With around 60.000 inhabitants, it is the least populated country in the world, comparable to Den Helder. And yet it made the front pages of all major newspapers. Text: Bart-Jan Brouwer
Image: John van Helvert

Online editorial: Mical JosephGreenland is hot. Literally – resulting in melting ice – and figuratively. The country was in the news in 2019 due to high temperatures, a record number of peat fires and especially due to the attention of Donald Trump. The American president has his eye on the ice island. Undoubtedly because of its strategic location with regard to Putin's troublemaker and the new shipping routes that are emerging in the Arctic now that the ice is receding; the raw materials – including diamond and uranium – that will soon come closer to the surface as Greenland becomes increasingly greener; and as a project developer he certainly sees room for some sky-high hotels, since tourism is an important source of income there. Moreover, geographically it belongs to North America. And more deals have been concluded in the past: Louisiana was purchased from France in 1804, Florida from Spain in 1819, Alaska from Russia in 1867 and the Virgin Islands from… Denmark in 1917. So why not throw a ball? However, the Danes refuse to enter into dialogue about the sale of the semi-independent island. They can't sell Greenland at all, because they don't own it. And they don't want to lose it either. Because both countries strengthen each other. Due to the location of Greenland, close to the 'treasury' North Pole, small Denmark suddenly assumes a mature role in world politics. And Greenland, in addition to revenues from fishing and tourism, lives for half of the 500 million euros in subsidies that Denmark provides annually. We don't meet anyone in Greenland who wants to become an American. Some laugh at Trump's offer, others find it insulting. In a newspaper I read the reaction of a Greenlander: 'If in my lifetime I see a Trump Tower in Nuuk, I should hope that global warming causes the ice underneath it to melt and send it to Atlantis, where it belongs along with the rest or Trump's fantastical delusions.'

Military bases

The general view in Greenland is: you can buy anything in the world, but not a country. In any case, land is not for sale in Greenland. Anyone who wants to build a house needs permission from the community. And once it is there, the house is owned by the residents, but not the piece of land on which it is built - that remains the property of the community. By the way, this is not the first time that America has attempted to annex Greenland: the Danes were contacted in 1867 and offered 1946 million dollars in 100. Three times is a charm, Trump may have thought. But again America is blunt. Oh well, does it matter that much? When push comes to shove, the Americans do what they want on the world's largest island. They are no strangers there. When Denmark was occupied by the Germans in World War II, it briefly stopped sending subsidies and goods to the distant province. The Americans extended a helping hand to Greenland in exchange for military bases on the island. Kangerlussuaq, where our journey begins, was founded in 1941 as a base for the US Air Force. No Trump Tower here: our place to stay for the night, Hotel Kangerlussuaq, is located in the airport – up two flights of stairs from the baggage claim and you are in the lobby. There is no elevator and there is no construction going on. To reach our room we have to go through long corridors. Forget something in your room twice a day and you have almost completed your daily dose of 10.000 steps. Apart from an indoor bar and restaurant Muskox, where surprisingly fantastic cuisine is served, Kangerlussuaq – a handful of barracks – has little to offer. Or yes: there is a museum that looks back on the presence of the Americans here from 1941 to 1992. And there is an 18-hole golf course. Don't expect rolling greens and a modern club building: it is a brackish sandy plain on which 18 flags are pricked criss-cross, a square meter of green plastic forms the tee and an enlarged shoebox serves as a canteen. Still, I'm going to tick number 1 on my bucket list here.

Iceberg city Ilulissat, located on Disko Bay.


The longest stretch of road in the country runs from Kangerlussuaq: 37 kilometers, straight through the tundra. The first part was constructed by the Americans, because they had a weather station further away that had to be accessible. The second part was an initiative of Volkswagen, which wanted to test its cars on ice and extended the road to the edge of the ice cap, where the company had a test track from 2002 to 2005. Nowadays, buses with tourists gratefully use this route between Kangerlussuaq and the ice cap every day. By the way, it is by no means made of shiny asphalt: it involves bumping and being shaken for two hours. Sometimes along the way we are reminded of the presence of American soldiers in this area. An area where they exploded bombs that they did not want to take back in 1992 has been cordoned off with white flags after children found a live mortar there. And not much further we pass the wreckage of a fighter jet, which could not land due to bad weather and eventually ran out of fuel while circling above Kangerlussuaq. The pilot managed to get to safety with his ejection seat. However, these American memorabilia are swallowed up by the immeasurable grandeur of nature. Lakes, dunes and mountains, which have a rusty glow due to red heather, orange mosses and yellow leaves. The closer we get to the ice sheet, the lower the vegetation becomes.

Ghost airport

It is Sunday. And apparently there are no flights here on Sundays: because when John and I arrive at Ilulissat airport and enter the departure hall (also the arrival hall), the alarm goes off. Get back outside quickly. It's empty, quiet, not a dog in sight. Okay, we're a bit early for our appointment, but there's always some activity at an airport, right? After a few minutes the alarm stops. We walk inside again - the alarm sounds again - and go along the baggage claim to the gate, see if we see any activity on the runway. Zero, there isn't even a plane there. Ghost airport. Then I get a call from the pilot of Air Zafari with whom we have agreed: the flight has been postponed for an hour because better weather is approaching. An hour later, Helmut arrives, almost at the same time as someone from security, who has responded to the alarm and looks at us quizzically. “Come and sit in our lounge,” the pilot invites. “Then I provide coffee and WiFi, and in the meantime I prepare the plane.” A cup of black coffee and a handful of Quality Street sweets later, we finally roll over the runway and take off into the clouds. We see nothing, everything is white around us. Until the cloud cover breaks open and we see even more white: glacier Semeq Kujalleq, whose calving chunks of ice fill the fjord. The massiveness only becomes clear when we fly over it. The fjord is so full because it is one kilometer deep at the beginning and only two hundred meters at the mouth of the sea. The really big icebergs get stuck there and stop the flow. Only gradually do they reach the sea, where they move south with the current. From the air we spotted the same fin whales, four in total, that swam in the wake of my kayak moments earlier. We circle above them, it's so beautiful to see them from the air. A little later Helmut puts us back on the ground. On the way back from the still quiet airport we quickly put a few Quality Street sweets in our pocket.

The great nothingness

John and I walk through the village. We break into a former fish factory, walk around the church, try to get an impression of how the people live here. We don't see them. They avoid contact or are simply cold – the wind blows from the direction of the ice cap – and prefer to stay indoors. We do see an American, a tourist from Colorado. “My wife doesn't like the cold, so I came alone.” When asked what he thinks about Trump's bid, he replies: “I support half of his views. But in this case I can't follow him – this is diarrhea of ​​the mouth. I don't listen to it, I prefer to look at the beauty that Greenland has to offer.” John and I continue our way through the village. Dogs everywhere, fishing nets, boats. But not people. Perhaps during the crossing we saw a resident of Ilimanaq on a boat between the ice floes - with a rifle in hand, waiting for a seal to stick its head above the water. Finally we see a female with her Greenland dogs. She tells us that one of her dogs died this summer from overheating. “They have fur for a polar climate. But not for the high temperatures we are now confronted with.” Her family has owned dogs for three generations, but something like this has never happened before. We say goodbye and continue walking.

The Inuit are not exactly a tidy race. Mountains of rubbish lie everywhere around the simple houses. The contrast with the tourist houses is great. They are clean and sleek, the result of a mathematical formula, with triangles and equal surfaces. The wall-sized windows give us a wonderful view of the sea from the living room and bedroom. A beautiful place for reflection, to relax, to get a breath of fresh air. To stare at the horizon and let the trip through Greenland sink in. What impressive nature. You have to see it to understand it. May our children, and their children and the many generations that follow, also see this. Stop the melting! The journey is over. The wind blows, the water laps, I surrender to the great nothingness. And let life, slow as an iceberg, pass me by.The church of Ilulissat.