Touring South Greenland
Fjords with Glaciers and Floating Icebergs
Only the small coastal area of Greenland isn't covered with ice. Sometimes there even are grasslands between the mountains, but the landscape is mostly glaciers and fjords filled with icebergs. By the fjords in the south lie villages like Qaqortoq, Hvalsø, Igaliku, Narsaq, Narsarsuaq, Qassiarsuk and remains of settlements from the Viking era. The region is perfect for quiet walks. The highlight is a boat tour along the huge icebergs in the Qooroq ice fjord.
Travelogue & photos: Marianne Komen
I fly from Copenhagen to Narsarsuaq in 4 hours and 20 minutes, the last part over the ice cap and snowy mountain peaks of Greenland. Upon my arrival at the airport I am told that there is no boat to Qaqortoq because its harbor is filled with ice. The boat will sail to Narsaq and the rest of the trip will be taken by helicopter. Helicopter? Oh, helicopter! Is that the way things go here?
Soon the boat sails between icebergs and we can hardly believe our eyes. The blue water, white icebergs and rocks along the coast, I love it! A seal lies on the ice; when we approach, it slides elegantly into the water. When we are near Narsaq harbor, the skipper stands up and tacks carefully between the floating ice.
In Narsaq a car takes me to the helicopter port. The procedure for boarding is the same as for a regular flight, even though the guy who gives me the boarding pass is the same one that later tears off the strip. I can appreciate the comic value of the diminutieve procedure.
Soon I am enjoying the landscape below us: bare mountains and white wads in the beautiful blue of the sea. The flight takes only ten minutes, but it's worthwhile.
Small boats push icebergs from the harbor
Qaqortoq was founded by Anders Olsen in 1775 as a trade colony, near an Inuit settlement. The harbor was often inaccessible because of the pack ice. As it turns out, this is still the case.
Qaqortoq is the largest town in the south of Greenland, with a population of approximately 3,200. It is an educational center with elementary and high schools and institutions for vocational training.
In Qaqortoq I am welcomed by someone from the hotel. First we drive up the mountain, where we have a great view of the town. The colorful wooden houses on the hills offer a pretty sight.
I get a spacious room with a wonderful view of the harbor. I put my sunglasses on - really necessary because of the bright light - and go for a walk.
Soon I have left the town center and walk along the Qaqortoq Fjord with its many icebergs. The beauty of this view is in stark contrast with the junk along the road: fridges, car tyres, rope, etc. At some point the road ends and there I turn and walk back.
At the fishing port three men are busy unbinding nets. I arrive at a square with a small fountain from 1927, designed by Pavia Høegh, a local architect and carpenter. Around the square are benches on which people sit with some merchandise.
I keep walking and pass the red wooden Frelserens Kirke (Savior Church). It was constructed in Norway in 1826 but had to wait for several years in Copenhagen (Denmark) for transportation to Greenland. When there finally was a ship available, it was lost on sea with the construction materials in it. The wood was saved, but it took until 1832 before the church could actually be built..
Behind the Tourist Office you can visit the Stone and Man project. Ana Høegh, a well-known sculpturer in Qaqortoq, took the initiative for it. Artists from all Scandinavian countries were invited in 1993 and 1994 to make stone sculptures in the open air. I like the faces hewn from rock by Ana herself, but also the rock with the fish.
After dinner I go to my room and enjoy the view of the harbor. A small boat is pushing icebergs toward the open sea. Another boat helps and together they push a lot of iceberg out of the harbor.
A man on the second boat jumps on a large floating piece of ice and throws a rope like a lasso around the iceberg. The boat pulls the iceberg by the rope to the open sea, where the rope is retrieved.
Meanwhile is has gotten late. The ice looks yellow in the light of the setting sun. The mountains are shrouded in fog.
The next morning around 10 AM, when I am on my way to a tannery, the fog slowly lifts. A guide from the Tourist Office takes us there by way of the harbor, where old ships are in a dock-yard.
We go to a room in the tannery where hides are nailed to the walls. We are informed about different types of leather, among others that of harp seals. The guide's English is so bad that a lot of the information is lost on us. We can only take pictures in this room, everywhere else in the tannery it's not allowed.
We see huge machines in which the hides are washed several times. In another room four men stretch hides on large soft slabs. Those are taken to a large room where the hides stay to dry.
When the hides are dry, they are checked and then laid out on a machine that measures their size and thickness. Everywhere are huge stacks of hides. Most are exported to Denmark and Russia.
Finally we visit a workshop where ladies behind sewing machines turn the hides into slippers, bags, gloves, coats, etc. In the shop next door these articles are for sale.
When I am outside again, the sky is clear and the sun shines. Temperatures are nice, even though I still need my coat. I walk to the museum near the harbor. It is a big, dark building from 1804, which used to be the residence of the colonial governor. There are many pictures of life as it used to be and mannequins in traditional garb.
From the ceiling hang some kayaks, made of shaved seal skins on wooden frames. They look fragile. Next to the kayaks there are old Inuit weapons that were used for hunting.
Upstairs you can see the blue and red guestrooms. Knud Rasmussen (Danish arctic explorer) and Charles Lindbergh (famous pilot) stayed here in the 1930s on their travels.
A few ruins remain from the Viking era
After lunch I walk to the boat that will take me to the Hvalsø church northeast of Qaqortoq. The trip takes one and a half hours and on the way I see numerous icebergs. In a desolate place stands a ruin. The skipper docks at a landing and we walk over a hill to the church. A few sheep are startled by us and disappear to elsewhere on the mountain.
Hvalsø settlement was founded in the fourteenth century by an uncle of Erik de Rode ("Erik the Red") and had a church, a farmhouse and a few other buildings. These ruins are the best preserved ones from the Viking era in Greenland. The site is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
The church was built around 1300 and only its thick walls remain. A marriage took place here in 1408, it was the last registered happening in this settlement. There are no records of later events in Hvalsø.
Looking over the fjord, I try to imagine what it was like in those days to live in this deserted place, but my imagination fails me. Also because there is nothing to be seen but some walls and stones.
We take a walk uphill to see the church from above. Back on the boat the skipper suprises us with coffee and tea. On the way back we enjoy the boat ride and we disembark contentedly in Qaqortoq.
After dinner I take a walk along the famous fjord and then change direction toward the mountains. I pass a cemetary where one of the graves is surrounded by a white fence.
A little farther is a rockwall with more artistic carvings, this time shaped like hearts. To the left of the road I see the large Lake Tasersuaq below me. It is 4 kilometers long and serves as a water reservoir.
Grasslands and pink flowers between arid mountains
Outside Qaqortoq harbor float many ice floes. The boat meanders over the water at high speed to avoid the floes. The trip to Igaliku takes two hours and the surroundings are beautiful, to our left steep bare rocks and to our right gently sloping mountains with snowy peaks.
The rocks in the water are overgrown with beautiful green moss. Near a bend in the Tunulliarfik Fjord I see three mountains in three different colors and when we are past the bend two pretty icebergs are waiting for us.
In the hamlet of Igaliku, with a population of around 30, our boat docks next to four other boats. It's a hassle to get on land. I buy some fruit and drinks in the little store and walk to my hotel. The room is simple but okay.
Einar, Erik de Rode's best friend, settled here and called his farm Gardar. It became one of the most important places during the Viking era. The Viking parliament and court of justice were housed in Gardar.
After the introduction of Christianity Gardar became a bishop's residence. The first bishop was appointed in 1124. He commissioned the construction of a cathedral of which only a few stones remain.
I am a little disappointed when I see it. I like the church better. It was built with stones that were already used a thousand years earlier. The interior of the church is simple, with red benches and blue walls. In the vestibule is a small museum with photos of life as it used to be here.
I take a path that turns left from the fjord. Soon there is nothing but nature around me. Mountains overgrown with scant grass, a few sheep, but also bare rocks. The peace and quiet are salutary and it's wonderful to walk here.
I pass some farms and the landscape in the valley is all of a sudden green with grass. Beautiful small birds dance ahead of me from bush to bush. In the distance I see a blue lake.
On the way back I sit on a rock for a long time, looking at the fjord and enjoying the overwhelming silence.
After dinner I take a walk uphill via a different path. There is a bench from where I have a view of some houses in Igaliku. I try to take a picture of a small bird with yellow chest.
The next day the weather is beautiful, sunny and with nice temperatures; the wind is still cool, so it's a perfect day for a walk. The route along the fjord is supposed to be wonderful, so I walk that way. I follow the coast line for a while. There is no path and the ground is uneven. After half an hour I decide to walk back.
A little farther on the path I took yesterday I take a real path uphill. The path rises slowly and again there is that wonderful silence. All of a sudden I hear sounds I don't immediately recognize, but a little later it becomes clear that it is a stream with rapids.
I leave the path and walk toward the river and follow it for a while. I eat my sandwich on a rock and rest a little. On the other side are bare, rocky mountains. Two airplanes leave white traces which contrast beautifully with the blue sky.
Here too lots of little birds. The foliage of the low shrubs in still budding, but I see many little pink flowers.
The river bed gets wider, but there is no water in it. Eventually I arrive at a lake with a huge rock on its shore. The road continues around the lake, but I have been walking for a couple of hours and begin to get tired.
I walk back leisurely taking the same route. Half-way I get company from a few sheep, who skittishly run up the mountain when they notice me. In the distance I see the two huge icebergs in the fjord.
Ladies wear tradional costumes on official holidays
A quarter to nine in the morning a car takes me to the boat that is waiting in Itilleq. It's a nice ride over a high mountain with views of the houses in Igaliku on one side and farmhouses in the green valley on the other side.
Itilleq lies on the other side of the peninsula and the 3 kilometers long road that leads to it from Igaliku is called King's Road because it was constructed for the visit of King Frederik in 1952. There is nothing in Itilleq itself, it's just a place where visitors arrive by boat.
When I arrive there, the boat is docked all the way down from the edge of the fjord. I have to get there via steep stairs against a wooden wall. The skipper down below leads my feet step by step from void to the next step and finally with a large step on board.
I'm the only passenger for Narsaq. We sail through Eriks Fjord with to our left and right mountains and icebergs in the sea. After an hour Narsaq becomes visible.
Narsaq lies at the foot of Mt. Qaqarsuaq and has a population of about 1,700. The local museum is at the harbor. It displays a loom and traditional clothing.
It also has pictures and texts from which I glean that it is still a mystery why the Vikings left 500 years after the arrival of Erik de Rode in 986. It is assumed that climate change (Little Ice Age) was responsible, but scientists are still researching the matter.
Narsaq's other museum is closed, and so is the house that has a collection of minerals and rocks. But there is a workshop. Some men are sitting outside in the sun. When I arrive, they go inside and show me what objects are made from reindeer antlers.
Greenland is known for its Tupilaks: human figures carved out of wood, bone, ivory or horn. According to old legends, these figurines had magical powers. I let myself get talked into buying a Tupilak made of a reindeer antler. The old man is really happy and shows me at his work bench how he makes them. Nice to watch.
I walk out of the village and end up behind it. I take a road to the right from which I see a lower lying beach with lots of icebergs. This is the nearest I have ever been to these masses of ice.
The road leads to the mountains where I see snow or ice on the peak. All kinds of flowers that I saw before grow along the road, but all of a sudden there also is a field of cotton grass.
The road rises gently, so I don't notice. Deep below me is the bowl of a branch of the fjord. I sit down for a while to observe birds, mostly sea gulls who are very busy. Then I continue on the road, which apparently leads into the mountains. It's late in the afternoon, so I return to my hotel.
On the way I see a helicopter fly on and off, carrying something on a cable. Later I find out that there is drilling going on in the mountains and that the samples are transported by helicopter to the village, where they are prepared for transportation to Australia, where they will be analysed.
Sitting in a restaurant I see from a distance that the ice in the fjord has increased. After dinner I take another walk on a road that leads up to the mountains immediately behind the village. The views are wonderful again.
I get up early, because today is a national holiday. At 8 AM there is a gathering at the community center. A man and a woman prepare the national flag to be raised. A group of youngsters is standing by the building with flags.
Someone speaks, someone else has a long speech, too. The flags are hoisted, a choir sings the national anthem and some other songs that are incredibly slow.
After the official part everyone quickly goes to breakfast. On the way people shake each other's hands; people shake my hand too. In front of a building stand tables lined up with trays of bread and coffee and tea. Everyone serves themselves and chats. The choir sings again. Many women wear tradional clothes.
I walk to Gammelhavn, a former harbor that is now a marina. Nearby are colonial houses (from 1830-1850) and also a reconstruction of a Viking house. The church (1920) is made of white wood, with red window frames and a red roof. It was designed by Pavia Høeg and was built on a hill.
I wander through the hamlet and pass the cemetary, where the graves are marked with identical white crosses. I see lots of faded blue lupines in the frontyards of houses.
After lunch I return to Gammelhavn because I see a lot of people there. I just missed the spectacle. Two men carry a container filled with fresh meat onto the loading platform of a small truck. I walk to the quay and see that the water is red with blood. A hunter on a boat rinses his hands in the water and then leaves. Apparently they just slaughtered an animal here.
Behind the community center is a small valley. People are sitting together on the hill. On the other side are small tents and I see several large barbecues with lots of meat on them. There is a small stage where the choir performs, alternated with solo singers.
Children play in the brook that runs through the valley. They jump from stone to stone in bare feet and try to catch small fish with their hands.
It's time to go back to the hotel, because the boat to Narsarsuaq leaves at 3 PM.
During my walk I don't meet a living soul
The boat first has to get fuel and then we sail into the fjord. It is a nice trip that takes about an hour. In Narsarsuaq a car takes me to the hotel.
Narsarsuaq lies in a wide river valley and has a population of about 160, most of who work at the airport. When Denmark was occupied by Germany in 1940, the authorities in Greenland asked the USA for help.
The Americans built a military airport in Narsarsuaq for flights between the USA and Europe. In 1943 a military hospital was added and thousands of troops and civilians worked here.
Narsarsuaq Airport became a civilian airport in 1959. The first tourists to visit here were people from Iceland who wanted to see the land of their ancenstors. Nowadays it's a hub for the south of Greenland.
Walking from the hotel in the direction of the airport, I pass an arboretum. It's strange to see trees here all of a sudden, mostly Siberian larches. They were planted in the 1970s to find out if trees would thrive in the arctic climate.
I keep following the road and by a bridge I see high mountains with a narrow waterfall. A little farther parts of the rocks are orange, probably because of minerals. It's nice to walk here and again I don't see a living soul.
The Viking house and Viking church are replicas
This morning I visit Qassiarsuk, on the other side of the fjord. The same skipper as yesterday is waiting for me. He tells me he'll let me off the boat on a beach and points to the landing where he'll pick me up in a couple of hours. The beach is on a small bay with smooth pebbles in which your legs sink. I also have to climb a steep incline.
A short Greenlander walks down the slope to help me. I slowly walk up the hill between this man and the skipper. On the way the short Greenlander stumbles and I have to help him get up. Without too much trouble I get to the top of the slope and wave goodbye to the skipper who sails away.
Qassiarsuk is the former place of residence of the Viking Erik de Rode. Hij was exiled from Iceland for three years in 982 and sailed to Greenland. After his return in 985 he convinced a group of people to go with him and settle in the new land.
His wife Thjodhildur converted to Christianity and by threatening a sex boycott she forced her husband to build a church. Because of this, Greenland had its first church around the year 1000.
Erik's son, Leif Eriksson, sailed with a small crew, probably in the year 1000, to North America. He was the first European to set foot on that continent. Later I see a cartoon in a museum in which a Viking asks about Columbus, to which a Native American responds that he hasn't arrived yet.
A short old man takes me to the Viking house and points at what there is to be seen. The house is a replica of the original which was discovered in 1932. It looks a bit too new, but still gives an impression.
There actually isn't much to be seen in the small space. There's a loom and next to it beautiful pants made of arctic fox fur. On the floor lie more nice hides.
A little farther is a church, also a replica. It is very small and has an altar with a few candles.
I take a path to the inland and pass the remains of what must have been a storage building. On a nearby rock is a work of art by Hans Lygne. On the other side, at the edge of the cliff, is a ruin of an Inuit house.
The current church is made of red wood, the inside is painted blue and the interior is simple.
The path takes me up to Otto Frederiksen's house; he founded the hamlet in 1924 and raised sheep here. His house is now a museum with period furniture and lots of pictures.
At the summit of a mountain stands a statue of Leif Eriksson. He looks tough as he watches the landscape.
I take a path parallel to the fjord to my left. To my right are rolling hills with a few scattered houses. Small white flowers cover the ground in some places and there are rocks on which orange moss grows.
There is a store near the boat landing where I buy something to drink before I go back to Narsarsuaq.
Qooroq ice fjord
Martini with over a thousand years old ice
In the afternoon I take another boat trip. The boat Puttut is already waiting in the harbor. It is a boat from 1952 and according to the skipper it was always used as a passenger boat. We get blankets for the cold. We leave the fjord and sail to the left.
Speaking of icebergs: there are lots of them here and they are larger than the ones I saw before. The skipper takes the boat slowly around one of them to give us the opportunity to take pictures.
We arrive in the narrow Qooroq ice fjord. There are large icebergs, but also smaller ones that have almost completely melted. And there are some transparant blue ones. Under water the ice looks greenish and the icebergs are usually larger under water than the part above the sea surface.
From a distance of about 9 kilometers we see the Qooroq glacier. The engine is cut and we float in silence. We are served a martini with ice that is over a thousand years old.
We toast and listen with our glasses near our ears to the creaking of the ice. It's all extraordinary. I am handed a large chunk of old ice and see lots of air bubbles in it.
After half an hour the skipper turns on the engine and we slowly sail back. On the way we pass the Arc de Triomphe, a huge ice mass with a hole in the middle.
We also see part of a large iceberg break off and fall down, changing the shape of the iceberg drastically. It is a wonderful experience and we are sorry to be back on land a little later.
With a last view of the ice cap deep below us, we fly to Copenhagen the next day. It was a wonderful, extraordinary trip.