June

I got up really early, opening my curtains in anticipation of a glorious morning - but no such luck! I think it rains every morning in Iceland, and the sun always comes out at 9pm. After breakfast, I checked out of my hotel and headed to the local airport. This part of my trip was to the east coast of Greenland, somewhere completely new to me and relatively new to tourism. Greenland is the world's largest island and most of it lies within the Arctic Circle. Eighty five percent of it is covered by ice; with only the narrow coastal fringe of rugged mountains and green valley’s remaining ice-free, allowing a resilient and determined community to live there. 

It is the home to the largest Inuit (Eskimo) population in the world, and with their ability to adapt to the severe climatic conditions here; they have survived where others found it impossible to live. I was hoping to see this magnificent, unspoilt, land before too much of it changed. Surprisingly, it was only just over 100 years since the first Europeans arrived at this coast; and its tiny coastal settlements that have retained their traditional rural way of life - only slightly influenced by the Western world. Most of the east coast is uninhabited, and the only settlements are limited to the Tasiilaq area, also known as Ammassalik.

I flew to Kulusuk, on a relatively small plane; I had expected it to be full - as it was the first flight of the season, but there were many empty seats. The scenery below was unbelievable; the packed sea ice looked incredible, it was just breaking apart, pure white, as far as the eye could see. Before I knew it, we were coming in to land at Kulusuk, a small village with only 100 inhabitants - but it had an international airport. Well that part is a bit of a joke!

The runway, where we landed was a dirt track, and we stopped over the biggest muddy puddle that we had to walk through to get to the small terminal building. Looking around, the snow was piled up at least ten feet high. Whilst I was waiting for the helicopter to take me on the final part of my journey, I met up with several people who were going to the same place as me, a few tourists and 2 ladies who were travelling out there to work. After an hour it was time to board the helicopter, but where were we going to sit?

I have never seen anything like it; the amount of food boxes, as well as our luggage, that was squeezed into the front of the helicopter was unbelievable. I sat looking out of the side window, and what an amazing ten-minute journey! 

What a view! You could see the ice breaking up, reflections of the mountains on the jet-black ocean, icebergs, more ice and more mountains.

It was absolutely breath taking, but the journey went far too fast.

We landed at Ammassalik, on a square of concrete this time - that was an improvement! The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the mountains were white, the sea was still icy and the houses were a multitude of colours. It was even better than the pictures that had drawn me here. The locals call this place Tasiilaq, and it is the largest town in East Greenland, with almost 2000 inhabitants.

It is situated in a protective fjord, with huge jagged peaks on all sides, and it is cut in two by a river, which flows through the Valley of Flowers behind the town. We were picked up by the hotel minibus and taken up to our hotel, high up, overlooking the town. It looked very basic on the Internet, but I was pleasantly surprised, it was far nicer and more modern than I had expected. I quickly unpacked and went for lunch. 

After being told that the town had nearly run out of food and the supply ship wasn't expected for several more weeks (because the ice pack was late thawing this year), I had no idea what food I was going to be eating. When my lunch was put in front of me, I couldn't believe it. There was salmon, white fish, prawns, herring, caviar, salad, fruit, a meatball, cold lamb and delicious home baked bread.

It must be so hard for the people here to work out how much food and supplies they need to keep them going from October, when the last supply ship comes - until the following July, when the next one arrives. Some items come in by helicopter, but this is such an expensive option, it isn't used very often. After lunch, the owner of the hotel, Mickey, took us on a guided tour of the town. Even though it looked sparse, once we started driving around, I was surprised to see how many amenities there were.

There was a school, with an area for boarders, a large supermarket (that sold everything from food, to clothes and hunting equipment), a police station, a church, a busy harbour (when the ice thawed out), a museum, a hospital and a post office that makes stamps for the whole of Greenland. The houses were painted in many bright colours, and often contained several generations of the same family; most had sleighs and husky dogs tied up outside, although for some it was snowmobiles.
There were even traditional fish hanging outside people’s houses - drying in the sun. As we continued around town, everyone was out enjoying themselves, as it was Children's day! So everyone was out with their children, there was lots of singing in the streets - and drinking was banned for the whole weekend. There were quite a few birds, arctic terns as you would expect, and snow sparrows - but not many seagulls - it is too far north for them. There were still piles of snow by the roadside, and we were told that it had been a long winter this year, with snow 2 -3 metres deep. When the weather turns nasty and the wind gets up, it is not unusual for houses to literally "blow away"; that is why some houses have steel cables running over them - to hold them down.

There was a tower in the centre of the town with an alarm on it, which goes off when a storm is approaching. We saw a museum, which was closed, and next to it was a potato house - where everyone’s perishables are stored in the winter. After the trip around town, we had a few hours before tea, to relax. My eyes felt so tired, I can see why people get snow blindness; I had put my sunglasses on earlier - but the brightness had still got to me!

After dinner I went a walk to the edge of the bay, to where the sea ice meets the frozen ice of our bay, to get some more photos, it was one of those places where you can't stop taking them, and with the everlasting daylight, the sun was still high in the sky until well after 9pm. It never really got dark, not all through the night. The Midnight Sun turned the mountains a delightful a shade of pink, and they were always there whenever I looked out of my window - which I did many times through the night!

Sunday 2nd June 

I got up at 7am, to another beautiful day, and I knew what I wanted to do; after breakfast, I was going for a walk in the Valley of the Flowers. This was a beautiful valley with unique arctic fauna, hundreds of different plants, mosses, saxifrages and arctic poppies.

But I was not under any illusion that they would be out yet - the winter here was dragging on. The French couple decided to come with me, as the alternative was to go to church! We were dropped us off near the cemetery where the trail began. I didn't know how far we would be able to go, because there was still so much snow on the ground - but I didn't mind, I just wanted a bit of an adventure. When we reached the cemetery, the snow began to get deeper and we could see up ahead it was getting worse, and Michelle decided to go back, so Jean and I carried on.
We couldn’t see the trail and had to guess where to walk. We just followed where someone had gone maybe the day before, and in parts the snow was up to the top of my legs! I had been told to follow the river, but there was a waterfall to our right that disappeared under the snow; and Jean was worried that we might end up falling down a crevasse into freezing water below. I led the way and could feel and see the ground underneath, so I wasn't worried. After we had walked for about an hour we reached some rocky ground and decided that, that was far enough, we were both rather wet and tired. We opted for going back via the higher ground, using the rocky areas.
Jean took the lead this time, which I didn't mind at all. It was far easier putting my feet in the holes in the snow where he had stepped; although when the footprints were two foot deep - it was hard on the legs! I must have fallen over at least a dozen times. I never hurt myself, and couldn't stop laughing, but I was getting wetter by the minute. It was a scary when we had to cross about 12 feet of ice, and you could see and hear the water running below it. Jean went first very slowly, and I followed, mighty relieved when we reached the solid ground in one piece. I did have an ‘Exciting moment’ - I saw a paw print in the snow, it was a huge paw print that I decided must have belonged to a polar bear.

I knew there were polar bears here, because one of the locals told me one actually went into Kulusuk town last week and as far as I was concerned this was my polar bear "near sighting". When we got back into town, we stopped by the church to catch a lift back with the hotel shuttle, but it never turned up, so everyone had to walk back - up “Nightmare hill”.

The day was becoming cloudier and after lunch, we were told that the flag was flying at the museum (that meant it was open), we decided to have a walk down to it. A old Inuit man ran the museum, he didn't speak any English at all but he was most amenable. The museum was in the old church, and was full of old Inuit masks, costumes, trinkets, a canoe, carvings, paintings and photographs.

We spent an enjoyable hour there, before getting an ice cream from the local shop - to help us get back up heart-attack hill. By this time the cloud had almost come down as far as our hotel and the temperature had dropped considerably. I was happy to let my legs have the rest of the day off and catch up with my diary; I always had the view from my window to distract me. After dinner, which was the best lamb that I have ever tasted, everyone went back to their rooms.

I know that Jeppe said everyone goes to bed early, but this was ridiculous – it was only 7.30pm! Still, I had another day of Iceland to write up, as well as mountain viewing and I could always watch television if I was desperate!

Monday 3rd June

I had the worst night sleep, I even tried wearing an eye mask to make it dark, but that didn't help. So when it reached 6.00am, I got up, had a shower and made a coffee. The weather outside wasn't looking very good, it was drizzly and dark clouds obscured the tops of the mountains. I went down for breakfast, and had a chat to Maggie and Irene, before they left for the airport. I decided to go down to the heliport, to see them off; but then the hotel owner Mickey came to us and said, so casually "There will be no flights from Kulusuk to Reykjavik today, there is a problem, maybe there is too much water on the runway!" Maggie, Irene, Jean and Michelle were given the choice of stopping in Hotel Ammassalik or flying to Kulusuk and staying in their sister hotel there. They opted to go and stay in Kulusuk, where they would have the chance to explore the small fishing community.

I still went a drive down with them and then went a walk, not far from the helipad, hoping to see the pack ice more clearly. I hadn't gone far when Jeppe pulled up beside me in the minibus. He said that there wasn't much down that way, and he took me to the end - which wasn't very nice, it was the rubbish dump and the saddest thing was to see all of this rubbish by the side of, and occasionally falling in, to this picturesque fjord. Anyway, I had a lift back to the hotel where it was safe and dry and I watched the helicopters coming to and fro all morning. I had thought the flight from Tasiilaq would be the problem - not the flight back to Reykjavik!
One thing was slightly un-nerving though, Jean said when he booked this trip, his tour operator said "This is the date you fly out to Greenland, but I cannot give you a date when you will be able to leave. It will depend on the weather"! There were only 3 of us for lunch, no new arrivals, as no one could get here! An interesting tale I learnt at lunchtime was about the helicopter that had broken down last week, leaving 3 guests stranded in Kulusuk. The authorities here were getting so worried that it wasn't going to get fixed by the weekend, and they had no way of getting the spare part from Kulusuk to Tasiilaq, as no boats could get through the ice. So they wrapped the part in two pillows and clear wrap, hired a small plane, and had the package thrown out of the plane, to land on the football pitch. How incredible is that!

I caught up with a few bits and pieces after lunch, but couldn't stay inside all day. So I put lots of clothes on, and braved the rain, heading off towards the supermarket. Problem was, I noticed a shortcut, and trying to avoid all the really big hills, I gave it a go. When will I learn! I ended up in a life threatening position on a cliff side, and then I thought I would walk over, what looked like a playing field. The melting wet snow ended up being about two foot deep, so I got soaked again. When I got to the supermarket, it was such an eye opener to see rifles and live ammunition in between the children’s toys, cakes and Ikea-like furniture! Everything was so expensive, a box of cereal, a small box of chocolates, some facial wipes, shampoo etc were all at least £5 each. I have no idea how people afford to live here. I didn't stay long, and promised myself that I would stick to the roads all the way back, no matter how tired I was - and was it a trek getting back to the hotel! But after a hot shower and a couple of drinks, I was ok, and happy to stop in the dry and warmth for the rest of the day.

At dinner, the Danish professor told me that a few of years ago, 10 polar bears came into Tasiilaq one spring and they were all shot dead. The government grants each town a certain number that they are allowed to kill, because if polar bears do get this far south, it is doubtful that they will ever get back to their hunting grounds in the north - alive. But last week, one was spotted near Kulusuk, and they weren't allowed to shoot it because they had already killed this season’s quota. He also told us about a seal he shot that was so big he couldn't get it in his boat, so he shot in the air 3 times, meaning he needed help.

Someone came to help him, but the seal was so heavy, it weighed his boat down too far at the back, so he had to shoot a smaller one, and put it in the front - to balance things up. When he got back to the harbour with it, even 5 men could not pull it out of the boat, so they called a taxi to pull it out. It was just left, tied with some rope in the water, and when the tide went out, he was able to go and cut it up for his dogs to eat, and all of his neighbour’s dogs too! Anyway, I had an early night, hoping to get a more restful sleep than the one I had the previous night.

Tuesday 4th June

I got up really early, but felt refreshed after a good nights sleep. Looking out of the window, it looked as awful as yesterday and I had no idea if I would be leaving or not.

Apparently it might not have been a wet runway that cancelled yesterday’s flight; it might have been the fact that there weren’t many people booked on the flight! As I was having breakfast, the cloud/mist/rain was getting worse by the minute. At 9am I was told that everything was OK today and the flight would be going ahead. I was relieved but surprised, as the conditions looked worse than yesterday to me. Anyway, after settling my bill, Jeppe took me down to the helipad.

There were only 3 of us in the helicopter to Kulusuk, and not much luggage; so I sat at the front this time and had a great view. Even though it was raining, the ten-minute flight was still spectacular and I loved every minute if it. When I arrived at Kulusuk, the sun was shining; the scenery was amazing and I could see huge icebergs floating down the fjord, by the airport. I had been told that it was worth trying to get into town, and as I had over 3 hours to spare, I tried to get a taxi – but there were no other vehicles about at all.

The walk into town wasn't too far, 15 minutes to the hotel and another 15 minutes to town, so off I set. It was unbelievable walking along the road, there was only enough room for one vehicle; and the snow was piled so high at both sides of the road. Anyway, true to time, I arrived at the hotel and asked if anyone was able to drive me into the town - no chance! They said that the only way was to walk - I thought they were just being miserable because Jeppe had told me that they would happily take me to town.

They said no vehicles could go down the road and that it would only take me 15 minutes to walk it. So I headed off down the hill. Oh my, they weren't kidding. The road would have been totally impassable by any vehicle; it had nearly been washed away by the floodwater that was still gushing down off the surrounding hills. The base of the snow wall at the edge of the road was being eroded away and every few metres, the side of the road had caved in - making underground waterfalls.

As for the middle of the road, it was just a torrent of water gushing down the entire width of the road. How could today’s conditions be better than yesterdays? I walked for 15 minutes, and the banks of snow either side of the road were even higher, they must have been almost 20 feet high. I was starting to feel closed-in by the height of them, and scared that they might crash down and I would be crushed under them. No one would know I was there! So, as I still couldn't see the town, I decided to call it a day, and turn around. 

Once the high banks of snow became smaller banks of snow, the view of the ice floating in the fjords was lovely - it gave off a delightful turquoise tinge. The hills to the other side of the road were more intimidating though. I suddenly had an awful thought that there could be a polar bear out there - I had forgotten that just last week a polar bear was spotted right here. What was I doing! Trying to get myself eaten or crushed under snow.

I hurried back to the airport as quickly as I could and kept thinking of what to do if I came across a polar bear, but I couldn't remember anything. I was so glad to get back to the little airport where I had a coffee and read a magazine, and saw an interesting article with a photo of a polar bear footprint - that was identical to the paw print I saw in the valley of the flowers. Oh my, that really was a polar bear. After a while, Maggie, Irene and the French couple arrived, they had enjoyed their stay in Kulusuk and managed to go on a dog sleigh ride.
Then they showed me a photograph of a polar bear, next to the helicopter, right here at this airport last week.

I suddenly felt glad to be leaving here in one piece! It had been the most incredible few days. I was hoping to see the place in the sunshine, which I had; it had been a great bunch of people and made me remember why I like to travel. As it says at Iceland's airport "It isn't all about the destination - it is about the journey". And on this one, I felt privileged to have had both. I had met the loveliest people, seen the most amazing things and had experiences to cherish forever. We were relieved when they announced that we could board the plane, yes, we were really going.

I had been watching the vehicles outside trying to flatten the runway and move the muddy puddles about, although we still had to walk through them to reach the plane. When we got on the plane, we saw that there were only 15 passengers, when there was room for 50, so it was likely that yesterday’s flight was cancelled due to there not being enough people on it, rather than the weather. The stewardess came down and told us that we were waiting for 6 more passengers; they were walking with their cases from the town, in all that rain and mud! When they eventually arrived, we managed to take off and I was so relieved.

We all said our goodbyes at the airport, and Geoffrey shared a taxi with me into the city. I checked into my hotel, had a quick walk, got everything ready for the morning and went to bed. I was only at this hotel for 9 hours; I had to be up before 4am the next morning for my flight home. Everything on this trip had been fabulously organised. It really had been a wonderful trip, far better that I was expecting, and had left me with such wonderful memories and of course - amazing photos!

Try Greenland – it’s amazing!

Here's a few more ice photographs..................................

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