Touring Greenland

Date of Journey July 2015
Chris Johnson Bristol

Where can you visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site, cruise by the biggest icebergs in the northern hemisphere, and bask under a blue sky where the sun never sets? The answer is the historic Greenlandic town of Ilulissat on the shore of Danko Bay in West Greenland.

To get there you make a spectacular three-hour flight from Reykjavik in Iceland, crossing the Greenland icecap in a 20-seat aircraft.

 The approach to the airfield takes you above the 70-mile fjord into which the Ilulissat glacier disgorges billions of tons of ice a year, producing truly unique scenery. Founded in 1740 as a trading post, Ilulissat was originally known as Jakobshavn and is the third largest town in Greenland. Nowadays it is home to 4500 people and about 1800 sled dogs. Isolated from the rest of the world except by sea and air, the town supports the surrounding smaller communities, has a thriving fishing industry and is an increasingly popular tourist destination both for independent travellers and for ice-strengthened cruise ships. Accommodation ranges from a hostel to the internationally renowned Arctic Hotel, which offers conventional rooms or igloo-like accommodation overlooking the Bay.

The harbour is a hive of activity with both large vessels and small boats involved in fishing and tourist trips. Brightly coloured houses climb over the surrounding hills, while the next bay to the harbour includes the hospital, church and a compact but excellent museum. Offshore, lies the ice-covered Danko Island with the strait between the island and the mainland filled by innumerable icebergs sculpted into abstract shapes by wind and wave. Close by the town, giant icebergs hundreds of feet tall ground on a terminal moraine at the entrance to the fjord. As you walk through the town you are bound to see the dog spans where the Greenland huskies live. Greenland huskies look, and can behave, similar to their wolf ancestors and it is sensible to keep your distance unless invited to approach. Summer is not their favourite time and they spend much of the day panting in the unaccustomed heat, but in winter they earn their keep as dog sledges remain an effective means of transport in the trackless wilderness.

The World Heritage Site lies to the south of the town and includes several spectacular walks that wind along the edge of the Fiord, visiting an ancient settlement site of early native peoples, before climbing up over rocky ridges to gain a spectacular view up the Fiord. Here, in summer, there is an amazing profusion of wild flowers. Walking is rough and rocky, but the main trails are well waymarked. Away from the trails the area is wild and rugged, and one must be aware of the numerous cliffs and sharp drops, as well as the risk of tsunami close to the shore if one of the giant icebergs offshore rolls over.

Not an easy place to get to, but one that offers stunning scenery, unique cultural insights and is utterly memorable.

 

Travel Tips

-  When we visited we had 120 hours sunshine in five days, with land temperatures in the mid-20’s centigrade. Not what we expected, and we were fortunate with the weather. But the boat trips take you amongst the icebergs where the air is very cold. Dress for anything. A pair of Rohan Winter Bags and a Sentinel Shirt proved ideal mid-layers for the midnight cruise amongst the bergs.

-  I visited the town to compete in the Arctic Midnight Sun race, an annual long-distance navigation event that starts late evening and continues under the midnight sun. You need to be an experienced hill runner and navigator, but it was a tremendous experience.

-  A power boat trip to the calving Eqip glacier was spectacular as the boat dodged at high speed around the bergs in Disko Bay.

-  Local food is varied, excellent and often novel (try the muskox), but don’t expect much in the way of fresh vegetables as they all have to be flown in.

 

‘Not so good’

Lots of big mosquitoes. Take cap, insect hood and repellent.

 

“The highlight”

The whole experience was utterly unique, but walking back to my hotel at the end of the midnight sun race with the sea and bergs offshore illuminated in blue, yellow and orange pastel tints was quite magic.