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Greenland: Europe's last vestige of frontier travel

Greenland and the Greenlanders have long formed the forgotten frontier of the known world. Although part of North America by geography, Greenland is considered part of Europe by colonisation. However, it is also characterised by a uniqueness informed by the mixing of Inuit cultures with those of the Old World, and by the challenges inherent in getting to and living in its unforgiving environment.

Despite extreme remoteness and climatic hostility, Greenland is now through two of the modern world’s driving forces for temporary migration – tourism and untapped natural resources – reclaiming its allure as a destination which characterises in the minds of those it attracts the furthest limits of travel, a position it held when first colonised by Erik the Red and how the first European settlers viewed it when they fled Iceland and Norway in the eleventh century.

Fleeing a death sentence from the Norwegian crown, Erik and his followers set off to find a land rumoured to exist two days sail to the West. They made the trip in boats made from tanned hide from Iceland – then the limit of European knowledge, and apart from the fjords and the area immediately adjacent to the coastline, little more has been found out about the island since – most of the majestic peaks you may have seen from Trans-Atlantic crossings have never been named, let alone climbed.

Erik called the land he founded Greenland, with the popular version of the story being that the name was chosen to encourage people to head there in the first documented case of tourism-sector spin-doctoring. However, it wasn’t the name which brought the Norsemen to Erik’s settlements in Greenland – for Vikings it really was a paradise, with bountiful fish, seal and whale for food, and narwhal (the tusks of which were sold as unicorn horns) and polar bears (the must-have accessory for every self-respecting medieval monarch) soon providing lucrative trade.

As then, Greenland today doesn’t need any petty gimmicks to sell itself. The first view of the splintered ice floes off its coast, or the grandeur of the ice cap are more than enough on their own – Greenland is a land of incomparable beauty which defies description. That natural splendour was responsible for one of world travel’s most elusive scenes as our plane descended into Kangerlusuaq – people enjoying being aboard a plane. Passengers wantonly disobeyed fasten seatbelt signs as they ran from one side of the aircraft to the other, and were even allowed into the cockpit to take pictures and marvel at the scenery – the first sign that the rules which govern the rest of the world don’t mean much this far North.

The prevailing sense of a Wild West system of Law and Order was also keenly felt the first night in the bars of Nuuk, the little capital which if it weren’t for Danish handouts would struggle to qualify as a village in many parts of the world, and pub bouncer is among the best paid jobs in the country. It wasn’t hard to see why. Alcoholism is a blight of many northern and indigenous communities, and where the two combine with a four guns:one human ratio, results are predictably catastrophic: while Greenland has one of the lowest petty crime rates anywhere, per capita murder figures are off the charts, and the suicide rate dwarves even those in the Nordic countries.

That creates another problem – burial. Greenlanders believe the soul of the dead transfers immediately to a newborn, and as graves can only be dug to a depth of around a metre, and even then only at certain times of the year, the small wooden crosses which dot the outskirts of towns are placed less for mourning and more for warning of the presence of corpses mummified in the permafrost.

The problem of digging is also responsible for blights of rubbish tips, which the government is trying to control. Locals used to burn refuse, or sail it to sea on icebergs, but since new laws came into place selling trash for disposal is now one of the many ways they live well off of the Danish government.

Despite its colonial power being massively on the wane, Denmark’s influence is everywhere, not least in a population which saw Inuit customs of liberal views on sex and monogamy meet the lust of European explorers. This is still evident today with a Nuuk nightlife that ranks among the most raucous and hedonistic anywhere. In most children’s heads Greenland might be one of the possible homes for Santa, but Greenland after dark is most certainly adults-only.

It’s pretty clear Greenlanders don’t worry about hangovers, describing them merely as brief interludes between parties, but there are plenty of opportunities to clear your head after too many Greenlandic coffees (which is made from the not-especially traditional method of pouring lit Grand Marnier from high over a glass of whiskey, Kahlua, coffee, cream and ice to create “the Northern Lights”) – most obviously by heading out into nature – with an armed escort, of course.

Polar bears aren’t as common a threat as say in Churchill, Canada, but the need to carry a shotgun as protection against them serves as a clear reminder this is not your normal safe and sanitised destination. We didn’t get to eat the meat of one kill we saw near Tasiilaq, but anyone offended by meals including raw whale (sublime), seal fat (less so), seal blood stew, and dolphin carpaccio should remember to leave their western morals on ice – this is comfort food for those coming back from extreme treks across glacial terrain, or hunts on near-frozen seas.

So why isn’t everyone going? Greenland faces problems common to many of the world’s remaining mysterious destinations, such as Bhutan or Antarctica – first and foremost being cost. Flights to Nuuk go for the type of prices you’d expect to be able to rent your own place for for a start, and that’s without even beginning to contemplate internal travel, normally undertaken in helicopters.

Then there is the cost of living, though if you consider the journey undertaken by a banana to get to an East Greenland supermarket, it’s not surprising that you can pick up a shotgun in the next isle for just a few krone more. In short, the cost of individual travel is prohibitively expensive – the vast majority of tourists arrive on organised tours and are retirees – most visitors we saw had survived considerably many years beyond Greenlandic male life expectancy.

Other problems include an infrastructure which is non-existent. And we’re not talking third world non-existent here: despite being bigger than Mexico, Greenland’s longest “road” is – depending on who you ask – 14 kilometres long (to the airport), with the second longest clocking in at about half that. Travel here is done by air, by boat, or by dog sled. Outside of Nuuk, getting even the most basic items such as water can be problematic, as can washing – there is only one shower block for the entire population of the East coast, and Greenlanders have traditionally got around this by washing their hair in urine, for example.

Although remaining a place on the edge of both the world’s geography and conscience, Greenland and its surging independence movement is beginning to call out for attention from the rest of the world, and for those willing to meet the challenges which characterise life in the Arctic, it is unarguably one of the most rewarding destinations on Earth.

Leon Addie