As cold as it gets, but what a way to break the ice

We brave the recesses of Greenland's Arctic wilderness.


By Barbara Lantin, March 10, 2011
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The MS Frame steers a careful course up Greenland’s west coast  passing natural ice sculptures

The MS Frame steers a careful course up Greenland’s west coast passing natural ice sculptures

The sound of cracking ice is familiar to many cruise passengers. But the splintering noise we heard on our fifth day in Greenland had nothing to do with cubes tinkling in a tumbler of Scotch. From the creamy cliff-face of the Eqip Sermia glacier - 5km from our hillside vantage point but seeming much closer - came the roar of the ice-wall splitting and falling.

Despite my binoculars, I missed the spectacle: because light travels faster than sound, the event itself was over before the noise even reached us.

The only clues were the waves lapping the nearby beach on which we had been instructed not to stray: calving icebergs have been known to produce mini-tsunamis that can drench - and occasionally drown - the unwary standing several kilometres away.

I had encountered my first iceberg only two days before and already I was smitten.

There, framed in the cabin window as I swished back the curtain, was a series of vast white carvings, apparently suspended between the twin blues of sea and sky.

The fascination never dimmed as, over the ensuing days, Hurtigruten's MS Fram steered a careful course up Greenland's west coast and back, through a floating sculpture park of ice formations in the shape of castles, pyramids, battleships and every kind of life form.

Getting there

Barbara travelled to Greenland with Hurtigruten. The Glaciers and Icebergs itinerary departs on 12, 19 and 26 June on board MS Fram. This nine day voyage costs from £4079 per person including eight nights full board on the ship, return flight from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq and transfers. Flights from the UK to Copenhagen are extra and can be booked through Hurtigruten from £295pp, 0844 448 7601

Fragile as a Lalique sculpture or solid as an office block, some were scoured pebble-smooth by rocks and tides, others pitted like golf balls or striated like corduroy. And not just white and grey, but shot through with azure, bottle green and even black where water in the berg had melted and refrozen, filtering the light.

At Ilulissat - the place of icebergs in Greenlandic - we explored the mouth of the 60km mile Kangia icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where huge bergs, some up to 1.5 cu km, that have taken a year to jostle their way down from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier spill out into the bay.

Climbing to the viewpoint just outside town, a vista of jagged ice stretched to the horizon.

Later, we gazed up from a small boat in awe learning about the dangers of fishing amidst these monsters.

Greenland, the world's largest non-continental island, is an Arctic wilderness five hours by plane from Copenhagen. Though larger than Europe, 81 per cent of the country is ice, 3km deep in parts and containing ten per cent of the world's fresh water.

The habitable area is a thin skirt of land between ocean and icecap on which sit 65 towns and settlements along a coastline longer than the earth is round. Home to just 56,000 people, 50 species of bird and 15 types of whale (yes, we did see glimpses) as well as reindeer and musk ox, the landscape here is surprisingly varied.

On our first evening, we could have been in the Scottish Highlands amidst grey velvet hills. At Qeqertarsuaq on volcanic Disko Island we hiked through a verdant valley to a waterfall, then back along a wild black coast reminiscent of Cornwall, past flat-topped red rocks that would not have looked out of place in Arizona.

There are no trains on Greenland and no roads connecting settlements. So the best way to sample the scenery is by ship - and preferably one that provides real context for your visit to this remarkable place: not just lectures, but opportunities to meet locals and understand Inuit culture.

Our expedition team included a marine biologist, a geologist, a social scientist and a Greenlander whose account of his year in a remote settlement - cut off by sea ice for six months - where the winter temperature in his bedroom plummeted to -25C helped us to understand the harshness of life behind his countrymen's broad smiles.

As we arrived at Ukkusissat, home to 150 souls, at 10pm, the sun was three hours from setting and the tiny settlement was bathed in a golden light.

But neither that, nor the warmth of the welcome, nor the red, green and blue of the matchbox houses could disguise the bleakness of a village slammed up against a dark wall of rock, reeking of fish and echoing to the braying of the most important animal in Greenland - the sled dogs, without whom winter fishing and hunting would be
impossible.

A milder picture of settlement life emerged a few days later at Itelleq, further south, chocolate-box pretty and more prosperous.

Here, the heads and hooves of four newly-slain musk oxen were neatly lined up on the quay in welcome, while the meat was carefully butchered nearby.

Each of us was assigned a family to visit and our hostess, Pauline, proudly told us - through an interpreter - that she and her husband had helped to hunt and kill the animals we had seen and which would provide food for the village for some weeks.

MS Fram has all the necessary comforts, including a magnificent panoramic lounge for iceberg and whale watching and top-deck Jacuzzis-with-a-view.

My colleague, an extreme athlete of 33, hiked alone for hours, returning moments before the last inflatable left the quay.

I was less ambitious but walked several kilometres almost every day through breathtaking countryside.

Greenland surprised in other ways. I came expecting dark seas and brisk weather: it is generally a chilly 5.9C in August. In fact, the sun shone and most afternoons saw us basking on the deck in temperatures up to 20C.

But global warming also means that the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier has retreated 15 km in the past four years, so that its mouth is now on land, rather than in the water. As this happens, the icebergs it produces - which allegedly include the one that sank the Titanic - are expected to become gradually smaller and less spectacular.

At present it remains unspoiled. We encountered only one other cruise ship. And then there is oil, discovered recently off the Greenland coast, to the delight of the country's government and the horror of environmental campaigners, who see another paradise under threat.

How will that change this pristine landscape?

My advice is: don't wait to find out.

    Last updated: 9:54am, March 16 2011