I am writing these words in the library in the rear (aft) section of the MV Ocean Nova at the end of 9 days exploring the Scoresby Sund fjord system of Eastern Greenland on a small Expedition cruise with 57 other passengers from around the world and including Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Swiss and some Brits like myself.
The 15 person Expedition crew has included scientists and researchers specialising in all manner of relevant subjects including Biologists with specialist expertise in Marine and Arctic Wild Life, an Ornithologist, a Geologist, a Polar Historian and every day has included a landing where a variety of walks are offered.
Most afternoons there has been the opportunity to go cruising in inflatable Zodiacs amongst the icebergs, watching giant glaciers calving and looking for wild life.
Sharron and I had never been to the Polar areas until we made a late decision to visit the Antarctic to celebrate the sale of our company five years ago. I now consider Antarctica to be both the most interesting and spectacular destination in the world – period!
And indeed it inspired me to write the first article on this website and ever since then I have unflinchingly advised everyone I know that whether it is by begging. borrowing or stealing they should find a way to finance a visit to Antarctica!
We have found the Polar areas so interesting we have subsequently returned on three further occasions in the past four and a half years. Firstly to Arctic Svalbard (Spitzbergen) and then a return visit to Antarctica but this time via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and now to Greenland.
We are now anchored facing the East Greenlandic town of Ittoqqortoormiit delaying our return voyage to Iceland until the forecast better weather in the Straits of Denmark arrives this evening.
With three meals a day, two excursions daily plus a full lecture program there is not a great amount of time for relaxation (!) but I did pass on one walk and a couple of Zodiac excursions when it was particularly cold and windy to set up home at one of the desks in the Ship’s library and complete some articles on the Philippines, Iceland and Canada.
Several passengers asked me if I was going to write an article on Greenland and I have said that it was not my intention to do so because pretty much every day has been the same as the one before – fantastic scenery, magnificent glaciers, enjoyable walk and spectacular views and an interesting cruise amidst the icebergs.
I found all of the above to be both interesting and enjoyable and I would unreservedly and enthusiastically recommend a visit to Greenland to anyone but the recipe above does not stimulate me to write nor necessarily does it make for interesting reading if just describing succession of similar days.
And then today we made a visit to our first settlement in Greenland since landing on a Charter flight at Constable Point 9 days ago.
I will never be able to pronounce Ittoqqortoormiit but as I write I am gazing at a collection of colourful rectangular houses on a bleak rocky bay curving around to a spit with snow covered mountains as a back cloth.
And Ittoqqortoormiit is the second largest settlement in East Greenland, a town with a population of 381 and one of the most isolated settlements in the world as the nearest town of Tassilaq is 525 miles away. The country of Iceland is closer and it will take us about 36 hours to sail the 300 miles across the David Strait!
Greenland is in many ways an anomaly – buy almost any map and you will find the coastal areas surveyed and mapped but the interior is truly and quite literally’ the last blank space on the map’ as the Greenland Ice Cap is constantly changing and inaccessible except by air. It covers 77% of Greenland and holds 10% of the worlds water. If it was to melt the world’s oceans would rise by 7 metres (23 feet)!
And probably for the traveller who has been everywhere there is always Greenland! I managed to get to 100 other countries and territories before I arrived here!
Greenland is the least densely populated territory in the world and has the world’s most northerly land. It has been self governing since 1979.
Greenland has a total population of around 56,500 of which 17,300 are in the world’s smallest capital city of Nuuk. However the population is spread over an area of 2.1 million square kilometres (or 836,000 square miles) – or shall we say three times bigger than France (population 66 million!)
Whilst Greenland has been self governing since 1979 it falls under Danish sovereignty in that the king and Queen of Denmark are the Heads of State, Denmark is responsible for foreign affairs and Greenland is economically dependent on Denmark from which it receives an annual subsidy of some 3.5 billion kroner. (US$523m or £424m – not a lot for an entire country but $9256 or £7,504 per person!)
A 15 -20 minute helicopter ride to Constable Point Air field is a not unreasonable $120 or alternatively 2 hours by snowmobile or 6 – 8 hours by dog sled.
And then the fun begins – it is another $2400 for a return flight across the Greenland to the capital of Nuuk. So I guess not too many come and go!
And apparently about 20 ‘cruise’ ships such as ours visit Ittoqqortoormiit each year.
So on our last day in Greenland we were finally going to meet some local inhabitants to complement the Musk Ox, Glaciers and Northern Lights that we have enjoyed to date.
We were advised not to give the schoolchildren any money as the teachers want them to learn to work for payment not get handouts from tourists, not to touch the Huskies without permission because in Greenland if a dog bites you it is an automatic death sentence for the errant dog and finally not to buy out the local store/supermarket with any non essentials that we can buy in Iceland in a few days as the store is for the locals and the supply ship only comes twice a year.
And with that we were into our rain boots and wet gear, life vest, taken to the rocky beach for a wet landing amidst the gentle swells, given a map of the town’s main attractions, a set of accompanying notes and three hours to explore – with poptential highlights being the church, the tourist office, the store, the school, the museum and the weather station.
Would that keep me occupied for three hours?
It turned out I could have spent most of the afternoon there as well as there was plenty to keep me interested.
After landing on the grey rocky beach and jettisoning my life vest I walked past a sign ‘Ittoqqortoormini digiduaritsi Welcome to Ittoqqortoormiit’ and up a steep gravel and stony track towards the centre of the settlement and my initial thought was there was hardly anyone to be seen – it was like a ghost town.
However within a couple of hundred metres I had reached the centre of downtown where the Post Office/Tourist Office faced the quaint church looking out to sea.
One of my initial thoughts was that Ittoqqortoormiit had a lot of street lights despite its small population and an asence of paved roads. I was at aloss to understand why as our small village in the UK has the grand total of zero streetlights for the inhabitants.
It was only after I had departed that I realised the explanation was obvious – there were two months of total darkness each winter and very few hours of daylight during the other winter months.
I decided to head on through this settlement and come back to the centre later. The houses were all brightly coloured with terracotta the clearly preferred colour of choice with the occasional blue, green or yellow dwelling and all reminded me of the ‘Houses’ used in the game of Monopoly – it was as if someone had dropped a couple of hundred monopoly pieces over the hillside!
I was surprised that all the houses appeared to be built of (imported) wood rather than using the surfeit of local stone and rock that was everywhere but I guess the preassembled (?) structures are easier to erect?
I was surprised to see a few 4 wheel drive vehicles around because with no roads anywhere they could only be used around the town which stretched perhaps half a mile between the hospital/health post and the weather station.
By now I was seeing a few people, probably making their way to or from the store, and without exception they either smiled or said hello as they walked past.
Other than the 4wd vehicles the preferred mode of transport seemed to be the Quad Bike and I probably saw or passed six zipping around as I climbed up a steep track or ‘road’ towards the school, easy to locate because the sound of children playing is a universal one.
I passed some huskies scavenging around a pelt and whilst I saw a lot of Husky type dogs as I wandered around they were certainly not aggressive.
The school seemed quite extensive for a community of some 381 people and I made a note congratulating the teachers who worked so conscientiously in such a hostile and challenging community. We are only in September and the wind was cold, with a population of just 380 we were still in the second biggest settlement on the East Greenland coast (after Tasilaq) which stretches a distance of over 1000 miles and as we are north of the Arctic Circle the town is in complete darkness for two months of the year.
So indeed, I hoped the teachers got a lot of satisfaction from providing such a valuable service to both the community and the youth of Ittoqqortoormiit.
One of the Expedition Guides on our boat is a very young German Lauritz, just 21 but whose knowledge and experience of Greenland belies his age and who first came to Greenland 6 years ago as a 15 year old exchange student. Since then he has managed to find his way back every year combining several months here each year with his university Geology and Earth Studies in Germany. And he has learnt both West and East Greenlandic!
When Lauritz told me that he had worked at the school as a teacher for four and a half months and was paid $80 an hour I thought I would apply myself!
As I had gained some elevation I took some pictures around the school and of the town below, trying whenever possible to exclude the ‘Yellow hooded Homo Touristica’ – my fellow shipmates all clad in identical waterproof Yellow insulated waterproof Parka jackets provided by our Operator!
After a brief exchange with some students who were taking advantage of the break between lessons to ride around the steep and stony tracks on their bikes (some effort required) I continued on my way towards the town cemetery.
My theory was that cemeteries are always interesting places to visit and often reveal something about the soul (quite literally!) of a community.
The cemetery was quite easy to locate as it was located on a bluff above the town and was easy to identify because of the lines of white crosses.
When I arrived and wandered around amongst the graves I was struck by several thoughts.
It was a fine position to be providing as a final resting place for the departed and I was impressed that even in such a rough and challenging environment the community made a commendable effort to honour the departed.
Every grave was marked with a simple wooden cross and strangely I only saw one with a name plate! With an abundance of rock and stones and no natural soil each gravesite was demarcated by small boulders and rocks although the more recent plots were formed by a wooden frame in the ground and some of the framed gravesites were full of plastic flowers.
The environment allows no more and it its own way it was as moving and more impressive as the grand and ornate cemeteries found in many European and North American towns and cities.
And as I looked up I realised this was a two tier cemetery with another level of graves at a higher level and surely that was not a gravedigger that I could see silhouetted against the sky?
For sure that is what it looked like and as I made my way up I was passed by a JCB who it appaeared was transporting depositing new soil at the edge of the upper cemetery where new gravesites were indeed being prepared.
As far as I could see the soil was being dumped and then flattened and then plots were dug out and framed so they would be ready for any internments over the winter months. Presumably the coffins (made locally or imported?) would then be lowered into the plot and as the plot would be filled with surplus soil (if not frozen) and/or rocks and stones.
A close examination showed there was far more soil in the vicinity of both the cemetery areas than I had initially surmised and that this had been brought here by JCBs to facilitate the grave digging.
I must have spent the best part of 40 minutes wandering around these two cemeteries, taking pictures of the graves and surrounding area. And this told me a lot about the community of Ittoqqortoormiit and in particular that it was well organised and proactive as indeed one must be to survive in such a hostile clime.
Indeed, just something as straightforward as interring the departed is not without challenges in an area characterised by frozen winters, darkness and a rocky terrain or at best frozen tundra.
And as I looked down over a rocky and below the cemeteries, desolate except for a few huts I could not believe what I saw – a gleaming new looking green all weather football field! It was as surprising to see as a 7/11 would be in the middle of the Sahara Desert!
I later learnt that after FIFA had provided the capital Nook with an all weather field and this had encouraged the local community in Ittoqqortoormiit to raise the funding to install their own.
This raises an interesting question.
Who do you go to in Arctic Greenland if you want an all weather football field installed – I assume it both the playing surface and installation team came from Denmark or perhaps more likely Iceland.
When I asked who uses it I was told the school but when the nearest school is 500 miles away I don’t know how many competitive games get played! But nevertheless what a great resource for the youngsters and community and I cannot imagine there are many communities of 381 in the world who have their own all weather playing field.
And whilst I was gazing in wonder at the soccer pitch with gleaming goals and netting which was in truth just about the last thing I expected to see in Ittoqqortoormiit a helicopter approached from the west and landed on the nearby hilltop helipad.
The children (and adults) of Ittoqqortoormiit are spoilt for choice as there is also a indoor Sports Hall which I passed as I descended from the cemeteries to do a loop around the north end of Ittoqqortoormiit which also afforded an outdoor basketball court where all the settlement’s stray dogs seem to have congregated and were playing.
The Sports Hall dates from 2003 whereas the all weather field was just just six weeks old!
I noticed there were 7 white Husky dogs tethered up with separate leads off a long chain adjacent to the last house in Ittoqqortoormiit. I assume these would be specialist Sled Dogs that the owner did not want running around town?
Or perhaps they are kept there for anyone who wanted to hire a dog sled taxi out of town to Constable Point or to go hunting? Maybe they belonged to a hunter as this is still the main source of income for the residents of Ittoqqortoormiit. They will hunt for seals, Musk –Ox and Seals and as EEC legislation prevents the export of the produce is either given to friends or sold locally ($13 a kilo) or exported to Nook and the west coast of Greenland.
By now it was 11am and I had not got to half the places I planned to see and it was too late to get to the Weather Station to watch the 1045am filling and 11am lift off of the high altitude meteorological balloon which is released twice a day. The air currents and weather patterns that form above Greenland are a major factor that influences Europe’s weather and the data provided by the Ittoqqortoormiit balloons are an invaluable aid for predicting forthcoming weather trends in Europe.
I did watch the balloon drift slowly upwards as I completed my loop back to the central downtown area and found myself on about a hundred metres of concrete highway around the most important building in town – the Store, also described as a Supermarket.
No photos allowed but like many single store establishments seemed to have understandably mastered the art of providing everything the community wants in a one stop, or should I say only stop, location.
I was impressed at the range of foodstuffs, clothing, hardware, confectionary, alcohol, stationary etc offered in such a remote location as well as additional items as diverse as hunting rifles and Swiss Chocolate!
Next door was the Museum housed in a small building with an attractive young woman, born in Ittoqqortoormiit, happy to answer questions in English about the items on display and the collection of historic photos.
She told me the population of Ittoqqortoormiit was growing but that of course a two edged sword if it means small isolated communities are at risk because the young people are moving to larger settlements.
By the time I got to the Church it was closed but I did pop into the Tourist Office/Post office run by Nanu Travel and managed to spend some of the Danish Kroner we had brought with us on 3 Woolly Hats depicting the attractive Greenlandic flag (made in China), some neck pendants depicting whale tails (also imported) and some maps of Greenland.
Alas, the weather station and church will have to wait for another day and whilst it would have been fascinating to visit the school and talk to the teachers I had really enjoyed my three hours wandering around Ittoqqortoormiit.
It could be argued there is little of interest in Ittoqqortoormiit to justify the cost of travelling there and of course, people are attracted to Greenland by the magnificent grandeur of the mountains, glaciers, and fjords.
Indeed, we had spent the 8 previous days exploring Scoresbysund which is the world’s longest fjord system and the scenery and vistas were magnificent.
But as we were in the area it was both informative and a privilege to be able, however briefly, to explore how these the local population lives in climatic conditions and isolation that most of us could not conceive of tolerating.
And it is good that those of us fortunate enough to be able to afford to travel to these extreme destinations to admire the magnificent grandeur realise there is another side to the coin and that some people like the gravedigger have to live here year all year………….and I mean year all year!
I have seen poorer communities and greater extremes of poverty in Nepal, India and Africa but I was really impressed by the determination and fortitude of those who live and work in cold and isolated communities like Ittoqqortoormiit.
When things get too much for them it is not a question of let’s take a week’s break in the sun – we’ll go to Spain or Florida or Hawaii or a weekend in London, Paris or New York.
If you live in Ittoqqortoormiit then that is almost certainly where you will spend your time – there is no road, just a snowmobile or dog sled trail into the wilderness.
We complain about our politicians, moan about government expenditure and complain about our taxes and we totally lose track with what is going on elsewhere and that most of the world lives in conditions of hardship like Ittoqqortoormiit.
And to survive means facing up to the challenge and being organised and it struck me from my brief visit that Ittoqqortoormiit was coping just fine and was an example to us all.
And indeed, that was why the gravedigger was at work in September and I have no doubts that Ittoqqortoormiit will be ready to bury its dead and cope with whatever challenges lie ahead this coming winter.
© Michael Bromfield
Postscript: Although as the images accompanying this article will testify there are few attractions in Ittoqqortoormiit that would justify a visit to the town alone it is a fine base for wilderness hiking, climbing, dog sledding and kayaking with multi day programs for each offered by Nanu Travel.
And for those of you who would like a taste of the magnificent grandeur that Greenland offers I have posted a selection of images that I took here.