Greenland dog sledding expedition

4 April 2005

Complete cock-up with SAA today. After having generally experienced above average service from the carrier, they managed to do absolutely everything wrong today.

First we were left standing in the queue for nearly two hours waiting to board. Then we were told to go and stand in another queue as the plane had technical problems. By the time we were finally taken to a hotel, it was well past midnight and still had to try and arrange supper. Worst of all, not once did we manage to get information from the flight crew, who managed to be consistently impolite and evasive.

05 April 2005

Things got better (eventually!) after the in-flight entertainment system malfunctioned en route to Heathrow. Got there over an hour late, but watched “The Incredibles” twice and administered a few bloody mary’s in order to maintain good spirits.

The airport itself constituted complete chaos as usual, my meeting with the UK publisher had to be conducted by mobile phone as we waved at each other across Her Majesty’s Customs. Managed to at least exchange books, courtesy of a friendly Immigration Official who offered to courier packages back and forth between us.

Due to my Jhb delay, I was relegated to the last flight of the evening to Reykjavik. All worthwhile though as I ended up sitting next to a very interesting Icelandic theatre actress. Good conversation, best food I’ve had on an airline in ages and excellent Chilean red wine – wish all airlines delivered like Flugfélag Islands!

We hit a high altitude ice storm as we approached Reykjavik, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A glance out of the starboard window offered a ringside view of the aurora borealis, unarguably one of Mother Nature’s most breathtaking shows. I watched in awe, sipping red wine as the Northern Lights blazed across the skies in a breathtaking display of greens and violet, as if some great celestial artist were practicing flowing brush strokes upon a canvas of pure black velvet.

06 May 2005

Fucking cold, man. Last night dipped to around -8˚C, and current daytime temperature hanging around -3˚C. Tripped down to the airport and am waiting to board my flight to Kulusuk on the East Greenland coast.

Flights all running according to schedule, but this does not prevent me from spending a couple of hours at Kulusuk. Your approach to this miniscule airport bombs in across jagged peaks, freezing fjords and terrain as inhospitable as you’ll ever find on this planet. And once you’ve checked through customs, you need to fight your way through the brabble in order to book a seat on the Alpha Air chopper to Ammassalik.

A fifteen minute flip over the icy sea later and I finally touch down in Tasiilaq where Anders from East Greenland Tourism is waiting for me. I’ll be spending the next few days with him and his family, reveling in the stunning scenery unfolding from the living and across the still fjord.

Snow is expected, but right now it is still and slightly overcast, with Polhelmsfjeld Peak reflecting in the tranquil waters of Kong Oscar’s Havn. Whenever the sun breaks through the wispy clouds, it colours the mountains in amber tones, while the sea ice glitters glaringly white in the foreground. It’s good to be back in Greenland.

07 April 2005

Day dawns with snowflakes swirling down from the sky. Anders and I set off to the museum, where Olaf shares his extensive knowledge of the traditions of Greenland with us. I see the original dog-sled and harnesses, as well as the kayak, harpoons, knives and other tools of the traditional hunter’s trade. Incredibly impressive is the early clothing made from bearded sealskin and intestine. This is as hi-tech (in a simplistic way) as you could imagine, with the outer garment boasting adjustable cuffs, hood and wrist. Seal fat rubbed into the skin makes it both pliable and waterproof, thus enabling the early Inuits to not only survive, but thrive, in temperatures as low as -60˚C.

It is however soon time to move on from the past to the present and we set off to Imaka’s house. He’s apparently untouchable as far as dog-sledding in East Greenland goes, and has won all the local competitions. According to Dienes, the musher I’ll share my sled with, he is also a superb hunter with at least 15 polar bear kills to his name. This is good news, as I’ve realized I have no chance of outrunning even a sloth in my huge snow boots and sub-zero parka.

I spend the rest of the morning learning to use the whip, learning the various commands which control the dogs and familiarizing myself with the sled. All goes as well as can be expected of a Boertjie from the Karoo, but it is obvious that this is not going to be a walk in the park.

After lunch it is time to apply some of my dodgy theory in practice, so we harness up the dogs and head up into the flower valley. Only, this time of the year, the so-called flowers are buried under a few feet of snow and the dogs find it heavy going with 4 of us on the sled. I basically watch Dienes but I get the chance to shout the odd command, much to the amusement of the rest of the people on the sled.

08 April 2005

Still snowing when I wake up and a heavy fall during the night has blanketed the whole of Tasiilaq. The village looks like a true winter wonderland, with the red, yellow and blue cabins bedecked in a fluffy layer of cottonwool white.

We head up to the Valley of Flowers, where Dienes and Imaka are waiting with the dogs to induct me into the annals of Ammassalik history. I’m the first tourist in Greenland to do a dog-sledding license and cause quite a stir, to the extent that I’m interviewed by a national TV crew while my Inuit instructors look on in bemusement.

Everything starts off according to plan and I soon have the dogs harnessed and hitched to the sled. The runs up and down the valley are fine, if slightly erratic, with the dogs giving the odd questioning glance over their shoulder every now and then. “Probably just trying to decipher my Seffrican accent” I think as I belt out my Trrrrs (right) and Yo-yo (left), Dehs (go), Ghu-ghu (Pull) and Eyhs (stop).

Then it is time to go solo and I set off with my team of 8 dogs up a gully thick with powder to test my hill skills. Fort the first time I actually have to use the whip but the dogs respond well and I ride the stanchion downhill while controlling the team with the brake.

When the time comes to do the actual license test, I am so full of confidence that I completely stuff things up. As I set off, the dogs cross over the sled tracks towards home and decide to call it a day despite a barrage of threats, begging and pleading from the sled. By the time I eventually get them to turn (with a little help from Anders) things are looking a bit grim.

It gets worse though; after executing a relatively flawless right turn, I cut my corner way too short towards the left and manage to solidly wedge the sled between a snowbank and a rock. Only one thing for it –dismount, reel in the hounds, dislodge the sled and sort out the tangle. Apparently I do this quite well and I get return to a smattering of laconic applause. All in all, it seems I’ve done enough to deserve the license, but I certainly would not want to be a passenger on a sled with me as the driver.

09 April 2005

Imaka and Dienes both felt if it continued snowing through the night, it might be necessary to postpone the dog-sledding expedition by a day or two. So when I wake up to dense white flakes sifting down, I’m not what you would call a happy puppy. The weather forecast is however adamant that the weather will clear, so we make the call to head out despite the weather.

Departure is delayed for half an hour when Dienes realizes he has left the mah-te (raw narwhal fat and skin) behind. Apparently this is an integral food group necessary to sustain you in these icy conditions, so I wait patiently as he dashes off to get the good stuff.

From Tasilaag, a tiny community of approximately 1600 souls, we head onto the pack ice to follow one of the hunting routes traversing the valleys and mountains of Ammasalik Island. Our destination is Tinitequlaaq, an even smaller community situated some 42 km to the north of the mainland. Approximately 300 Inuits, nearly exclusively hunters, live here in a smattering of small wooden houses perched on the edge of a frozen bay.

In perfect conditions, dog-sled drivers are able to reach Tinit in 4 – 5 hours, but with the deep snow and white-out conditions, we’re looking at at least double that time. With the temperature well below zero, I don’t mind the deep snow drifts and steep slopes, as this forces me to stay active and therefore warm. On some slopes, the dogs sink into the powder up to their shoulders and walking up behind the stanchions is like being on a step-machine to hell. Every step sees you sinking into the snow past your knees as you break through the crust into the layers of powder below.

Late afternoon we dip into a valley and start climbing up the Tinit Glacier, a never-ending glittering white slope looming more than 4 km skywards. The early evening sun is gorgeous, slanting in a soft amber glow from the west, illuminating the dogs and sleds in golden hues. Nothing else moves upon this gargantuan space of ice grinding towards the Arctic Ocean, just the 4 of us and 24 dogs sweating towards the summit under a blood-red sky.

By 10 pm, the sun has dipped away behind the jagged maw of a serrated range of mountains. In the distance, still a good 2 hours away, we can just see the twinkling lights of Tinit, and the temperature is going one way – down. I’m busy freezing my bollocks off, basically because I’m a stupid Southern hemisphere boy and am completely under-dressed for the icy conditions. The temperature is probably around -8˚C, and it is only because I borrow an extra down jacket from Dienes that I manage to cling to the sled for the next couple of hours.

Thank God for Imaka, as there is no moon to illuminate our rocky, dark zone descent along the steep face and onto the frozen sea ice below. For what seems like hours, the Tinit lights beckon like Greenlandic “kuupaajur” (or ghosts) in the snowy night, until at last I hear the village dogs beginning to bay like a wolf pack sighting its prey.

I thaw about half past midnight, which is also about the time we sit down to tuck into a huge pot of boiled seal. It tastes like a pig broiled in a bathroom geyser and looks as appetizing as roadkill and comes without veggies or carbs, but we’re hungry as hell, so we sit down, shut up and eat.

10 April 2005

We leave Eliazer’s house (where we crashed on the living room floor) after an early breakfast, basically retracing our route across the Tinit glacier. Still chilly, but this time I’ve made sure I’m armoured against the big chill. This time, however, it is not the big freeze I need to watch out for, but rather an over-eager Inuit guide on a mission to impress his learner driver. “Today” says Dienes with a confident smile, “We’re going to break our own trail.” “All well and good as far as I’m concerned”, I think as we grind our way through metre-deep drifts.

The sense of solitude is utterly mindblowing as we climb along a narrow valley towards the summit. And when Dienes and I reach it 2 hours later, the panorama across the pack ice glittering on Sermilik Fjord is as breathtaking as the powderslog to the top. After running next to the sled for most of the way I’m about as knackered as the dogs. But we have a problem. Dienes has managed to lose the way.

Fuck. This means we have to retrace our steps halfway down the valley in the hope we’ll find the right ravine down towards our camp at Ukiveraij. Also, I’ve lost a lot of faith in his abilities, so the next hour is a touch strained. Fortunately the ravine we’re bombing down turns out to be the right one and we find Anders and Imaka waiting for us in a half-frozen state.

Another hour and a half of push-run-sled sees us reaching camp on the Sermilik Fjord just as the sun smears its last tangerine rays across the ice-strewn horizon. I grab a few shots and then help to unhitch the dogs and pitch the tents. It is dogs bollocks cold (-15˚C according to Imaka) so we all squeeze into one tent to dig into a steaming pot of polar bear stew. (It may not quite be haute cuisine, but it hits the spot and keeps me warm while the icebergs groan and creak on the tide outside.

11 April 2005

Big mother of a day. Up at six to hit the steep ascent towards Mittivakkat Glacier. Moment of trepidation (read : nearly crapped my Mountain Hardwear pants) when I break through the ice and slip into a windhole up to my hips. Luckily the sled is right next to me, so I can grab hold of one of the struts and haul myself back onto firm ice.

The glacier itself is a bitch of a climb, looming like a shimmering white highway against the eggshell sky. We stop at an ice cave, glimmering like aquamarine glass within the belly of the glacier beast, to watch the autumn sun refract within the facets of ice tens of thousands of years old. Atop the immense white icescape, two rocky peaks pierce the heaven. These are the Mittivakkat, or breasts, for which the glacier is named.

We ascend past the base of the left-hand peak and traverse a yawning ice ledge onto a plain where we see the first sign of human habitation since leaving Tinit. Snow mobile tracks criss-cross the fresh snow and the dogs hammer onto this firmed-up highway as they get their first sniff of home.

There is still more to conquer though. In typical understatement, this series of high-speed descents bombing from the heights of Mittivakkat on to the frozen lakes of Flower Valley is simply known as “Steep Hill”. More like “Steep as Hell”, I think as we careen along, me bracing the front of the sled while Dienes stands on the brakes at the back.

It soon becomes clear that things are spinning out of control, with the rear dogs running hell for leather to stay out from under the runners. The first one goes down, but I manage to snatch his harness and keep him from under the sled by skidding him along on his side next to the sled. The next one goes down, but we manage to stop before doing him serious damage as he scrabbles for dear life under the front deck.

By the time we hit the lake, Dienes is sweating like a condemned man and I take over on the stanchions. A few more daredevil descents (and one helluva ramp of a rocky bank) bangs us down onto the sea ice. Tasiilaaq’s little wooden houses hove into view a couple of kms away and the dogs sprint into the home strait. We’ve made it and I have had the adventure of a lifetime.

12 April 2005

Basically a day of R & R, with me working on images and getting equipment ready for our trip up north. Dienes invites us to his birthday party though, and I get pressurised into eating fermented seal flipper. Call it rubbery meat covered in a layer of snot and tasting like cat puke and you’ll have ideal what it tasted like.

13 April 05

Flying north to Ittoqqortoormiit for the next leg of the sledding expedition; approximately a 2 hour flight to Scoresby Sound before connecting by chopper to the frontier town of Ittoq.

Literally set at the edge of the world (see Notes). Giant blue icebergs rumble against the horizon, with a handful of wooden houses clinging to a glacier-scoured hillside overlooking a frozen wasteland of shattered sea ice. We meet Martin and Karina of Nanneh Travel, who treat us to a wicked combo of musk-ox steaks and Chilean red wine – superb meal and nice people.

14 April 2005

This will officially be the furthest north I’ve ever had a birthday. In fact, 71˚ north of the equator is the furthest north I have ever been (or probably will be) in my life. We join Martin, Karina and Emile (a local Ittoqqortoormiit guide) on the fjord at 9 am with the temperature hanging around -8˚C. Five layers of clothing seems to do the trick though, except for my cheeks and the tip of my nose, which bears the brunt of the climate’s hoary assault.

We head off to Kap Hope where Emile lives to pick up more provisions. Karina calls it Kap Hope-less and it certainly is a dilapidated and freezing little settlement. From here, the dogs cruise on to what we eventually name the Big Fucking Boring Fjord. On and on and on we bang, hurtling across a frozen highway traversing stinted koppies topped with grimy snow. (Hurry Fjord)

By 5 pm, after 8 hours of monotony, we eventually reach the huts at Kalk Dal (Gonaloj) where a polar bear stew rejuvenates our flagging spirits.

15 April 2005

From Big Boring Fjord we move on to Big Boring Ugly Delta and for a while there I wonder seriously whether the trip up to Ittoqqortoormiit has been worth my while. After our morning coffee break, however, things start looking up considerably. The dirty mounds of gravel shuck up and square out and soon it looks as if we’re traversing a Badlands canyon from a wintry Western moving set somewhere in Utah or maybe North Dakota.

From the mesa landscape, we cross onto a snowy plateau before helter-skeltering into an enclosed valley where patches of clear ice glitter amidst tufts of brown and tan and khaki moss. Martin fervently hauls up the brake when a flurry of snow grouse takes flight in front of the sled, dropping two of them with consecutive shots. Greenlandic birds (and many animals) do not see man as a threat, so the cock hangs around to see what’s up with his hens.

“Want to pop it?” Martin asks, handing me his “Little Ruger” 6.5 mm with its folding stock. I’ve just taken a photo of the snow grouse, but I figure we’ll eat them tonight, so I line it up in the cross hairs and plug it. Martin brings the birds over, makes a small incision in the chest and pulls out the heart, bloody and still warm. “Taste that”, he says, handing me the plum-sized organ.

Raw heart is not really my thing, but apparently it is Greenlandic hunting culture, so I take a tentative bite. It’s actually not bad at all – slightly fruity, like a firm grape with a hint of robust Chianti. Hannibal would be proud …

From here, the valley booms down onto the Storfjord, a stunning frozen waterway hemmed in by needle-sharp peaks and plummeting cliffs. A strong wind starts whipping up flurries of ice particles and while our sled hugs the right hand side of the fjord, Anders and Emile move over to the left. For all the world, their sled and dog team look like a miniscule ant as it crawls along the ice along the moraine edge.

In order to escape the bone chilling gusts, we round the corner and continue along the sea ice until we find a protected bay. The tents are pitched right upon the solid slab of frozen sea ice, with Thermarest mattresses, musk-ox hides and caribou skins laid on the floor to protect us from the seeping chill.

There are heaps of polar bear tracks about, some as huge as soup plates, so I keep a careful watch while setting up camp. Afterwards, Anders and I trek across the jagged sea ice to where a dark cave mouth yawns within the jagged cliff a couple of kms from the camp site. We take the rifle with just in case, but the largest inhabitant of the gloomy recesses proves to be a small and very nervous arctic fox.

We scramble into the back of the cave where the little fella has his lair deep within a narrow crevasse, then head back across the ice to our tents. The moon is up, glacier icebergs glitter like giant blue diamonds upon the pack ice and there is musk ox stew brubbling on the primus -just the night to end off an amazing day.

16 April 2005

Just after breakfast, we head onto the sea ice in the direction of Kap Grieg. It soon becomes obvious that this day ain’t going to be no party – jagged columns, crystal spikes, room-sized slabs and looming bergs bar our way wherever we turn. The dogs literally have to scrabble and fight for every foot gained, and time and time again the sled smashes to a halt against some immovable clump of ice.

I see my arse very early on; Martin is off the sled unhooking one of the lines when the dogs go into run-away mode, and I decide to make a jump for the brake. Bad move. If you’re going to take a leap of faith, don’t choose a slab of ice as your landing zone. A totally uncontrolled suicide slide slams me into the sled and I whack my knee an excruciating blow on the jagged metal spikes of the brake. Fortunately there are several layers of clothing to cushion the blow and there is no lasting damage.

We continue our full scale assault on the sea ice barricade, with me scouting ahead to look for the route of least resistance. This also allows me to grab great shots of the teams struggling through the frozen obstacle course. Sometimes I find myself a good kilometer in front ot the teams, and once or twice I crap myself when a block of ice assumes the outline of a one-tone, carnivorous polar bear.

It takes us a good 6 hours to cover the 14 km to Kap Grieg and the journey is not without mishap. The sled runs over the dogs twice and once Martin avoids having his leg crushed between the sled and an iceberg by split second reflexes. Small crevasses lurk everywhere and all of us get sucked into knee-popping falls at one stage or the other.

The weather has gone grim when we eventually get to Kap Grieg and the huts are up to shit. After a short conference, we decide to continue onwards for another 25 km to a better hut and hoping (and praying) for a more passable passage through the sea ice past Glascow Island.

The “angalok” spirits are with us and we make good time towards Lillefjord and past the looming, blue tongue of the Aage-Nielsens-Glacier(?), a gargantuan wall of aquamarine ice at least four storeys high and stretching as wide as a city block. Two moraine spines stretch in banded humps along the upper surface giving the glacier a sense of being alive, like some monstrous dinosaur snake dating back to an unremembered ice age.

Anders and Emile are way ahead of us by now, but we make good time and reach the huts at Kap Hoegh around 8 pm, just in time to partake in a port of narwhale stew as black as tar. Very potent, with a taste hovering somewhere in between charred beef and very strong fish, and guaranteed to warm you up after a day of battling the sea ice.

17 April 05

Misty as hell, so once again I miss out on seeing the northern lights. We’re looking at approximately a 5-6 hour trip back to town, so there’s no major sense of urgency in the hut at Kap Hoegh this morning. When we eventually set off, it is into a pea soup mist shrouding the rugged Greenlandic coastline.

The dogs hammer along at high speed though, sensing that we’re in the home strait now. Giant icebergs ghost in on the periphery of our vision, and every now and then a rugged outcrop looms through the haze to indicate our proximity to land. There is no sound except for the runners gliding along the ice and snow, and maybe an occasional growl or yap from the dogs.

We stop for a short break at the translucent green tongue of a small glacier to give me the opportunity to grab some pictures. Clear icicles spear down from the rippled wall of glacier, poised like some gigantic and curling wave frozen in its advance towards a distant beach.

The low clouds and all-pervasive mist mean that today is quite warm, and even the dense snow drifting down does not cool things down to an uncomfortable level. It’s a steep climb up from the glacier, with the dogs straining in their harnesses along a rugged and stoney ridge, but the landscape finally levels out onto a snow-covered plateau. Then gravity kicks in and we’re whooshing down into the valley pipelining right into the top end of town. It’s been a long and cold trip, with many a testing moment, but it is one of those experiences that will last a lifetime.

18 April 2005

Crammed into our little container rooms in Ittoqqortoormiit for most of the day. Weather’s crap outside, so I spend my time cataloguing the images and burning the CDs for Destination East Greenland.

There’s an old French woman and a Scottish tour operator in the building (for what of a better word) so I invite them to join us for a musk ox and olive stew with rice which I concoct. They have red wine and whiskey, so it is a calculated move which pays off handsomely.

19 April 2005

Beautiful day, but this little shithole is beginning to gnaw away at my stomach like a rat rasping through a cardboard box. The people (with the odd exception) are small-minded and conservative, looking warily upon outsiders as people not to be trusted.

Anders and I do a slide presentation to the city council, but literally receive no response. I could just as well have been speaking to the hard-edged icebergs drifting out upon the fjord.

Things begin to really fall apart when the mist rolls in around midday and the rumour reaches us that Air Iceland has cancelled the flight out of Constable Point. Nobody knows when the next flight will happen and no one really gives a shit, it seems.

20 April 2005

Hotel Fucking California. You can check in but you can never check out. The metal and plywood corridor with its fluorescent strip lighting is beginning to morph into something resembling the interior of an alien space ship and life is reduced to a series of rumours regarding a flight out of this grim and hoary hell hole.

I suppose it would have been better had we known what to expect, but the constant waiting around for news is depressing at best. By midday, it is clear that no plane will be flying in today. Not even a dozen beers and a bottle of Jack Daniels can improve out lot, but at least it lends an edge of comfortable numbness to our situation.

21 April 2005

Verging on the edge of setting fire to a public building or at the very least blowing out some innocent victim’s brains. Again there is no fucking plane, this time because of some ridiculous public holiday in Iceland.

I cannot take being cooped up in Ittoqqortoormiit for another minute and put on my running kit to thump onto the sea ice. Bugger the crevasses, bugger the polar bears, bugger this little drab town at the edge of the universe.

I get back a couple of hours later and feeling much better. Thumping along on the shimmering sea ice amongst glittering blue-white icebergs has at least added some perspective to our situation and certainly got rid of some of my frustration and latent aggression.

It is an unremarkable evening with me and Anders lying reading in our stifling rooms, occasionally wandering down the passage to make a cup of tea.

22 April 2005

A public holiday in Greenland today, so not much hope of escaping Ittoqqortoormiit. Breakfast is cold muesli with milk powder and, as the one shop in town is closed for the day, our prospects look rather grim.

But life can change in an instant and today it does so for the better. Air Iceland has scheduled a flight and the airport at Constable Point will be opened.

The sense of relief is immense, more than anything I supposed, because at last we know what is happening and not hanging around waiting for information.

The chopper ferries us across glaciers and slowly melting fjords to Constable Point, and less than an hour later we’re on board an Air Iceland plane bound for Reykjavik.

23 April 2005

Immense night on the town with Anders, followed by a hangover of monstrous proportions. Manage to negotiate a good meeting with UK publisher at Heathrow before heading back to Cape Town.

TIPS

If nature calls, put it on hold. Or hang on for as long as you possibly can. And when you absolutely have to go, make sure no dangly bits make contact with the frozen surfaces. Also, seal-, walrus- and polar bear meat is bound to make your shit black and stick (more info than you need, I know) so wipe that pucker well.

Apply suntan lotion religiously especially to the underside of your nose and chin as this is where the reflection will get you.

Constantly kick snow off your boot uppers to avoid this (a) wetting your boot as it melts and (b) then setting into a solid block of ice. Keep a look-out for ice patches and adjust your way of walking; what worked best for me was to go into a sort of ice-skating mode.

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