With some 60,000 inhabitants, comparable to Den Helder, it is the least densely populated country in the world. And yet it has made the front pages of all the major newspapers.
Text: Bart-Jan Brouwer
Images: John van Helvert
Online editorial staff: Mical Joseph
Greenland is hot. Literally - with melting ice resulting - 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 US president has his eye on the ice island. No doubt because of its strategic location in relation to troublemaker Putin and the new navigation routes that are being created in the polar region now that the ice is retreating there; the raw materials - including diamonds and uranium - that will soon be coming closer to the surface as Greenland becomes greener; and as a project developer, he probably sees room for some sky-high hotels, since tourism is an important source of income there. Besides, geographically it is part of North America. And more deals have been done in the past.
Louisiana was bought 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 have a go? The Danes, however, refuse to enter into a dialogue on the sale of the semi-autonomous island. They can't sell Greenland, because they don't own it. And they don't want to get rid of it either. Because both countries strengthen each other. Because of Greenland's location, close to the 'treasury' of the North Pole, Denmark suddenly has an important role to play in world politics. And Greenland relies, in addition to revenues from fishing and tourism, on half of the 500 million euros in subsidies that Denmark provides annually. On Greenland we also don't meet anyone 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 of Trump's fantastical delusions.'
The general opinion in Greenland is: you can buy anything in the world, but not a country. In any case, land is not for sale in Greenland. If you want to build a house, you need permission from the community. And once the house is built, it is the property of the residents, but not the piece of land it is built on - that remains the property of the community. Incidentally, this is not the first time that the United States has attempted to annex Greenland: in 1867, the Danes knocked on the door and in 1946 they offered 100 million dollars. Three times is the charm, Trump may have thought. But again America is biting the bullet. Oh well, does it matter so much? When it comes right down to it, the Americans will do what they want on the world's biggest island. They are not strangers there. When Denmark was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, it stopped sending subsidies and goods to the faraway province. The Americans gave Greenland a helping hand, in exchange for military bases on the island. Kangerlussuaq, where our journey begins, was established in 1941 as a base for the U.S. Air Force. No Trump Tower here: our sleeping place for the night, Hotel Kangerlussuaq, is located in the airport - up two flights of stairs from the baggage carousel and you're in the lobby. There's no elevator, there's no construction going on in the Heights. To reach our room we have to walk through long corridors. Forget something in your room twice a day and you've already done your daily dose of 10,000 steps. Apart from an indoor bar and restaurant Muskox, where the cooking is surprisingly good, Kangerlussuaq - a handful of barracks - has little to offer. Or there is: 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. Do not expect sloping greens and a modern clubhouse: it is a bare sandy plain on which 18 little flags have been pinned in a jumble, a square meter of green plastic forms the tee and an enlarged shoebox serves as the canteen. Nevertheless I am going to tick the number 1 of my bucket list here.
Iceberg town Ilulissat, located at Disko Bay.
From Kangerlussuaq runs the longest road of the country: 37 kilometers right through the tundra. The first part was built by the Americans, because they had a weather station further on that had to be accessible. The second part was an initiative of Volkswagen, who wanted to test their cars on ice and therefore extended the road to the edge of the icecap, where the company had a testtrack from 2002 till 2005. Nowadays, buses with tourists gratefully use this route between Kangerlussuaq and the ice cap. The track is not made of shiny asphalt at all: it is a bumpy ride of two hours. Sometimes we are reminded of the presence of American soldiers in this area. An area where they exploded bombs that they didn't want to take back in 1992 has been fenced off with white flags after children found a live mortar there. Not much further on we pass the wreckage of a fighter jet, which couldn't land because of bad weather and ended up, circling above Kangerlussuaq, out of fuel. The pilot managed to get to safety using his ejection seat. These American memorabilia, however, are swallowed up by the immense 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 icecap, the lower the vegetation becomes.
It is Sunday. And apparently there is no flying on Sundays here: when John and I arrive at Ilulissat airport and walk into the departure hall (also the arrival hall), the alarm goes off. We quickly go outside again. It is empty, quiet, not a dog to be seen. Okay, we are a bit early for our appointment, but isn't there always some activity at an airport? After a few minutes the alarm stops. We walk back inside - the alarm goes off again - and go along the luggage belt to the gate, to see if we see any activity on the runway. Zero, there isn't even an airplane there. Haunted airport. Then I get a call from the pilot of Air Zafari with whom we have arranged to meet: the flight has been postponed for an hour because better weather is on the way. An hour later Helmut arrives, almost at the same time as someone from security, who has come out on the alarm and looks at us inquiringly. "Come sit in our lounge," the pilot invites. "Then I'll provide coffee and WiFi, and get the plane ready in the meantime." A cup of black coffee and a handful of Quality Street candy later, we finally roll down the runway and 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, from which the descending 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 kilometre deep at the beginning and only two hundred metres at the sea's mouth. The really big icebergs get stuck there and stop the flow. They only reach the sea in dribs and drabs, where they follow the current to the south. From the air we spot the same fin whales, four in total, that swam in the wake of my kayak a few moments earlier. We circle above them, 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 silent airport we quickly put a few Quality Street candies in our pocket.
The big nothing
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 simply are cold - the wind blows from the direction of the icecap - and prefer to stay inside. We do see an American, a tourist from Colorado. "My wife doesn't like the cold, so I came alone," he says. 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, prefer to look at the beauty Greenland has to offer." John and I continue our way through the village. Dogs everywhere, fishing nets, boats. But no people. Perhaps during the crossing we saw a resident of Ilimanaq on a boat among the ice floes - gun in hand, waiting for a seal to stick its head out of 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 a coat for a polar climate. But not for the high temperatures we're facing now." Her family has kept dogs for three generations, but nothing like this has happened before. We say goodbye and walk on.
The Inuit are not exactly a tidy race. Everywhere around the simple houses mountains of rubbish are strewn. The contrast with the tourist houses is huge. They are clean and tight, the result of a mathematical formula, with triangles and equal surfaces. Through the wall-to-wall windows we have a magnificent view of the sea from the living room and the bedroom. A beautiful place for reflection, to relax, to get some fresh air. To stare at the horizon and let the trip through Greenland sink in. What an impressive nature. You have to see it to understand it. May our children, and their children and the many generations to follow, also see this. Stop the melting! The journey is over. The wind blows, the water splashes, I surrender to the big nothing. And let life, slow as an iceberg, slide by.
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