Nanortalik – Place of Polar Bears

Today in Nanortalik I learned that if the ice mass that covers 85% of Greenland were to melt, it would raise sea levels by approximately 20 feet and that would see most coastal cities (including Brisbane) pretty much pooched.  Cheerful thought indeed.

Nanortalik means Polar Bear Country or Place of Polar Bears but we were duly warned not to expect to see any polar bears, the most likely sightings of polar bears would be a rare sighting of one floating past on an ice berg.  It is a town of barely 1500 people with another 1200 living in surrounding nearby villages and seems to consists of a school, a couple of supermarkets, a tourist information centre, a very rocky cemetery, a fishing factory, a small museum, a church and of course a couple of pubs.  Today it is sunny, cool (about 6-9C) and quiet here… like eerily quiet.  It’s summer holidays yet with the cruise ship having attracted a handful of children that were playing up to the tourists, we couldn’t hear any children playing in the streets as we walked through town.  There were cars going past and one random ambulance driver (who seemed to be cracking laps looking for an incident to attend), but once those vehicle noises faded away, walking through the middle of town the only noise that could be heard was the crunch of our own boots on the gravel underfoot.

In the local market – hair products, throat lozenges, fungus cream and CCI standard. Above the local church.  Below some Polar Bear claws for sale as souvenirs (about $300 each). Brightly coloured houses, perhaps to stand out against the snow during the winter. It must be a very hard life here with the Inuit people having survived here for as many as 5000 Arctic winters – it’s cold enough here for me in the middle of summer.  They lived on hunting for seals, musk ox, polar bear, arctic hares and whales; working together as a community to gather food and whale oil and blubber for fuel.  Living in small collaborative village communities, warfare is almost completely unknown to the Inuit people here and communal assistance is guaranteed from their fellow villagers – this is how they have always survived, by helping each other.  Many people even now rely on communal water stations as they have no plumbing to their houses and we couldn’t imagine what it must be like in the dead of winter having to go outside with your 5 gallon jerry can to collect water from the town’s communal water stations.

In the local market – hair products, throat lozenges, fungus cream and CCI standard.

The people are quite friendly and we are told that Greenlanders firmly believe that they live in the most beautiful place in the world and that we, the outsiders, are the less fortunate ones.

Greenland is really beautiful – the landscapes are dramatic, the light here has a truly lovely quality, the towns are colourful and the people are friendly.  On top of that we have been blessed with truly fortunate weather so much so the Maitre D’ is convinced the Captain has a remote control for the weather.  Having said that, unless I was heading for the Artic, I’m not sure that I would come back… which is really unusual.  Cruise travel tends to give you a taste for a place which usually leaves you wanting to come back and see a place ‘properly’.

Qaqartoq in Greenland

We spent two days at sea in the Arctic Ocean shrouded by pea soup fog in every direction heading for Greenland from Iceland.  Every now and again, a peep of blue skies would appear out our window or a glimpse of the horizon would temporarily appear in the distance, but for the most part we glided quietly and calmly through the ocean with nothing but the predictable consistent lowing of the fog horn keeping us company.  It would have been an eerie and maybe even spooky sort of environment to traverse in a creaky old sailing ship back in the day… but in our modern ocean cruise ship with it’s lively bars, restaurants and entertainments it was barely any different than crossing the Pacific in bright blue skies with the wind behind us.

This morning we were set to arrive at 7am in Nanortalik, a small town on an island of the same name just off the southern tip of Greenland.  But the weather had different plans for us.  An early announcement by the Captain let us know that there was very high winds and terrible weather conditions in the Nanortalik area that they were not going to be able to operate the ship’s tender service safely and for a brief moment we all thought we were going to have our shore day cancelled and we would miss the port entirely (which happens on a semi regular basis when cruising, the Captain and the ships company can’t control the weather and if conditions are not conducive to safely making port, then all bets are off).  Instead the Captain informed us that conditions were considerably better in our next stop of Qaqartoq (Kwak-kwat-ock) which was barely a few hours away and we would be making out way there hoping to port at 9:30am and if conditions permitted, we would double back to Nanortalik tomorrow. So we had a more leisurely start to the day than anticipated.

We had been told to expect 5C outside and possibly wind and afternoon scattered showers and all rugged up and went to shore by tender in merino under layers, beanies, jackets the works.  Only to find ourselves ashore in beautiful sunny skies and within walking 100m from the tender jetty, desperately stripping off layers of clothing as we overheated in the beautiful sunshine. 

Greenland is another one of those places I never thought I’d travel to – it’s incredibly remote and for a large part of the year incredibly hostile as far as the weather is concerned.  It is the worlds largest island and at 873,000 square miles is nearly the size of Alaska yet has only about 57,000 permanent residents.  

Given that about 85% of Greenland is covered with a permanent ice cap which is several miles thick in some areas, the crazy people who choose to live here are a sturdy, practical sort of people.  The population is predominant Inuit, though there were some small periods around 900AD where Danish and Norwegian vikings inhabited the area when Erick the Red landed in souther Greenland in 982 and decided to found a settlement.  At the height of the viking settlement, there were perhaps was many as 5000 inhabitants living in over 300 farms but they did not mix with the Inuit or learn their survival skills for Greenland’s conditions which were infinitely harsher than Norway or Denmark, and so the viking populations died out at various points (though it seems debatable if this was due to plague or a mini ice age drove them away).

Today Qaqortoq is a small seaside town of about 3000 residents (roughly the same as the number of people on our ship if you count the crew), who concentrate on farming, folk arts including stone carving, commerce, education and a little bit of tourism.  

We started off our day heading for a fur tannery and saw lots of interesting clothing made from seal skins, local sheepskins and even a polar bear skin rug  😐  Yes… not sure how I feel about that.  But I can tell you that polar bears are nowhere near as soft and fluffy as they look and their fur is coarse and bristly.

After the tannery, we made our way into the little town via a walkway scattered with rock sculptures carved into a cliff face.  

At the end of this artistic walk way was a town square with a small gravity fed water fountain with a nearby fish market.  Only once we got there, I didn’t actually see any fish – only whale meat for sale, which we heard was massive chunks of minke and pilot whale.  The Greenland Inuit people are not engaged in commercial whaling operations, however they appear to rely on whale meat to supplement their diet of reindeer meat.  I could be wrong about that – but they are definitely not hunting whale for mass export. Having spent many days earlier this year watching whales frolicking close to our zodiacs in Antartica just last March, it was a bit confronting to see these huge chunks of whale meat hacked up on tables for sale in the market.  Those beautiful majestic animals…  :/  The meat is a dark, dark ox blood red compared to the bright red we are accustomed to seeing in beef and it looks heavy and dense somehow, and no, we did not consume any whale meat and I’m not sure I would had it been offered to me.

After the fish market we wandered over to the local church and had a poke around the town.  It’s a very picturesque little place nestled on the edge of a rather rugged looking circular bay.  A lovely little creek runs through the town to the bay and has glacially cold fresh water running through the town.  We walked and pottered about checking out the local shops and talking to some of the locals before eventually heading back to the ship.  

Once back on board we decided to head to B750 for a wee sail away party to see if we could spot any icebergs as we left Qaqortoq.