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Notes from an author: Niall Griffiths

The aurora, chance meetings and lonely trips to inland ice — the award-winning author on his experience of Greenland and why it needs our protection

Notes from an author: Niall Griffiths
Niall Griffiths

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The international hub of Kangerlussuaq consists of a runway, a hotel and a few houses. It’s here you get off the big jet from Copenhagen and onto the little propeller-plane that will take you to the capital, Nuuk. Such planes have a ceiling of around 10,000ft, and some of the mountains here reach 15,000. At times, as I looked out of the window, I had the sensation we were flying down an immense corridor of grey rock. The landing strip at Nuuk starts at the very edge of a low sea cliff, which means the plane must skim the sea to meet it; as I gazed out at the strange group of icebergs below me — long, thin and white — they turned over in unison to watch the plane pass over and show smiles and spread flippers, as if to hug. Beluga whales. Good god. What a place.

My first night saw me out in the bay on a small fishing boat, on calm, inky waters; the thin clouds parted to reveal the aurora, those delirious green curtains, reflected with great clarity in the water around me. The Lights above, the Lights below, and me in between; it was like being in someone’s dream. Rapturous.

Nuuk contains over a quarter of Greenland’s nearly 60,000-strong population. I’ve been in smaller cities (St David’s, say), even smaller capitals (Jamestown, for example), but Nuuk has the feel of a capital, with that mixture of administrative and political centrality alongside edginess and sensation of potential. Only here, though, will you be offered for sale, in pubs, tiny sculptures of men or animals intricately carved from seal bone (called tupilak), or necklaces made from sinew and shark’s teeth.

Early one morning, in the central square, a man sat on a stool next to the big seal he’d shot minutes earlier; each time I passed him, there was less and less of the seal, until there was absolutely nothing left; people would buy steaks, cut fresh from the carcass; the guts went for dog food, the flippers for soup, even the head found a buyer, and the bones were bought for tupilak. The intolerance of waste was admirable.

During another day I blagged a trip onto the inland ice. I was in a pub one night talking to a very drunk and very companionable man at the bar who, it turned out, was a helicopter pilot, and was due to take some prospectors out to a site the following day. I persuaded him (it wasn’t hard; alcohol is very expensive in Greenland) to let me tag along, drop me off on his way out and pick me up on his way back. I expected him to regret this the next day, and to shrug and say, “Sorry, but you should never listen to a drunk Inuit”, or something like that. But no, he greeted me warmly and had a seat put by for me in the chopper. The weather was set for fine. He gave me a black cape to wear, so that he’d be able to see me, and which could be used as a temporary shelter should a flurry arise. Wrapped in this, on a sheet of flat white ice that linked horizon to horizon, watching the chopper get smaller in the sky and hearing the fading sounds of its blades, I began to become aware of a loneliness so huge I’d never thought it possible. The earth was white, the sky was white; I began to lose all sense of what was up or down.

I went for a stroll and found the remains of some carnivore’s dinner; a few wrenched feathers and a splash of blood, the only colour in this bleached world, shockingly, astonishingly red. I had the urge to weep for all living things. It was a beautiful moment, and unique in my life; I was aware of this as it was occurring, and I’ll be forever glad that I did it, but I’ve never been so pleased to hear the approaching whutter of a helicopter as I was then.

Like all of the world’s remote and beautiful places, the people who were there first, unmappable generations ago, are struggling, if not suffering. Relatively speaking, the Danish colonisation of Greenland has been fairly benign, but the predatory capitalism poised to pounce will most definitely not be. There are those among us who see the melting ice sheet as a chance to make money, by exploiting the ores and hydrocarbons and minerals that are now becoming accessible. Scores of thousands of foreign workers (in a country of just 57,000, remember) have ‘GREENLAND’ marked somewhere on their calendars for this year. Chinese, US, Russian, British, Japanese and Korean companies have all staked claims, in a country that already has the highest youth suicide rate in the world. It is a fragile and precarious place, on many levels, including the geopolitical, and I dread to think what might happen to it in the coming years.

The Inuit see the ocean as heaven. The run-off pipes from the mines about to be gouged into the delicate earth won’t care about that, and nor will those who ordered their construction. And the Inuit see the aurora as the souls of children about to be born, dancing in happiness; soon, there will be smog, and light pollution, and exhausts enough to mask them from view. If you ever go, go soon. It’s not cheap to reach, but if you can afford to go and you don’t, it’ll cost you a lot more.

Niall Griffiths is an award-winning English author of novels and short stories.

Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)