Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer

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Weird and Wonderful Greenland

It has long fascinated me how people live in environs of such an inhospitable nature such as Greenland, year after year overcoming its extreme arctic winters and acute isolation. I was here for that reason and a general curiosity to see the world's largest island, 80% of which is permanently covered by a sheet of ice so massive, that if it melted, it would raise global sea levels by 6 metres.

 

Although Greenland's size would shatter that of most other countries based on its share land area, its population is quite the contrary, with only a minuscule 56,000 inhabitants making it their home. Around 80% of the locals are Inuit (the politically correct term for an Eskimo, although they don't, and never have, lived in igloos) with the remainder being Danish – due to the fact that Denmark had sovereignty over Greenland until 1979. The kingdom has kept close ties with the big icy island, providing a large portion of the skilled workforce to Greenland and a great deal of financial assistance.

 

The majority of Greenland's 56,000 locals reside on the West Coast, with only 3,500 living in the eastern half of Greenland, 3,000 whom live in the Ammassalik area spread amongst 6 coastal villages. It was Kulusuk, one of the 6 villages, where the small Air Iceland passenger jet that I was travelling in, ended its journey from Reykjavik, less than two hours away.

 

With the sun glistening on my face, having negotiated the steps of the small aircraft down to the firm-packed gravel runway underfoot, I caught my first glimpse of the great island to the north, surrounded by dramatic mountain ranges rising abruptly from the glassy fjords below. Dotting the fjords like a flock of sheep on a hillside, drifted majestic palatial icebergs. The awe-inspiring surroundings were further enhanced by the incredibly clean air, accounting for the perfect definitions of the surrounding vista.

 

The airport was built in 1958 to service a now abandoned US radar station. Upon entering the modern terminal, one is greeted with the bold décor of seal skin-covered waiting chairs and 2 hanging polar bear hides, apparently shot on the runway in early '94. A scenic 2km walk from the airstrip is the picturesque village of Kulusuk, population 350. Small character wooden homes, imported as kit-sets from Denmark, painted vivid shades of blue, green, red and yellow randomly dot the tundra coated rocky hillside with the impressive backdrop of the expanse mentioned earlier.

 

The sun was beating down on the dirt roads of the township, the locals were out in numbers, with the elders sitting around bathing in the sunshine and their smiling youth entertaining themselves with worn soccer balls, hoola-hoops and home-made wooden toys on strings (50% of the town's population is under 16 due to low life expectancy rates and the odd accident caused from alcohol and firearm combinations). Although the setting was rather warming, it was tarnished slightly by a quarrel amongst a couple of men and a woman, clearly intoxicated before the noon hour.

 

I was to visit the general store to acquire some groceries for the day ahead and was most intrigued by the contents of the shop. Although in the winter supplies can get very limited, the store's shelves were plentiful. Apart from seal, whale and polar bear meat, all other food is imported from Denmark, meaning almost everything is pickled, tinned or frozen, however I was surprised to see a stack of fruit which entailed kiwifruit all the way from New Zealand. What caught my eye was the rack of rifles, in a convenient isle-end location, between the toilet rolls and jars of preserved mushrooms. Guns are widespread in the hunting-based community to kill seals for their skin and meat and as a defence against polar bears that are common in the area in the darker months of winter.

 

After the grocery store, I joined the small party of day-trippers from Iceland in an Air Iceland tour which caught the main sights in the town ranging from a church built by stranded Danish sailors with the wood from their shipwreck in the 1920s, and an eerie cemetery. The rows of white wooden crosses in the graveyard were decorated with brightly coloured plastic flowers, a fitting substitute to the real things due to the unavailability of the fresh variety. It doesn't pay to die in Greenland until the summertime, passing away before then will mean you'll have to wait until the warm season to be buried when the ground isn't too frozen to dig a grave.

 

A grassy verge with an impressive outlook over the bay and mountains set the scene for a qajaq demonstration, a traditional drum-dance-sing in authentic costume - an interesting and entertaining performance. While the West Coast was colonised by Christian missionaries many hundreds of years ago and traditions such as qajaq died out as the Christians believed them to be evil, the east remained untouched by the Europeans until 1884 so a lot of the traditions remain. Although qajaq is not as common as it once was, there were nine young girls in Kulusuk alone who were learning the art.

 

Following the dance was a rather half-hearted demonstration from a harpoon-wielding local in a traditional sealskin kayak. The kayak is of significance to Greenland, being the brainchild of resourceful locals and one of two Greenlandic words used in everyday English (I missed the other). Kayaks are not commonly used in this day and age due to the widespread adoption of the much more efficient outboard dinghies for transport, hunting and fishing.

 

It was a convoy of these dinghies that took myself and a small party of American, English and Japanese day-trippers for a closer look at the mammoth icebergs in the bay beyond Kulusuk. The pristine white ice sculptures dwarfed our vessel, some bigger than carpark buildings (that is the 10% I could see, not including the 90% under the water) although much less geometrical. As luck would have it, one of the guides spotted the spray in the distance that resembled that of a whale, and the whale chase was on.

 

After a few minutes of full-throttle, we were greeted by the glistening ebony backs of two enormous fin whales. After an impressive display from the massive mammals and some photos that will look like black blobs when developed, we ventured back to the shore for a couple of Tuborg lagers (not surprisingly, only Danish beers are available in Greenland) in the Kulusuk hotel.

 

I had carted my tent all the way with me so was determined to see out the night hours between its bright orange nylon walls. I found myself a spot that was well located to capture the breathtaking panorama of mountains and fjords and before too long was snug as a bug in my sleeping back deep in a state of slumber.

 

It is uncommon for polar bears to venture as far south as Kulusuk in August. Although I was fairly ignorant about the necessary precautions to take for the breed of beers (the locals told me later it is a shot gun), I didn't want to take any risks and left my food outside, away from the tent. It was the well into the night when I was woken by a sound of rustling around in my bag of goodies. I unzipped the door to see what was going on to find a cheeky little white arctic fox with his snout in food bag. Although I knew most things in there were tinned, I still had some sandwich meat and a half-eaten loaf of bread that was on the cards for breakfast, so I wasn't going to let them go without a fight.

 

Up from my sleeping bag like a man with fleas I jumped, and in sleeping costume chased the dog-like character yelling obscenities that even the local humans couldn't have understood, but he got the idea and darted of into the shadows. Upon investigation, I discovered my cute canine friend hadn't broken through the double layer of bagging that I had stored the rations in. Happy with my courageous effort of deterring the animal, I fell back into a blissful sleep dreaming about bread for breakfast.

 

I was awoken again sometime later by the familiar sound of rustling, and decided the effort required to keep the tenacious fox away from my breakfast was not worth it, and left him to it. 


Kulusuk people and east Greenland's only airport

Traditional costume, dance and qajaq in Kulusuk, East Greenland

Spectacular Fjords in Kulusuk, East Greenland

With a new day dawning, I set out to conquer the monstrous rugged peak of Mount Galorujoorneq, the highest and most striking mountain on the island. I hiked high up the rocky tundra covered mountainside, blooming in earthy greens, browns and oranges. There was an eerie silence surrounding me, only occasionally disturbed by the trickle of a mountain stream the enchanting call of the raven, poetically gliding high above the stark peaks, and the sporadic thundering crash of portions of ice breaking off the icebergs echoing through the fjords.

 

The panoramic view from the summit, coupled with the profound silence, was one of the most impressive sights I have seen. Spanning from the glassy fjords and rigid mountain ranges out to the open sea, dotted with the colossal icebergs reaching to the horizon.

 

Having developed quite an appetite, I thought I would spoil myself and take a detour to the relatively stylish Kulusuk Hotel on my way back to the tent to sample their buffet spread ranging from caviar to pickled pears. As the sitting was close to finishing when I arrived, I loaded my plate, making sure not to miss out on any of the cuisine.

 

I normally love my food and can eat almost anything put in front of me with great pleasure, but the rotten-fish stench and repulsive taste of the vast range of seafood varieties had me dry reaching and left me with foul aftertaste that I'm sure will haunt me for the years to follow.

 

Upon investigation as to the source of the 'gourmet delights', I was told that all of the food, even the seafood (which I found ironic) was imported from Denmark.

 

Hiking in GreenlandAfter an interesting few days, I thought it was time to move on to see a bit more of the Ammassalik area. The lack of suitable surfaces on which to build roads, the huge distance between towns and the tiny population means there are no roads linking the settlements in Greenland. The only way to get around is by boat (in the summer when the seas are not frozen over) and air – either helicopter or aeroplane. I took the helicopter option, and was fortunate to be only passenger on the 10-minute ride to Tassilaq, sitting up the front and hearing all about life in Greenland from an expatriate's point of view (mostly stories of loving) from Thomas, the blonde mulleted Swedish pilot.Tassilaq is the metropolis of Ammassalik, bustling with a 1,500-strong population, making it the largest settlement in the eastern half of Greenland. Its surroundings are even more spectacular than that of Kulusuk, built on steep hillsides etched between a sheltered harbour and striking mountains.

 

The first thing I noticed after stepping out onto the helicopter pad was that the roads around the town are paved with asphalt, unlike the dirt streets that made up the infrastructure of Kulusuk. The larger population also meant it could support its own taxi service (which was always full, taking fares that couldn't have been more than a kilometre), a bakery producing fresh Danish Pastries, a small department store, museum and building used as a fish market when catches were bought in.

 

I was told that 70% of the population in the area was unemployed and dependent on the Danish Government for their incomes. It meant that the colourful town was quite a lively place, with most of the locals walking up and down the steep streets, congregating at the Post Office chatting amongst one another.

 

Of the 16,000 tourists that Greenland attracts annually, the majority just visit the more developed west coast. For the tourists that come to the east coast, more often than not, they will be on day trips to Kulusuk for a 4-hour look at the town, a few icebergs and a qajaq demonstration. So Tassilaq didn't get too many visitors coming through, I did not see another person whose first language was English in the 5 days I was there.

 

The vast majority of the locals have never travelled, not even within their own country as it is so expensive. Internal flights cost US$1,000 and upwards, with overseas flights almost as expensive.

 

The lack of tourists passing through and lack of travelling from the Greenlanders further enhances the isolation from the outside world, and although they have televisions, a lot of them do not speak fluent Danish, which is broadcast through the local station. Although they do not get too many foreigners coming through, it is not in their nature to make a deal about the 'weird-looking', tall outsiders. Every now and then you will get a nod on the street, but that is the extent of it, with the exception of Klubben, the local night-club.

 

I was dressed in my disco gear down at Klubben on a Friday night, which coincided with the local pay-day, making it an even bigger event. While most of the drunken locals were having a great time dancing, chatting and playing weird games in the snooker room, there were a few girls who took a liking to the exotic patron. On a few occasions I would feel a warm hand stroking my bare forearm, and each time I turned around, I would see a different local girl looking to expand the currently limited gene pool. As all but a handful of the locals cannot speak English, the young women wouldn't be able to communicate verbally with me, and would just be standing there with a drunken sway and a seductive smile on their lips.

 

As the accommodation in Tassilaq was suitable and reasonably priced, I spent my nights at The Red House, small lodgings providing both sleeping bag and hotel-like rooms. The quarters were owned by an Italian, Rob who has lived in Greenland for 20 years and is a guide, leading expeditions into the glaciers and also takes top managers from companies such as IBM and Compaq on week-long trips floating on an icebergs, not knowing where they'll end up. Although Rob was away on a Glacier somewhere, his operation still ran smoothly delivering delicious 3-course meals each night.

 

While there were some Europeans working in The Red House, Rob provides jobs to a lot of the locals, improving their skill sets and ensuring they are more prepared for tourist growth. As part of the programme, day trips were provided ranging from glacier hiking, to boat trips, to seal hunting, also employing locals as guides and to drive the boats.

 

The largest settlement in Eastern Greenland, Tassilaq, with spectacular surroundings of fjords and majestic mountains
Tassilaq in Ammassalik, East Greenland, with a helicopter, one of few modes of transport
Sled dogs in Tassilaq in the Ammassalik area of East Greenland
A Tassilaq local's cottage overlooking one of many spectacular fjords in Greenland
Homes in Tassilaq, Eastern Greenland

 

I took a day out to join the other guests staying in The Red House to go on a day trip deep into the fjords, past a lot of gorgeous icebergs to a couple of glaciers past a few more whales. The others on the trip were an interesting bunch made up of Italians, a German and a Swiss guy. They were all well travelled and far from your beach package-holiday tourist-type.Tobias, one of the guides on our day-trip in the fjords had up until 20 years ago lived like a lot Greenlanders had, in a stone house for the winter. I saw one of these houses and could not believe it.

 

Greenlanders are nomadic by nature and used to travel from one spot to the next in search of good hunting grounds. When they found a suitable spot with sufficient hunting, they would either build a stone house or use someone else's from an earlier season for the winter.

 

The houses wouldn't have been larger than 10m x 5m and would be entered from a small doorway built lower than the rest of the house as not to let out the heat. Spanning the back wall of the house would be a long ledge about 2m in width, divided every couple of metres by seal skin, hung from the ceiling, acting as walls. Each of these 2mx2m booths would house a family on average of 5 kids and mum and dad. Up to 35 people would be in the small houses with their sled dogs for the 8 dark and cold months of winter, with only the men leaving to hunt for more food.

 

Although there was a pot in the house that we visited that looked like it would cook the meat, it was heated by one mere flame from a candle made from seal fat. The flame was only warm enough to keep the meat from freezing, and that was as warm as they ate it – note the term Eskimo, which means 'raw meat eater'.

 

The Greenlanders now live in their kit-set wooden houses, but the cultural change required from living in the same house for no more than a season to a permanent dwelling is still occurring, with a lesser sense of ownership and pride in their homes than their Western counter parts.

 

A classic example of a lack of individual ownership is the fact that thoroughfares pass through individual properties and are used by everyone walking as a more direct route than the roads. Houses have red lights on the side of them. I was fascinated to learn that these red lights are not related to prostitution, but rather the septic tank. As the poo pipes would freeze in the winter, they have storage tanks instead. When the red lights are shining brightly, it means the tank is full, and is ready to be emptied, but also, "if you're passing by and need to go to the toilet, use the neighbours because ours is full".

There was a great sense of a community amongst the locals – what's mine is yours, which probably spans back to having to pull all of the community together in order to survive in the winter.

 

On my last day I went for a short hike, picked up a Greenlandic mask that I had commissioned a local artist to make for me and went for a boat trip to the other side of the harbour with Tobias and Phillipo, an Italian guy also staying in The Red House. The boat trip was to pick up some of Tobias's sled dogs and bring them back. Although there are a lot of dogs tied up in the villages, a lot are put somewhere outside the town for the summer as they are not being used, and fed very little in order to stay in shape for a long winter of pulling.

 

My last dusk was the most spectacular of the entire trip and will leave me with lasting memories. Dusk is a nice time of the day wherever one may be, but few twilights I have witnessed can even start to compare to those in Greenland. The crisp clear night air coupled with the silhouettes of the jagged peaks, the silver glow cast upon the fjords and the unmistakable silence that captivates all who witness it. A fairly tame display of Northern Lights generally follows, which I am told in the wintertime becomes even more spectacular and lights up the snow all around.

 

The flight out from Kulusuk couldn't have been a more appropriate way to end the trip as the Icelandic pilot flew the plane at 500 feet for a few minutes so we could get a better view of the icebergs as we headed east out to sea. Over the intercom, the words "we have a big one on our right" boomed in an excited tone, and although I was sitting on the left-hand side of the plane, I could see the top of the berg that seemed to be at the same height as our plane.

Mammoth icebergs floating in cold glassy fjords in Eastern Greenland

Equipped for the cold amongst the icey conditions of beautiful Greenland

Intriguing shapes and designs that make no two icebergs the same in Greenland

 

 

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