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The Regular but Intrepid Voyage of the Sarfaq Ittuk: Ch 12 of Go Greenland

Published
September 30, 2021
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I HAD thoroughly enjoyed my time in Narsaq, but it was time for me to see more of Greenland. There was a ship named the Sarfaq Ittuk, the only coastal ferry in Greenland. It was soon departing from Narsaq, and I booked a ticket to be on it. I’ve reproduced a stylised map of its route and ports of call just above; this is still current as of the time of writing, September 2021.

I had a few final errands to run while I was in town, I had to go to the local police station to get them to sign off on my identity for one of the final mortgage documents for the house I was buying in Queenstown, New Zealand.

That ended up being a big deal. Between the language barriers and cultural confusion, I almost got arrested for having two passports. Nobody’d told the local cops that many New Zealanders are entitled to hold a British EU passport as well as a Kiwi one, for old-timey Imperial reasons that aren’t too different to the relationship between Greenland and Denmark.

Not knowing all this, they must have thought I was a British crook laundering the swag through the NZ property market while escaping to what I had no doubt mistakenly thought to be the sunny Greenland Riviera. In the end we managed to sort out the mix-up, and I got the documents away. I was not going to go through that again.

And so, I headed back to the hostel Jacques ran, where I had ended up staying in the end, and saw this big sale on the way back. Seal skins were on sale for just 30 Kroner or a bit over four dollars US. I wasn’t overly impressed because I knew there had been restrictions imposed by the European Union to avoid the over-hunting of seals. Should the pelts be on sale, or was that not a bit like ivory? Then again, the low price suggested that you couldn’t take them out of the country. Maybe it was a purely local thing.

I was looking forward to the boat trip that would take me north past Nuuk to Knut Rasmussen’s old birthplace of Ilulissat, or Jakobshavn. I said goodbye to everyone that I had met and thanked them so much for having me there in Narsaq — it had really been an adventure.

I made my way to the ferry terminal quite early in the morning and looked up to see the magnificent vessel I would be travelling on, the Sarfaq Ittuk. Well, it didn’t look fancy and was nothing like the cruise ships we get down our coastlines in New Zealand, but I found it great all the same. The ship had been built in 2006 and was specially created to plough through water laden with icebergs. It can hold 249 people and has 52 cabins onboard.

This ship would be my oceangoing home for the next four nights and I was looking forward to seeing inside it! Once on board I was shown to my room which had a window that overlooked the Greenland Sea. So, you wouldn’t even have to leave your room for views of icebergs and ocean if you didn’t want to! I was really hoping to see seals and whales, and having that window gave me every opportunity to be staring out to sea. The rooms were very simple but cosy enough. The rocking of the ship was very gentle, and I had no trouble drifting off to sleep at night.

Leaving Narsaq, we sailed quite smoothly eastward to Qaqortoq before turning westward on the main journey. And alongside us rose the rugged peaks and mountains of the fjords.

It was totally picturesque and when I wasn’t roaming around or sipping hot coffee at the café, I could be found clicking away with my camera on the main deck.

The ship was full of all sorts of characters, and I met plenty of them in the café. I met a Norwegian guy who was in charge of oil clean-ups along the coast, a Russian engineer, a man named Leo from Korea, and an Inuit woman and her daughter. The Inuit woman told me she worked for a power company but stayed in a place called Sisimiut, a town midway between Nuuk and Ilulissat when she wasn’t at work. She told me they often travelled on the ferry, and it had become a common mode of transport for the locals because the weather was so changeable and that affected the flights. She told me about how her parents had both passed away and she was dealing with a skin condition. I felt sorry for her; we had a good many conversations.

I also met a group of nurses from Denmark who were working in and around Greenland doing volunteer work — they were interesting! They found it a real culture shock working in such remote villages and the only way you could get to them was by a snowmobile or dog sled.

On board along the passageways there were all these information boards with species of animals like whales found in the Greenland Sea and maps of the route we would be taking.

I was amazed, when I looked at the map, at how close to Canada Greenland gets at its nearest point: 26 km to be exact! I’d thought of Greenland as being part of Europe more or less, with Iceland not really all that far from Norway and Greenland not really all that far from Iceland; but in the very high latitudes of the North Atlantic, everything sort-of squeezes together. That’s precisely why the Vikings were able to make it all the way to Canada in their open longboats. They didn’t need to be out of sight of land for as long as Columbus’s sailors a few centuries later, mariners who took a more southerly route.

The captain and the staff on board were great, and very informative! We started seeing massive icebergs on day two of the trip. The captain and everyone kept me informed and pointed out icebergs to me all the time. Although, I’m sure that they were so used to seeing them that they probably laughed at my excitement in seeing them! The Russian engineer was always out on the deck taking photos. He would be out there for hours and hours — the whole day. It was funny because he lived and worked in Nuuk and saw this a lot — but still he found the scenery amazing. We would talk for hours about our love of travel, and I was often standing right alongside him taking photographs.

Our first westbound port stop was Arsuk, which we arrived at on the same day we left Narsaq and Qaqortoq. I was told the name Arsuk meant ‘beloved place’ and had been the site of first a Norse settlement and then the Thule people.

Getting back out to sea was exciting though, and the further north we travelled the more icebergs we saw. I mean the icebergs were wondrous. Incredible. Amazing. I can’t begin to describe them. Some were so huge they towered above the ferry, but we never got too close to those ones. They were further out to sea. I was so fascinated I just snapped photos the whole time, I’m surprised my face didn’t get frozen to my camera. Most of the larger ones were out to sea, but others appeared surprisingly close. They made strange sounds as we passed them by, the ocean slapping at them, the creaking as they eased through the water and the eerie shrills as the wind blew past.

That’s one of the main reasons I came to Greenland: to see ice and all the different kinds there were. The captain told me about how dangerous the ice could be. There were different types you have to watch out for and be wary of: glacier ice, ice caps, sea ice and icebergs were all different and each required different levels of caution. I didn’t feel scared or worried, I felt completely at ease under the company and charge of the captain. He had been sailing this stretch of ocean for a long time now and I trusted his judgement. I admired them all. You had to be a bloody good captain to sail through this ocean for so long, so he knew his stuff alright.

Another port further north, after Nuuk, was Maniitsoq. It’s the sixth largest town in Greenland and was once a major reindeer trading post in the 19th Century. Maniitsoq also had a few archaeological sites that dated back over four thousand years. It was really very similar to the other port towns along the way a mere smattering of houses, rock and snow. The captain pointed out that there were only roughly 2,200 residents and it was a town whose population was always declining because people just couldn’t find enough work.

We were on our way to the last stop, twelve hours before we arrived in Ilulissat, at a port at the southern end of Disko Bay called Aasiaat.

It was always exciting docking at a port because everybody came out to wave at you and greet the disembarking passengers. People said that Aasiaat was the best place to spot whales and seals along the western coastline. And that seemed to be true as far as seals went. Out on the water, on small icebergs, were thick brown slugs which I soon saw to be seals. Their heads would bob out of the water every now and then and when the ferry got too close to the icebergs they were resting on, they would dive over the side and disappear into the grey water. I spent much of that day hoping to see a whale of some sort, but I didn’t in the end. I was a bit disappointed, but at least I had got to read the sign in on the ship that told me all about them!

The issues surrounding whale hunting were another interesting affair. The Whaling Commission allows families to hunt whales to feed their families and villages but there has been a rise in commercial whaling alongside this — which was a cause for slight concern. Whales and the Inuit and Greenlandic culture are so closely linked with history and tradition it would be unimaginable for them to be without whale hunting. The common belief is that every Greenlandic person should have access to whale meat — it is just a way of life. In 2014, Greenland statistics showed that 176 large whales were caught as traditional food. Of the total, 157 were minke whales, twelve fin whales and seven humpback whales.

International wildlife organisations have tried to get Greenlandic people to sign a contract with a restriction on the number of whales caught per year. It wasn’t taken too kindly by Greenlandic people and yet in Denmark whaling is illegal. The Arctic whales that are most commonly caught for food are the bowhead, minke, humpback, fin, beluga and narwhal. I was really hoping to see a narwhal; more like a dolphin then a whale, it is quite small, and the male has a twisted horn at the front. I didn’t though, and maybe that was another sign of global warming.

We had a short stop in Aasiaat. A few people disembarked. A few people boarded. And then we were off again. It was as we were heading back into the deep ocean that we almost got stranded. It was probably the only time I did get a bit panicked. There was more and more ice appearing in the water and it was thicker and bigger than before. The ferry started to creak and was barely moving through the ocean. The captain was pretty calm, though, and told us not to worry. So, I didn’t. It would be a great story to tell everyone back home and, oh, also for a book, right?

In the meantime, I went out and got a video of the ice!

Leo was from South Korea and had excellent English. He loved travelling and had already been to many countries even though he was only in his early twenties. We got on really well, and he was telling me that he had booked a place to stay in Ilulissat on hostel.com. It was only US $50 a night and it turned out it was with a local family. We finally arrived in Ilulissat and I was quite excited to be there. I’d heard there were heaps of walking trails in the area and plenty of historical museums. A few more touristy things to do than in Narsaq, I’d think.

By this time, we had come about 1,300 kilometres, or roughly the same as the distance from the northern tip of the North Island of New Zealand to the southern tip of the South Island as the jet flies. Narsaq and Ilulissat weren’t that far apart on the same basis, more like about 900 km, but we’d had to sail round a convex coast and stop off at whole lot of places, making more distance. 900 kilometres or 1,300, it still didn’t look very far when plotted on a map of the whole of Greenland!

With around 4,000 permanent residents, Ilulissat was quite a bit larger than Narsaq and a fair bit busier. Ilulissat is also known as the birthplace of icebergs! To the south-east of the town there was a UNESCO world heritage site in the form of the Ilulissat Icefjord — which I will have a quite a lot more to say about, a little further on.

Like Nuuk, Ilulissat is made up of an old city and a new city — although I still wouldn’t call it a ‘city’, it made for a very interesting contrast to Nuuk and to Narsaq. You could be walking up a hill to the Arctic hotel even and get sweeping views out sea and to the icebergs. It was in a much wilder location than Nuuk, or Narsaq. It just seemed like a dream, despite the biting cold winds that would give your face a slap around.

Leo and I decided we’d explore Ilulissat together so when the driver came to collect him from the ferry terminal, Leo told him I was looking for a room to stay. They dropped me off at the Arctic Hotel, which I didn’t really fancy so I thought I’d try my luck with a hostel like Leo had. I wound up in the home of Mona and Hans, who agreed they could house me for the eight days I had planned to be in Ilulissat. Mona and Hans were great! They sat down and endured all the questions about life in Greenland. What did they eat, did they ever eat polar bear, what about whales etc etc?

Mona told me more about the traditional boots the women wore made of seal skins. They are called Kamiks and every Greenlandic woman owns a pair, they are a very precious item and cost a fortune to buy in a shop. She told me she had seen some for sale at the equivalent of US $600. They come above the knee to help keep out the wet snow and ice and there was room to tuck your trousers in, another layer of insulation against the cold. Traditionally they painted them but in modern times they use embroidery and beads as embellishments.

Go Greenland is available on this website, a-maverick.com.


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