From Iceland — Old Hunters Welcome a New World

Old Hunters Welcome a New World

Published September 22, 2006

“It’s really tasty. You should try it,” Edda said to me as I put a piece of grilled seal meat on my plate.
I was starving and beat after sailing for three days between small villages and historical sites in South Greenland’s vast wilderness. Eating seal meat and whale fat sounded like a reasonable idea. I took one bite of the traditional dish, swallowed with great difficulty and went on to drink glass after glass of water to rid my mouth of the unpleasant taste of fish oil. Fortunately, this incident was the only bad experience of my entire trip.
Greenland is unlike anything else I have experienced. The country is a Danish province, but in 1979 it was granted home rule and is therefore self-governed. It is still a long way from becoming an independent country. Primarily a mixture of Inuit and Danish ancestry, the inhabitants all have in common the pride of their 4,500 years of history and heritage, the love of their nature and friendly attitude towards those who are curious enough to travel to this haven in the North. With 56,000 people inhabiting roughly two million km2, it is both the world’s biggest island and the most sparsely inhabited country. Eighty percent of its surface is covered in ice, and the whole northern region is uninhabited. Its capital, Nuuk, with only 13,000 inhabitants wouldn’t even make it on the map in many countries.
Our adventure started in Reykjavík. After a two-hour flight our plane landed at the international airport in Narsarsuaq, South Greenland’s only connection to the outside world. The airport, built by U.S. armed forces in World War II, is the centre of this small village of 200 people, most of whom are employees at the airport or Hotel Narsarsuaq.
Walking out of the terminal and looking around this new and mysterious terrain, the outside world seemed very far away. The small airstrip was almost empty, a hut marked ‘Police’ across the road seemed even smaller when looking up the steep hillside hovering in the background and there wasn’t much else to see except the overwhelming visual dominance of nature all around. No traffic, not even people walking around except the few souls who had been in the plane and were now climbing into cars heading to various destinations, some on their way to their homes, others going reindeer hunting. Although this small area doesn’t have many attractions in and of itself, it is only minutes away from unspoiled nature and a good starting point for a journey through the south of the country.
We were rushed into small mini-vans and taken to the harbour where the boat Kveldúlfur was docked. The crew welcomed us and informed us that Kveldúlfur would be our transportation for most of the trip, sailing through fjords and between villages. First, we would head to the small town Qaqortoq, barely three hours away.
Once there, the aforementioned Edda greeted us, a woman that would prove to be one hell of a storyteller and immediately make us all understand why she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world than in this small municipality. Twenty years ago she moved from her home in Iceland to Greenland and is now running a successful restaurant in Qaqortoq where we would later get the pleasure of dining.
As we sailed Eiríks Fjord the dramatic scenery of Greenland came into clear view. Turquoise-blue drift-ice was scattered all around. The rocky and towering cliffs looking as though powdered sugar had been dusted on top reminded me of the landscape in the Westfjords of Iceland, just so much more murky, majestic and larger in every way. Everything so extreme and gigantic in size and shape, everything except the small isolated sheep farms we passed on our way.
When we sailed into the harbour of Qaqortoq, which locals claim is the most beautiful town in all of Greenland, a large iceberg had drifted into the harbour. “In spring time the icebergs can cause a bit of a problem. They fill the harbour and the boats can’t go out and the fishermen have to wait until the coast is clear,” Klaus, our Danish captain and companion for the tour, informed us.
There are no roads connecting the small settlements in Greenland, spread around the enormous island. Boats are therefore essential to get around, the only other alternatives being: planes, helicopters and dogsleds. To my surprise, there is no public transportation. Kveldúlfur, our twelve-passenger carrier, is owned by the Blue Ice Explorer tourist company, but government-owned boats supporting public transportation stopped sailing between the small villages last spring. That, I was informed, has made the tourism industry more difficult, as transport becomes costlier and less convenient, resulting in some competition between all the municipalities building up the south coast as to who gets the tourists.
“We need more tourists,” I heard repeatedly for the next couple of days.
Even though the tourist industry has grown in recent years, the small towns in South Greenland are struggling for their existence. They mostly make a living from the island’s natural resources; some are sheep farmers, others seal hunters and fishermen and a number earn their living by transporting tourists and hiking enthusiasts around the area. Yet, the number of tourists is far from enough to build up a successful business and the companies suffer from the short season. The only travellers I came in contact with were three Russians sipping down some vodka while eating sausages at a local hostel. Other than that, groups of tourists with their cameras dangling on their chests were hidden creatures.
Having been there, I fail to understand why there aren’t more travellers who visit this pristine country. With soaring mountain peaks, green fields, barren Arctic deserts, pack ice, narrow coastal fringes, polar bears, gold mines, reindeers and old Viking ruins all packed around the endless white landscape. It’s hard, if not impossible, to find all that wrapped up in one package anywhere else, and the added pleasure of having all this for yourself without tourist buses arriving every 15 minutes, makes it even better.
Though Greenland and Iceland are neighbours, the difference between the two countries is exceptional. Qaqortoq is a typical large town in Greenland, with 3,200 inhabitants living in small colourful wooden houses built upon steep hillsides. An old church stands in the centre of the downtown square where a small fountain in front of it (the only one in Greenland) is a popular playground for kids. Closely linked to the harbour and the outdoor fish market, the supermarket and the clothing store, nothing is more than 300 m away. Here hardworking people live in harmony with the rough nature and are slowly coming into step with the 21st century.
No One Will Escape the Computer Boom
We were accommodated by Hotel Qaqortoq where we had a three-course dinner with a picturesque view over the harbour. Everyone was tired and passed out just before midnight, as we had to wake up early next morning. Places to see, people to meet.
After breakfast we met up with our guide outside the hotel. Apart from two men walking down at the harbour and a few elderly folks relaxing in front of the Pölsevognen 66 hot dog stand, the town seemed still asleep. Something I wouldn’t have minded myself, as a quieter night I haven’t experienced in a long time. The silence was almost deafening.
We spent the next couple of hours exploring the town, looking for hidden sculptures and learning about its fascinating development. The state-owned apartment buildings we came across were a little less charming than the more common wooden houses. Hidden away on the outskirts of the town these apartment buildings, built in the 1960s and 70s, were in poor condition to say the least.
“At that time the hunters were forced to move away from their small settlements and populate in bigger towns, creating something of a ghetto. Then the Danish men came and took their wives away. The hunters lost their identity. That was the time alcohol and drugs became a problem,” our Greenlandic guide explained. The cheerful lady went on: “But now the culture has started changing and the country is rapidly developing. The Inuit society started modernising after the Second World War. The teenagers now want Diesel jeans and computer games and are becoming aware of the luxury of the Western societies. The isolated sheep farmers are also well aware of the new technical development and are waiting to get internet connections to their farms, to help with their children’s home schooling. For the first couple of years the children are allowed to study at home before moving to the bigger towns and living away from their families. With help from the internet, education will be much more up-to-date and effective, something much needed in our society. Today Greenlanders can be described as a minority culture coming into a new world.”
We passed the prison in town and learned that the prisoners aren’t kept behind bars in Qaqortoq. During the day they work, cleaning the streets or in the fishing industry for example. “It’s an open prison,” our guide said and laughed hard. A house marked Arctic Café was our next eye catcher. The red building with a yellow car sticking out of one of its walls we later learned is the local pub, the only pub to be exact, and it gets quite vibrant at nights.
Greenlanders earn most of their living by fishing and hunting. Seals are an integral part of that industry and in Qaqortoq the hunters can sell their skins at the Great Greenland Tannery and Sealskin Factory. Providing 60 workers with jobs every day plus all the hunters that count on them buying the skin, the factory is one of Greenland’s biggest export companies, selling 80 percent of its products to China. The industry might be at risk from protests anti-seal hunt groups.
“Every campaign kills some of our culture. Those who are against seal killing endanger our culture and affect our economy dramatically,” our guide explained before walking us through the tannery. The stench of wet skin was overwhelming and after seeing the skin in chock-full tubs it was incredible to imagine that after the whole production process that same skin would become a coat, gloves or even hats, which people around the globe pay big sums to wear. The prices were a little too high for me, and I exited the tannery wearing the same thin jacket I had when I entered.
Old ruins and overly friendly elderly folk
It was cloudy and raining like hell when we went back to the boat and sailed to the ruins of the medieval Hvalsey Church. The church is surrounded by steep mountains on one side and a rocky coast on the other. Built early in the last millennium, the church is one of the best-kept Viking ruins in Greenland. It is famous for housing a Viking wedding in 1408, which is the last written record of the Vikings’ presence in the area. Today, only the outer walls remain and with no roof and the rain increasing we were soaking wet when we returned to our boat. We were happy to get back to Qaqortoq and have dinner at Edda’s restaurant Napparsivik, where we were served delicious traditional Greenlandic courses, followed by some Greenlandic coffee, which contained various liquors with only a dash of the brown fluid. After dinner, no one was ready to call it a night, especially those who had finished the coffee. The local pub, Arctic Café, was therefore an ideal choice.
The pub is an attraction in itself. The beginning of each month it is usually crowded as locals come and spend their salaries on beer and alcoholic beverages. This Wednesday night, Edda told us that a húkkaraball (singles dance) was planned. Inside, the crowd was as mixed as I could have imagined. Young people slurping their beers, tipsy Danes telling stories from their job putting up power lines in the neighbouring areas and extremely drunk old folks all under the same roof.
A student from East Greenland grabbed me when I walked inside and told me he would protect me from all the bad spirits around. After politely thanking him for the friendly gesture I tried to pass a toothless man who was infuriating some women trying to play pool. As the small crowd was wiggling on the dance floor to the song “If I Saw You in Heaven”, a local fisherman kept me company. He told me he spoke Icelandic after having studied in Húnavatnssýsla in 1968 and if not for his drunkenness, I might have understood him, but while spluttering saliva in my face ‘Fyrirgefðu’ (excuse me) was the only thing I understood. Then he proceeded to lick my cheek, and subsequently my sticky face and I said goodnight.
Sheep, icebergs and uranium in the valley
The next morning Kveldúlfur took our tired group to Narsaq, the centre of South Greenland sheep farming. The local fish market, located next to the old people’s home, proved to be a hangout for its residents, who relaxed and smoked pipes, while the fishmonger sold the catch of the day. The youngsters’ hangout was the hamburger stand Time Out across the street, where they ate French fries and ketchup, thrilled with the first and only fast food restaurant in the area, which opened two years ago.
After a tour through the local museum where we learned about the ancient Inuit culture and the hunters’ society, we drove up to Kvandefjeldet. A short drive from Narsaq, we passed the only privately owned hydroelectric power station in Greenland. I asked Edda if there was any interest among the locals to build aluminium smelters in Greenland, seeing that the natural resources would probably be a potential catch for Alcoa and similar companies.
“People have discussed it but the debate mostly revolves around who gets the profits, Denmark or Greenland?” she tells me.
But isn’t the nation eager to gain independence then?
“Some are, but the realistic among us want to wait. First we have to build up our educational system. The struggle for independence has to proceed in small steps. Iceland, for example, didn’t start developing until there were roads to connect the municipalities. There’s a lot to be done before Greenland can rule on its own,” she added. So while the possibility of placing aluminium smelters in Greenland’s nature is still being discussed its waterfalls and valleys remain unaltered.
Roads are an uncommon luxury in Greenland. We were travelling on a rare gravel road that took us from the village into a mine in the Kvandefjeldet. In the mountains of Greenland, 250 rare minerals can be found and right here at Kvandefjeldet, uranium was discovered in the 1950s. Today the old uranium mine is closed as there is no political interest in operating the mine. Ideas to set up a mining museum there have, however, been discussed.
After admiring the mind-blowing view this valley offers, and seeing uranium shimmer on some rocks piled up we hurried back to Narsaq and made our way off to Igaliko, best known for the ruins at Garðar. Roughly 60 people live in Igaliko, mostly sheep farmers making use of the fertile ground in the valley. It will hopefully be added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List soon, as the important historical sites located there are in need of better protection. Here the Norwegians settled down in the 12th century and made the place its religious heart, with a bishop’s residence and a church. Mysteriously, at the end of the 15th century, their society in the valley vanished without trace and no one knows what became of them.
Yet another historical site in the vicinity is Brattahlíð, locally known as Qassiarsuk. This is where Erik the Red, the first Nordic settler in Greenland, set up his camp after being banished from Iceland for murders in 938 AD. The ruins of the church Þórhildarkirkja, named after his wife, can still be found in Brattahlíð.
On our last day in Greenland we took an excursion out to the Qooroq ice fjord, so named because of the icebergs that constantly break off the glacier into the water. We were freezing during the cruise between the blue icebergs and to warm us up, we were served some Baileys with ice cubes from the glacier itself. While we sipped our drinks, the icebergs just floated by one after another, making the whole group dazed by their irregular formations. Standing out on the deck and recollecting everything we had witnessed for the past few days while the dominance of nature made me feel smaller than ever, the ship started to clear away from the glacier again. Suddenly, it was all over and the harbour in Narsarsuaq came closer every second. Our days in Greenland’s hauntingly beautiful nature had passed and time to face the reality awaiting. Back to the busy capital I call my home, back to the traffic noise in my bedroom and back to my computer and desk at the office.
I said my goodbyes to the gigantic white chunks, glad that I had finally gotten the chance to visit Greenland, a place that has been on my to-do list for far too long. All the ideas I had about Greenland beforehand were now totally reversed. Where I was expecting something more primitive, extensive drinking and rumpus behaviour I had seen growing societies and met hardworking individuals and had to admit that almost everything I thought before were terrible misconceptions.
See you next time, I said to the crew and all the friendly folks who had made this whole trip so eventful, for there definitely will be a next time.
– Destination South Greenland: Box 197, 3921 Narsaq, Greenland. Tel. +299 662 103 Web:
– Special thanks to Blue Ice Explorer: Box 58, 3923 Narsarsuaq, Greenland. Tel. + 299 665 499. Web:

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