Arctic Cruise Through The Icescapes Of Greenland
It is past midnight and although I am cold and getting sleepy, I can’t leave the deck because we are sailing past a church, a horse, a mushroom and one of Easter Island’s famous statues. And — isn’t that the Arc de Triomphe glinting in the sunlight ahead?
Scattered across the sea so they resemble a ghostly giants’ graveyard, each entity, along with assorted “dinosaurs” and “pyramids”, is formed from a colossal chunk of luminous ice.
Only a few hours earlier I had spied my first iceberg — an anonymous slab one kilometre away — from the restaurant window of our ship, the MS Fram. Now they were coming faster and ever thicker, just out of reach of the ship, but not my camera.
And midnight “daylight”? In Greenland, in June, the sun takes a look at the horizon, shakes its corona and, like Fram’s passengers, refuses to go to bed.
Get Ready For Unique Scenery
We had experienced an unprepossessing introduction to Greenland. Our four-hour flight from Copenhagen landed at the silty end of a fjord surrounded by low mountains.
I had no idea how fantastical the journey would become. MV Fram, the expedition ship of Norway’s historic Hurtigruten line immediately raised expectations.
Unlike in Spitsbergen — another destination for Fram in the summer – you’re highly unlikely to see polar bears here. What you will witness are spectacular seascapes, knife-topped peaks and formidable cliffs plunging into steely blue water.
And icebergs. Thousands of them, from the size of a suitcase to small islands complete with mountains, valleys, cliffs and waterfalls. Some are crinkled, stained with the blue moraine that grinds out valleys over eons; more often, they are white and porcelain-smooth.
At just a few places along this coast, the immense icecap of Greenland squeezes water that was frozen thousands of years ago into narrow fjords and thence into the sea. It was almost certainly one of these icebergs that calved off into Disko Bay (our cruising territory) and sank the Titanic in April 1912.
The day before we reached ’berg territory, a few passengers joined a hike up a mountain — in my case halfway, which presented the opportunity to pause on the rocks and grill our guide Janus about life in this Arctic outpost.
He spoke about the fishing industry that accounts for 90 per cent of Greenland’s exports, of hunters and the surprisingly refined education system. Fascinating stuff, but
I was distracted by the view; a sea fog gently kissing the nearby islands and forming a lacy skirt around the distant snow-capped mountains.
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Distracted By The Sights
Back on Fram, we dined on salmon and beef accompanied by decent wine, all the while hypnotised by the hostile environment on the other side of the window. Very few of the peaks we observed have ever been climbed. It was difficult not to feel overwhelmed.
Two days into the voyage I looked out of that same window across the narrow channel between Disko Island (Greenland’s second largest island, in Baffin Bay) and the mainland at a sea choked with sunlit ice.
Fram slowed to walking pace, nudging aside smaller bergs with her double-skinned, ice-strengthened hull. Apologising to my tablemates, I dashed out to the deck for a better look. I expected to feel humbled by the icescape; instead I returned to my cabin feeling energised and elated.
Soon we reached Uummannaq, an island that consists of an almighty mountain in the shape of a lopsided heart, with just enough sloping rock at its base over which to sprinkle a village.
It’s a pretty one, too, with the local community following the Greenland tradition of painting every wooden house in a different colour. From a distance, the settlement looked like a spilled tin of Quality Street.
We gathered to meet Ole, a fisherman and hunter, who explained how, in the winter, he ventures out and hacks a hole in the ice to catch halibut. The equipment he showed us was crude, but effective.
Later, hiking round the base of the mountain, pockets of saxifrage poking from grass that is still bleached grey from a long, harsh winter served as a reminder that humans are not the only form of life to show tenacity here.
Likewise the dogs: there are as many hounds as there are people. These packs spend six months of every year dragging the sleds of people like Ole for many miles across the solidified sea to a fishing or hunting spot.
Sailing away at 10pm that evening, the sun transformed a cliff face off Fram’s port side into a gilded temple. More than 480 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, it was warm enough to wear my lightest jacket on deck.
Back in Disko Bay we pushed up a fjord to try to reach the tongue of the Epiq Sermia glacier, another that spews an endless stream of icebergs.
We didn’t quite make it — the sea was too stiff, even for Fram — but we were placated by a mini-safari on board the Polarcirkel boats — the small rubber craft that are integral to these voyages.
“Look out for the reflections,” suggested Andy, one of Fram’s team of naturalists; my lens was aimed at a waterfall roaring down the rock face.
Nearby, access to the aptly named Icefjord was eased by the presence of Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest town, at its mouth. I walked round the back to an overlook above the raw shore.
The fjord, connected to the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere, is rammed with ’bergs — a 60-kilometre jumble of ice — the pure silence interrupted only by the occasional muffled “gunshot” sound of another lump sheering off.
I haven’t said much about our ship, Fram. It’s tempting to acknowledge her simply as a robust auditorium from which to observe all this theatre, but she adds much to the occasion.
The observation lounge is a fine place to meet others for a drink and the restaurant is bright and cheerful. Standard cabins are comfy but compact; those wishing to linger in them would be out of place on this voyage.
Icebergs come in every size and shape, including those with wonderful arches. I kept my eyes peeled but the “arch” proved elusive until, finally, Fram slid past not one but three perfectly-formed turquoise-rimmed tunnels.
As if to amplify the moment a small whale formed a brief crescent nearby. A day to go, heading south, I crossed the Arctic Circle — in a kayak.
A simple pole on a bare islet marks the geographical landmark. We paddled along slender channels before emerging in the fjord to find a battery of untamed mountains, their arrowhead peaks stabbing the empty blue sky.
Only now did I feel suitably small and humbled.
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This article was written by John Wilmott from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.