Discovering the story... of Greenland

| October 21, 2014

Toby Langley visited Greenland, a sparsely populated wilderness with a strong history and a wealth of experiences to enjoy.


When I was first offered the opportunity to visit Greenland, I wasn’t quite sure what to think.

Information on this huge island is confusing, due in part to its sheer size. Although larger than western Europe, the population sits at only just over 55,000, and most live in the tiny capital of Nuuk. With a population of only 15,000, it is cheerfully referred to as a city, which, by Greenland standards, I suppose it is. The remainder of the inhabitants are thinly spread over seventy or so settlements, scattered along the island’s shoreline. These settlements are today inhabited by an ageing and shrinking population of hardy Greenlanders, whose memories are a treasure-trove of stories chronicling the recent history of the country. As young people leave and head to Europe in search of work, the families left behind continue an existence which is still reliant on fishing the Arctic waters of the deep fjords and hunting for caribou in the dramatic mountains.


This ancient way of life, albeit with the addition of 21st-century technology, dates back to the arrival of the original inhabitants of the island. Called the Thule people, they migrated from Central Asia across the Bering Strait to Canada, and then broke through the sea ice to Greenland. These original inhabitants continued to migrate along the western shoreline, while Viking settlers arrived with Eric the Red and began farms in the more temperate south. There is evidence that the two different groups traded with one another for many years, before the disappearance of the Vikings during the 15th century. Little is known of what happened, but all records of the Nordic peoples cease around this time, with only the ruins of several homesteads and churches marking their passage through history.


Today, Greenland is part of Denmark, a legacy of its more recent colonial history. Although largely autonomous, there is a growing consensus that the time is right to push for independence. With the advent of global warming, the enormous Greenland ice sheet is retreating, revealing rich mineral deposits of uranium and gold which will provide revenue streams for the country, while the fishing industry is also doing well.

Mining and fishing aside, the country is also developing a fledgling tourist industry, although with only just over 2,500 UK visitors last year, the country is still very much off the beaten track. However, this may not continue for long; a variety of local companies now offer everything from guided boat tours around the historical ruins littering the coastline, to opportunities to meet local MPs. Alternatively, climb aboard a speedboat and venture into iceberg-strewn fjords.


Each settlement has its own claim to fame. For the town of Ilulissat, the highlight is Disko Bay with its enormous calving glacier, which now benefits from a Unesco world heritage status. The area offers opportunities to see icebergs as large as buildings crash into the sea, or winter experiences such as dog-sledding across the snow beneath the dancing northern lights. In summer, the incredible natural beauty of the landscape also offers excellent trekking opportunities. Meanwhile, the capital city of ‘Colourful Nuuk’, as described by the Greenland tourist board, offers a variety of restaurants, hotels and shopping opportunities as well as a fantastic national museum.


The Greenlanders themselves are a friendly and engaging people who are proud of their history. Tough and incredibly resourceful, they seem ready to embrace independence, although there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when this might happen. Nevertheless, the younger generation who left the country to look for work are now beginning to return to their pristine island wilderness as the economy improves. I can understand why as, having seen only a small part of this enormous island, I can’t wait to get back and explore the rest of this remarkable country.

View Cox & Kings holidays to Greenland >


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