Monday, August 01, 2011

Greenland, Magan's World - Irish Times, Aug 2009

Sat 08 Aug 2009Thawing to tourism

MAGAN'S WORLD:THE MAN climbing the cliff was carrying a sack of seabirds. A clear plastic bin liner stuffed with the mis-shapen carcasses of large gulls and gannets, their feathers awry, leaden eyes pressed against the plastic and beaks poking through.

The sight had a sordid beauty – the egg-blue Arctic sky running into the even paler-blue waters of Baffin Bay bathed everything in the light of a Northern Renaissance still life.

Less than forty metres away was a prefabricated timber building selling the full array of brushed aluminium and lacquered Bang & Olufsen gear. I was in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, and considering the town lacked a proper youth club or low-cost supermarket, the presence of so much extortionately-priced Danish electronics was a surprise. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark and its 88% Inuit subjects are finding it hard to adapt to modern life - 20% of 15 to 17 year-old girls on the island attempt suicide at least once. Alcoholism is high, educational levels are low, and the collapse of fishing has increased unemployment. Thus, the idea that space-age headphones was something these people might need had an element of ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ about it. They made the local sod-roofed houses and driftwood dog-sleds look all the more primitive; as though reinforcing the idea that the Inuit might not be quite ready to govern themselves - the equivalent of the Eno tablets that British colonialists use to drop into water to bamboozle African tribes.

Tourism is Greenland’s new hope. Although the country is ferociously expensive it offers sights and experiences that will brand themselves into you forever. From the moment you land in Kangerlussuaq airport, just north of the arctic circle it becomes clear this is an entirely new realm of experience. The airport itself looks like a prefabricated, arctic research station and is set in a vast stony wilderness at the head of a fjord. Since there are no national roadways one needs to either take a boat or plane from the airport to anywhere else.

Alternatively one could just stay at the airport: the button-nosed, soapstone-skinned girls in the tourist office can organise dog-sledding, caribou hunting and kayaking in the area, as well as musk-ox safaris and trips to camp and stunt drive on the arctic ice sheet. One can even shop for most of the local crafts at the airport; they have a good range of seal-skin clothing, caribou antler and walrus ivory carvings. But, considering you’ve paid over €750 for your flight from Dublin via Copenhagen or Reykjavik you might as well blow the budget and head out into the rest of the country.

One economical and memorable way is to hike from the airport to the glorious town of Sisimiut on the coast, which has many original 18th and 19th century prefabricated timber buildings and a huge whale-jawbone arch as an entryway into the old town. The 150km trek from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut takes about 10 days across the tundra, along rivers, around lakes and through marshes, sleeping in huts along the way. The route is relatively easy and well signposted, although keep in mind that compasses deviate close to the North Pole and the rate of deviation changes every few years. The walk is only possible in summer, but for the rest of the year you can do it by dogsled or snowmobile, and springtime opens up the possibility of some serious cross-country skiing, including a renowned 160km route where you camp out for 2 nights and your bags are carried by dogsled.

If you’re lucky there might be some icebergs floating off Sisimiut, but if not, it’s worth taking a passenger ship north to Ilulissat because icebergs are the real wonder of this area – looming ice ghosts, cantankerous creeking solidified clouds. You owe yourself a look at them.