Where Viking Meets Eskimo

Icebergs are collapsing, humpback whales are playing and there's fresh crab for lunch in Greenland. Did we mention the Northern Lights?
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Icebergs are collapsing, humpback whales are playing and there's fresh crab for lunch in Greenland. Did we mention the Northern Lights?

On a Freezing hilltop in the town of Sisimiut, where an unforgiving wind lays 40 lashes across the backs of all who challenge it, lies a grave. It is the pre-Christian burial site of an Inuit, a pile of rocks left there so that his soul can watch over the sea for all eternity. Peering inside it you can still see the bones, breathe in the deathly air of great history and tradition. It’s easy to get lost here, this beautiful vast expanse of a landscape – shape-shifting icebergs floating by on the mirror of a vivid blue sea; lost not just in the terrain but in the mysteries and legacies of a brilliant civilisation. The view is dizzying, overpowering even.

And then I trek back towards the settlement. The graffiti on the bus stop 100 yards from the Inuit’s final resting place reads ‘punk’s not dead’. And you realise that time is catching up with Greenland, not only in terms of the obvious, global warming, but because its magnificence is not just in its past but in its present. In this place, more than in any other, the two sit awkwardly, eccentrically, yet wonderfully side by side. No better example of this comes as I arrive in Kangerlussuaq and begin donning the extra layers needed to facilitate a walk on the ice cap if you wish to return alive.

There is only one road out to these huge ice plains which for millennia have straddled the shivering pate of planet earth. Volkswagen built it seven years ago so that it could test its new cars there.

It’s as white and as endless as the sky (it’s always winter here), as mesmerising as it is inhospitable to human life.

Kangerlussuaq is home to Greenland’s biggest airport, an abandoned former US army base set up during the Second World War as a strategic point for transatlantic flying missions. The Americans were not the first to arrive and leave an indelible mark on the Greenlandic people. In AD 984 the Norsemen arrived from the south, meeting the migrating Eskimos from the Arctic north, and settling and trading with them on the country’s west coast.

This combination of Viking strength and snow-blasted Eskimo resolve sheds light on how the people here have survived in such a harsh terrain. As stunning as it is – sweeping chasms of impenetrable rock fight white-peaked mountains for dominance of the scenery – this land is a hard one. Eighty per cent of Greenland is the ice cap, melting so quickly that each day it loses the amount of water New York uses in an entire year. It’s as white and as endless as the sky (it’s always winter here), as mesmerising as it is inhospitable to human life. It is the two stiff fingers of nature saying ‘leave me alone, go back to the towns’.

Back down the Volkswagen track I notice another wilderness. Huge signs saying ‘forbidden’ fence off an equally huge area of plush green hillside. ‘Why can nobody live there?’ I ask my guide. ‘Because…’ she responds, ‘when the Americans left in 1992, they buried all their unused bombs there. Trouble is, no one knows exactly where.’

Greenland’s population is a little more than 50,000, its bigger settlements containing no more than 6,000 residents, its smallest just two. It is a staggeringly huge territory with communities widely spaced out. If the same population density were applied to somewhere the size of Copenhagen, there would only be three people in the entire city.

Back in Sisimiut, I head into the darkness, aware that each step I take may well be the first that’s ever been taken there. I watch the mesmerising green-and-purple disco of the Northern Lights make scars across the black night to the soundtrack of a hundred Greenlandic dogs howling in a spreading Mexican wave of ghostly noise. The cold and the wind and all sense of anything but the moment subside, and for the briefest of times you know that though you may be the first and only person here right now, you wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.

With its small brightly coloured houses, winding roads, friendly dogs and bobbing boats in its harbour, Sisimiut couldn’t be more scenic. The morning is crisp as I walk around it and every direction you look in is a dazzling postcard. It is, however, the quirkiness of modern Greenlandic life that makes it that extra bit special. In the local shrimp factory, for instance, I watch three grizzled, hard-living men smash the heads of live, fidgeting, freshly caught crabs against messy metal spikes, wrenching off their legs and harvesting the best cuts of meat… in time to the hi-NRG dance anthem blasting out of the radio.

Then the guide explains the prison system to me. There isn’t much crime, he says, due to the absence of property – much of the territory is common land. On the rare occasions people are convicted of crimes, the punishment meted out is likewise enlightened. If people are found guilty of murder, for instance, they will still be let out of prison between 7am and 8pm so that they can go to work and keep themselves integrated into the community. It’s a system and way of life that really wouldn’t work anywhere else. But here, in this bizarre haven, it does.

We turn off the engine of our small vessel and float by silently, a mark of respect for an unrivalled spectacle.

It is in the third and final settlement that I visit, the coastal town of Illulissat, where vast icebergs sail like huge white cruise ships about the ocean, dwarfing the towns they pass, constantly changing in shape and mass, turning over, collapsing and disappearing forever. Some are smooth and rounded above the water like enormous muffins, others angular and severe like ice palaces. All of them are things of majesty, daunting in their scale but truly and magnificently alien. It’s from this very fjord that the iceberg that ended the voyage of the Titanic appeared, and to see them up close is to imagine how devastating that collision must have been, rendering that boat on that sea as fragile and as helpless as a bubble in a bathtub.

We turn off the engine of our small vessel and float by silently, a mark of respect for an unrivalled spectacle. And just as we get taken by the quiet and the awe, it happens. A sound like a gunshot pricks the air, followed by an immensely loud, primal roar that fills our ears with a terrifying closeness. The sound of a distant iceberg collapsing, like thunder from the floor, a million Hollywood special effects or the grumble of an angry god.

Suddenly, from the the sea all around us rise two humpback whales, just 20ft away, frolicking, diving and resurfacing, blowing high pressure jets of power and peace into the air. And I’m all too aware that there is no scheme right now. No, none of that really matters. There is just me and world. There is just pure experience and the ceaseless passing of time.

For more from David Whitehouse click here.

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