I MET the owners of a hotel in Igaliku, and a group of their friends, while I was in the hotel at Narsaq. They were all very welcoming and I ended up getting on with them really well. There was Claus, Heidi, Jacques and his partner. They all hailed from different parts of Europe, Norway, Finland, France, Iceland and Denmark — and then throw a little New Zealand into the mix and we were quite a team! Jacques invited me to come and help them prepare the hotel for a big event. They were working in town that day but the following day they would take me through the Tunulliarfik Fjord and then on to their country hotel in Igaliku.
I was glad for the opportunity to get out and about with some company. There were two options to get to Igaliku. The first was to get a boat, and the second was to get a boat partway and then tramp (that is, hike; in New Zealand we say tramp) the rest of the way to the small settlement. Well, I chose tramping of course! Jacques told me that the tramp would be about six hours through snow and rock.
The big event they were hosting at their hotel was a conference where one hundred or so corporate clients were staying for four days. I remember wondering, why? How out of the way is that?
The tramp over to Igaliku turned out to be pretty easy actually, and I managed to carry all my stuff in my backpack without hassle.
The scenery was fantastic and like nothing I had experienced before. What had seemed like harsh and unforgiving terrain from the plane window turned out to be some of the most beautiful landscape I had seen. When I arrived in Igaliku the reason for the corporate event’s choice of location became very clear. Igaliku was beautiful!
I offered to help them prepare for the big corporate event. I’m not much of a cook so I offered to help shovel snow from around the van, so it could get out to collect the groups from the airport. There was a small tractor that needed to be started up too, so I helped with that. I remember some of the guys trying to haul in the buoy which had been left out at sea over the winter and drifted quite far out. It became a source of entertainment for us all watching them try to get it back closer to shore.
While I was there, I got talking to the people who worked in the hotel. They were all based in Narsarsuaq and they told me how hard the winters were there. I found it funny because they referred to Igaliku as being a farming community. There were sparse tufts of alpine grasses, but nothing like the rolling green hills of New Zealand’s farming country.
The weather was amazing. Most days were overcast and grey, but on other days the sun popped out for a brief moment. There are times of the year when there is no sun at all and other times when the sun never sleeps. Two complete contrasts — I don’t know how people lived here during the depths of winter when everything was hidden in darkness. I headed back into Narsaq and stayed in a hotel that only cost me US $100 a night with breakfast and lunch included. Great value for money, I say! I spent a lot of time wandering around, and I’m pretty sure I met most of the 167 residents that called Narsaq home.
I met the local chief, who also used to be Greenland’s foreign minister. He was an environmentalist and was fighting uranium mining near Narsaq. When he learned that I was from New Zealand he told me he had met the prominent South Island Māori leader and first board chairman of the Sealord fishing company, Tipene O’Regan.
I told him about our problems with overfishing courtesy of firms like Sealord, to whom the Māori had granted fishing rights in return for a 50% shareholding in a deal brokered by the New Zealand government, which was supposed to lead to Māori economic development. Originally the idea was that this would provide Māori employment, but Sealord chartered internationally owned ships with their own crews.
I thought that was silly. Why didn’t the Māori keep the jobs for themselves, and own their own ships? But that would have probably implied more of a long-term commitment than was possible under the current New Zealand fisheries management system, which was basically an extractive free-for-all, with several species being fished to the point of commercial extinction in New Zealand waters and not much being done about it despite numerous reports and media stories.
Since the 1980s, New Zealand had had a world-leading system of fisheries management on paper. The problem was that it did, indeed, exist mainly ‘on paper’, with few inspectors and unreported catches reliably thought to outweigh the catches that were reported. If Sealord didn’t go hard-out to catch the last fish with international ships and crews, ships and crews that were hired short-term with no strings attached, free to go somewhere else once the New Zealand fishery started to falter, somebody else would.
Such were the perils of indigenous economic development schemes if ground-rules for sustainability were not strictly laid out and enforced. And the lessons were as relevant to Greenland as to anywhere else.
The Greenlandic people were quite knowledgeable about New Zealanders. Apparently, there had been a few of us visiting Greenland as of late. I remembered seeing an article in one of the New Zealand’s newspapers about 22-year-old twins from Hamilton, south of Auckland, who planned to ski across Greenland’s four major ice caps in 2014.
Over the next five days I was to find out a lot about Greenland from the locals. One of the women in the group I had met, Heidi, was originally from Iceland. She had lived in Greenland for almost 40 years and loved the Northern winters. She told me she hadn’t liked the nearly perpetual darkness of winter at first but had become accustomed to it and had grown to love the northern winters over time. She told me that walruses and seals are caught on the temporary winter ice surrounding Narsaq at that time of year. The winter catch gets divided up and shared out amongst all the villagers. I thought that was quite traditional, and a brilliant display of community in a place where most people would find it hard to live. I also found it interesting that they didn’t depend on the use of money so much: a slab of meat counted as payment for many things. Heidi told me that most of Greenland used to be like this until about twenty years ago, particularly in more northern places like Nuuk.
Jacques had been there for quite some years too; about thirty. He was from a place called Gap in France that sits by the border of Italy. He made a trip to Greenland out of curiosity and immediately fell in love with the place. He went and packed his things and moved there. The only qualm he had with Greenland is that they only had two or three months to make their annual income. So, the remaining 10 months of the year was spent exploring and just spending time with the people in the village. He actually owned a few businesses in Narsaq and surrounds: the Blue Ice café, the hostel in Narsaq, and the Country Hotel in Igaliku. On top of that though he also had boats for transporting tourists to Igaliku and around the fjords and hired out cabins as well, so he was quite the businessman.
Claus was from Denmark and had about five boats which he used for charters during the summer months. He said that the summer months ran from June to mid-September but that there was no guarantee of warmer weather even then. He reiterated to me that there was quite a bit of pressure during that time, as it was the only part of the year in which they could make money. Their earnings for the whole year really were booked up in the summer and that was that.
Of course, that’s no different to running a skifield that makes its money in winter. But I suspect Greenland tourism is a bit more precarious. People have to come from quite a long way away, and it’s a bit of an intrepid journey.
Go Greenland is available on this website, a-maverick.com.
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