The Stuff of Sagas: Trekking Erik the Red’s Land, Greenland

October 04, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Sunset over the Greenland ice capSunset over the Greenland ice capThe amazing view from our second camp


The Vanished World of the Vikings

The boat that had carried us the short hop across the icy turquoise waters from Narsarsuaq recedes across the fjord leaving a faint white wake as it weaves its way amid huge icebergs. It’s so quiet, the sound of its engine humming like an angry hornet takes ages to fade. We have alighted at the sleepy sheep farming community of Qassiarsuk to begin a six day trek across a peninsula called Erik the Red’s Land to the fishing port of Narsaq at its tip.

But before we set out, we discover why this peninsula has such an unusual name. A nearby sign mentions ‘Ruiner’ which refer to some of the most interesting and important Norse remains in Greenland. Qassiarsuk is close to the late 10th century farmstead, Brattahlíð, which is mentioned in the Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red). Supposedly founded by Erik the Red who was banished from Iceland for murder, Brattahlíð is the first Viking settlement in Greenland and the first to be established on the North American continent by Europeans. The Vikings thrived in Greenland for some five centuries before mysteriously disappearing. The disappearance of settlements such as Brattahlíð toward the end of the 15th century puzzles historians, but was likely the result of a combination of climate change due to the Little Ice Age, Inuit expansion, the loss of trade in furs and walrus tusks with Europe, and competition from the Hanseatic League.

Memorial to Erik the RedMemorial to Erik the RedErik the Red, banished from Iceland for murder, founded the Viking settlement of Brattahlíð

Several nineteenth and twentieth century archaeological excavations at Brattahlíð uncovered the foundations of late-medieval buildings, including a church with a rectangular churchyard containing human remains, and a well preserved long house. But in 1961, during the building of a school hostel around 200 metres away from the excavated church, several human skulls were unearthed. The following year five excavations took place which revealed a small church with a stone floor and thin wooden walls banked by layers of turf. Around it was a circular churchyard containing 150 interments.

According to the Eiríks saga rauða his son, Leif the Lucky, introduced Christianity to Greenland around the year 1000 by order of the Norwegian king, Olav Tryggvason. Erik did not renounce paganism for Christianity, but his wife Thojdhild did. She built a small church sited some distance from Erik’s farmstead so as not to antagonise him, which is mentioned in the Eiríks saga rauða. It probably served as the burial place for the earliest colonists before the larger church that had previously been excavated was built nearby. Around 1,000 years later, Thojdhild’s tiny church once more came to light.

Leif the LuckyLeif the LuckyErik the Red's son, Leif, discovered Vinland in North America

In 2000, to celebrate the millennium of Norse settlement in Greenland, the Icelandic government funded a reconstruction of a Viking long house and Thojdhild’s Church, complete with period furnishings. For 50 kroner you can join a guided tour of these fascinating buildings. There’s also a prominently placed statue of Erik’s son, Leif, not far from Qassiarsuk's jetty. Leif was allegedly the first European to cross the North Atlantic and discover the Americas, a region he named Vinland. It’s therefore not hard to see why the Narsaq Peninsula has been named Erik the Red’s Land in the Norseman’s honour, and the ‘ruins’ and reconstructions are worth an hour of anyone’s time before setting off along the unsealed road towards the sheep farming community of Sillisit some 14 km away.

Thojdhild’s ChurchThojdhild’s ChurchErik the Red's wife, Thojdhild, built the first church at Brattahlíð. This is a reconstruction of it

Our feet kick up clouds of rust-red dust as we climb up a rough track that runs through areas of scrubby grass. Below, the Crayola-coloured houses of Qassiarsuk hug the shoreline of the turquoise fjord. It’s harvest time and grass in Greenland is so precious as winter animal fodder that it has been mown round natural obstacles such as large boulders and rocky knolls. Much of it is lying in felled lines on the ground, or has been turned into silage bales enclosed in white plastic. We are surprised at how parched the landscape is and local farmers are bemoaning the weather. Now mid-August, it’s been hot since June with little rain after a brutally cold winter, and crop yields are down 20 per cent on last year. Agriculture here is marginal at the best of times and this long spell of dry weather is little short of a disaster.

Tiny blue gentian flowers dot the scrubby grass and the haunting cries of white-tailed sea eagles, which put on a stunning aerial display, accompany us as we climb high above the fjord. The turquoise water is peppered with icebergs. A couple of farmers heading to and from the farmsteads near Sillisit pass by us in jeeps with friendly waves, but we see no one else. A long, undulating trackway now takes us down towards the fjord where we get close up views of masses of jagged icebergs which are stranded on submerged glacial moraine. Clustered at the entrance to the Qooqqut Fjord, they have been calved from the Qooqqup Glacier some 15 km away. We tarry awhile at the shoreline where a huge shelf of gleaming grey granite riven by a deep black dyke slips into the crystal clear water. Every so often the air is rent with a sound like a musket shot, as ice splits and shears away from the huge glaciers a kilometre so so out in the fjord, each creating a mini tsunami.

Track above QassiarsukTrack above QassiarsukThis route connects Qassiarsuk with the sheep farms at Sillisit

A steep, dusty track climbs away from the shoreline to a small headland situated just before the farming community of Issormiut which lies a few kilometres from Sillisit. Seeing that this offers grandstand views down into the Tunulliarfik Fjord we decide to set up camp. We gather armfuls of tinder dry, sun bleached branches of juniper, birch and willow which are plentiful. In Greenland there is no ban on lighting fires in the wilderness. Our lightweight titanium Honey stove is a godsend, as the presence of abundant dead wood allows us to heat water without the need to carry much liquid fuel. I watch as orange flames lick around the pencil sized pieces of wood, sending forth aromatic clouds of pale blue smoke.

There is something about fire that awakens the primordial in us. Source of light, heat, protection and means of cooking our food, fire is one of the fundamental things which makes us human. From the very first spark ever struck, all the way down to the coal-fired machinery of the industrial revolution which catapulted us into the modern technological age; from the first simple languages uttered round a campfire, to the culture that now enriches our lives, fire has been pivotal in human evolution and development.

Tea Up!Tea Up!The titanium Honey Stove is a very useful piece of kit when wilderness trekking

But ominous looking grey cloud boiling about the summit of Illerfissalik across the fjord puts paid to our intended campfire. Large raindrops fall like lead shot as the wind begins to gust. Safely inside our tent cocooned deep within our warm and cosy sleeping bags by the time the full force of the storm hits, we listen to the rain lashing against the canvas which is being buffeted noisily by the wind.


Of Scarps and Sheep

The rain of the night has long abated and I poke my head out of the tent to an unclouded periwinkle-blue sky above a landscape flooded with brilliant sunshine. Last night’s wind has scattered the icebergs in the fjord; many smaller ones have been beached on the pebbly shore below our camp while the larger ones have been pushed up the Tunulliarfik Fjord towards Narsarsuaq.

The air is clean and fresh as we begin the descent along the unmade road down to the small farming community of Issormiut, comprised of a couple of wooden farmhouses, a small jetty and two large sheep sheds, one of which is disused. Rows of newly cut grass lying in a large meadow scent the air, but apart from one sheep dog lying in the dirt which rises silently to its feet and eyes us keenly as we pass by on the stony track, the place seems deserted.

IssormiutIssormiutA small sheep farming settlement

Ahead I can see the faint outline of a mast standing proud of a prominent escarpment with columns of basalt sitting atop beds of sandstone like a thick pie crust. The route apparently passes to the right of the mast which looks a long way off and involves an ascent of over 700 metres. Below we can see the brightly painted farm houses of the small community of Sillisit. Upon approaching the settlement, it is unclear where the route goes. The road passes into a field in front of a property with a large tractor outside, but we are leery of opening the gate as the field contains a horse and a dog sleeping in the dust near the house. A child’s swing emits a periodic metallic squeak as it moves in the wind, breaking the somewhat unnerving silence. There isn’t a soul around to ask for directions, so we thread our way along a thin strip of land beyond the field above a pebbly beach, clambering over another makeshift fence into a neighbouring field where items of rusting farm machinery lurk in the long grass. We eventually rejoin the road at the other side of the settlement. I wonder where all the people are? There is no sign of anyone in the fields where huge bales of silage gleaming in the Arctic sun stand proud of the mown landscape.

SillisitSillisitThis small sheep farming settlement is the last signs of habitation until we reach Narsaq

The road now climbs steeply and becomes very rough underfoot before it peters out. Huge globular heads of angelica rise above the rest of the herbage at the side of the track. The day is hot and oppressive as white wispy cloud begins to stealthily cover the sky. We pause for lunch by a lake before climbing ever upwards over a series of small, rugged plateaus peppered with lakes where sheep roam in their scores. Huge leathery mushrooms dot the ground and scrubby bilberry bushes abound. Eventually the terrain steepens as we approach the final wall of basalt that will take us to the very top of the escarpment where we intend to camp. Fortunately a well defined sheep track appears which provides an easy ascent past patches of dirty snow, while ever-improving views of the inland ice sheet and its glaciers that have unleashed a gigantic flotsam and jetsam of ice into the turquoise fjords, open before us.

Atop the escarpment we select a camp site near a lake with grandstand views of the ice cap and the Sermiat Glacier spreading down towards the sea like a frigid finger. We eat dinner in our open tent, watching the sky grow salmon pink behind the ice cap as the sun sets over the high ground behind us. The mercury quickly plummets, the night chill sending us scurrying into our sleeping bags.

Glaciers and the Greenland ice capGlaciers and the Greenland ice capThe view from our tent


The Plateau of a Hundred Lakes

It’s another glorious day as I poke my head out of our tent, my nostrils assailed by the smell of wood smoke mingled with bog. I stroll down to the lake to sip my coffee on a ledge of rock overlooking it. The surface of the water is mirror flat and is such a deep blue, it looks as if it has swallowed the entire sky. I might believe that we are the only two people left in the world, were it not for the regular grating roar of jets en route to and from North America which shatter the silent spell. Even in the remotest parts of Greenland it’s impossible to truly escape the modern world.

We break camp striding out over wiry grass and paper dry green and black lichen interspersed with ankle high dwarf willow, crowberry and bilberry. Ahead we can finally see the snow streaked Ilímaussaq Mountains that we will pass through before we reach Narsaq. After yesterday’s long slog up from Sillisit, the passage across the plateau is pleasant. The mid-morning reflections of snow-capped Illerfissalik and neighbouring mountains across the Tunulliarfik Fjord reflected in a pan flat lake are truly enchanting. Cotton grass sways languidly above patches of sphagnum moss as soft as a cushion, and small sugar pink flowers peek out from amid the pale green foliage of dwarf willow.

Alpine gentianAlpine gentianThe flowers open up only in full sun and close even with overcast conditions

Passing by a cluster of lakes, we begin to drop down off the plateau making for the bottom of a broad valley. This leads down to the small settlement of Ipiutaq on the shore of Tunulliarfik Fjord. According to our map, the emergency hut is situated almost straight ahead of us across a river which we can see glinting in the sunlight. Try as we might, we can’t see the hut which is camouflaged against the landscape. The river does not look very far, but a combination of the clear Arctic air which makes landmarks appear deceptively close, and the undulating landscape which entails continual climbing up and down over rocky knolls and outcrops, means it is several kilometres further than it looks.

We cross numerous small streams conveying snow melt from higher ground, stopping often to splash our faces with the cool, refreshing water. One stream has carved a tunnel through a patch of deep compacted snow stubbornly clinging to the shady side of a rocky outcrop. The scallop-shaped walls and roof of the snow tunnel are tinged turquoise and I can’t resist climbing inside to see the shimmering reflections cast onto the roof by the water flowing through it.

Snow tunnelSnow tunnelThe scallop-shaped walls and roof are tinged turquoise

We finally spot the square outline of the hut perched on a hillock above the river. As we draw nearer we can hear the water roaring over rocks and boulders and instinctively know that this will be a boots-off crossing! The river is knee deep and fast flowing where it has formed channels around boulders, and we look for a place where it is shallow enough to cross safely. Donning our plastic Crocs and with boots hanging round our necks, we enter the icy water, threading our way around and over boulders to the opposite bank. From here it’s about 100 metres to the hut. Made of plywood painted a shade of rust that the brutal Arctic winters have weathered away leaving it distinctly piebald in places, it has a sloping flat roof with a door and a single square window. For some strange reason it is numbered 1366, not that anyone would be likely to deliver mail here! Propped up outside is a ram’s skull with an enormous pair of curved horns. A macabre welcome indeed!

Macabre welcome!Macabre welcome!This ram's skull is propped up outside the hut

Inside its musty interior we are greeted by a plywood sleeping platform and a bare earthen floor, damp from water that has seeped under the walls. Below the sleeping platform, a faded tent caked in mud lies abandoned and a pile of beer cans and rusting sardine tins have been discarded in a corner. There isn’t even a candle, a box of matches or any wood left here for emergency purposes and the sleeping platform is filthy. This emergency hut is obviously not well maintained and we debate whether to erect the tent rather than sleep in such unpleasant surroundings. After much discussion and prevaricating we make the fateful decision to stay in the hut.

Emergency hutEmergency hutWe spent a barely tolerable night here!

I can’t remember passing a more uncomfortable night in a hut anywhere in the world. The smooth plywood sleeping platform has a slight slope and there isn’t sufficient friction to prevent my sleeping mat from continually slipping downwards. Despite barely moving a muscle, my mat keeps dangling off the platform. I sleep fitfully and can’t wait for the morning to come so we can leave this wretched hovel!


Onward and Upward

It’s another glorious day with hardly a breath of wind, but the odd mosquito is already about making repellent a must. Following breakfast we break camp heading uphill to a rocky ramp that we will use to contour around the mountain opposite. The hut from hell receding from view gives me a smug sense of satisfaction, but the smile is soon wiped off my face as we run into thickets of waist high dwarf willow that we have to bushwhack through. This is tedious to say the least, and the humidity makes the going tough. A sudden thrashing and whirl of brown and white feathers signals a startled ptarmigan which darts across our path on to some nearby rocks. We soon spy two more and give chase to try and capture them on video. But they’re far faster than us over this unforgiving terrain and we soon give up!

The willow finally gives way to a rocky track way so narrow it seems to have been made by a one legged sheep. This wends its way around the side of the mountain, and we make good speed at last. Panoramic views of Nunasarnaq Mountain and Tunulliarfik Fjord now open before us and we spot numerous wildflowers, including buttercups, hawkweed, cinquefoil and the rare white gentian. A gentle ascent from a boggy bowl brings us onto another plateau. We soon pass a solitary cairn of basalt stone. The terrain hereabouts, comprised mainly of wiry grass and desiccated lichen with patches of crowberry and bilberry, makes for much easier trekking. The few river crossings we have to negotiate are easy as the torrent of the early summer snow-melt has long dried up. We stop for a leisurely lunch above a lake fed by a small waterfall, its musical cadence the only sound save for the occasional chirping of meadow pipits and lapwing buntings.

The next part of the route begins to climb towards higher ground. Fabulous views of the distinctive Killavaat Mountain Range which we had admired from helicopter en route to Narsarsuaq a few days ago, come into view. Killavaat means ‘the Comb’ in Greenlandic, and the line of crested granite peaks do indeed resemble the teeth of a comb. After a couple of hours we meet a river fed by snow on the high mountains to the north. It cascades swiftly down over the Gardar lava and is crystal clear. We stop by a series of picturesque waterfalls, enjoying the cooling effect of the rushing water which provides a very refreshing drink. Ahead of us we have a long steep climb to a lake around the 700 metre mark where we intend to camp tonight.

Refreshing fallsRefreshing fallsWater flowing over Gardar lava which has created a series of beautiful waterfalls

Bright pink patches of fireweed and other vegetation peters out as we commence our ascent. Sheep tracks now seem to be non-existent, so we pick our way tentatively around numerous boulders and up over shelves of rock. The views down into the valley we have just crossed are stupendous. After what seems like an eternity, the gradient begins to ease and we contour around a shelf of rock above a small stream that passes through a pronounced gap in the mountainside that is indicated on our map. Beyond should be the lake we are aiming to camp by.

Before long we spy the snow encrusted eastern shore of the lake which lies still and mysterious in the shadow of the mountain beyond. By now it’s 'Brennivín time' and our shadows lie long across the ground as we climb away from the boulder-strewn lake shore seeking a suitable place to pitch our tent. We soon find an absolutely perfect spot on a flat grassy ledge below a rocky outcrop that provides plenty of shelter, and a grandstand view down over the lake and the snow covered col that we will climb tomorrow morning. Outside the tent we eat our dinner and are sipping Brennivín when the golden orb of the sun slips down behind the peaks of the Ilímaussaq Mountains. Martin is eagerly awaiting our traverse of this area which promises to be a geological Shangri-La!


Walking in a Geological Wonderland

We are treated to a stunning tangerine orange sky at dawn before the rising sun erupts over the mountain peaks across the Tunulliarfik Fjord bathing the landscape in a golden glow. I’m sorry to leave such a perfect camping spot, but we have a long way to trek today through the Ilímaussaq Mountains to the Kvanefjeld Valley on the other side.

View over the lakeView over the lakeThe col leading to the highest point on the trek at the far end of the lake

Deep patches of snow cling stubbornly to the ground in the col making the going far easier as we don’t have to traverse the angular boulders beneath. There are no signs that anyone has come this way this summer; we are the first. The top of the col is still deep with compacted snow. Beyond, the landscape changes abruptly as the route enters a high mountainous area almost devoid of vegetation. This is the Ilímaussaq igneous complex – a series of rare intrusive igneous rocks - which once formed the cores of volcanoes resulting from continental rifting (much like the present day Eastern African Rift), and which have been exposed by subsequent erosion. The deep cores of volcanoes are rarely seen in the world and the Ilímaussaq complex is considered the best example.

Climbing up the colClimbing up the colThe snow made the going easier than walking over boulders and scree

Jumping for joyJumping for joySometimes life is just soooo good!

For a geologist like Martin this is a true wonderland, as it contains scores of exciting and unusual rock types and minerals. But it’s also of great economic interest, as uranium ores and several rare earth elements (REE) are present in economically viable quantities in some areas. At Kvanefjeld in the northwestern part of the Ilímaussaq complex, a deposit containing uranium and thorium in lujavrites was discovered in 1956 and subsequently investigated by drilling programmes. An exploratory mine was dug in the late-1970s’s, but was abandoned shortly after when Denmark (the colonial power) decided against utilising nuclear energy. Greenland had a zero tolerance policy towards uranium mining for some 25 years, but a fiscal shortfall and its struggling economy saw this policy recently overturned. The issue has split Greenlandic society. On the one hand there are those who wish to promote mining and oil exploration in order to bring large profits to stimulate the country’s sluggish economy which is deeply dependent on fisheries and tourism, which might pave the way to eventual independence from Denmark. They are pitted against those who do not want possible contamination and landscape degradation from the mining of toxic minerals in the pristine Arctic environment, and a large and potentially destabilising influx of foreign workers.

Although all major political parties in Greenland support the development of a mining industry, the two main parties remain divided on the issue of uranium mining, with the leftist opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, the main voice of those who say naamik (no) to uranium mining on environmental grounds. The current government is facing some difficult decisions. Some MPs are pushing for Southern Greenland to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site entitled Church ruin at Hvalsø, episcopal residence at Gardar, and Brattahlíð (A Norse/Eskimo cultural landscape) for its 1,000 years of agriculture dating back to the time of Erik the Red. But mining would preclude that designation. Large areas around Narsaq and Qaqortoq were included in the World Heritage Site bid, which unleashed protests from interested parties because the Raw Materials Directorate had already issued numerous drilling licences within those areas. Now the government is proposing that only five small ‘islands’ be included as a potential World Heritage Site to avoid conflict with the mining companies and other interested parties. One thing’s for sure – if the mining goes ahead, it will surely signal an end to trekking across Erik the Red's Land.

The descent from the col over compacted snow then patchy grass-covered scree is very steep. The nearby bare mountain slopes of Nakaalaaq contain rich shades of calamine-pink and steel-grey which contrast with the deep blue sky. Way off in the distance we can see the ridge we have to cross over to descend into a broad valley containing Lake Taseq above the Kvanefjeld Valley. To reach it we must contour round the head of the valley below Nakaalaaq, crossing a small river tumbling down from the mountain, and then ascend a steep scree covered slope. The sun beats down mercilessly and the heat radiates back off the bare rock making the slog up the scree slope very tiring indeed. We stop from time to time for Martin to examine rocks looking for the semi-precious, very rare, pink coloured mineral tugtupite. No luck with the tugtupite, but he finds good samples of augite, eudialyte and steenstrupine which disappear into his rucksack!

Ilímaussaq igneous complexIlímaussaq igneous complexThe beginning of a geological wonderland

Atop the ridge the views down towards Tunulliarfik Fjord and the inlet below Nunasarnaq Mountain, apparently a great place to catch Arctic char, are spectacular. The fjord dotted with gleaming white icebergs is the most vivid shade of aquamarine imaginable, beyond which the comb-shaped granite peaks of Killavaat rise majestically into a speedwell-blue sky. To the left, the snow-capped peaks of scores of smoky blue mountains retreat into the distance. We dump our packs and recline on a shelf of rock to savour the sheer beauty of southern Greenland.

A view to die forA view to die forTunulliarfik Fjord and the inlet below Nunasarnaq Mountain

The steep descent from the ridge into the Lake Taseq valley takes longer than anticipated due to the brutal nature of the terrain. We have to traverse several ravines, scramble over jagged boulders and contour loose scree above sheer drops. Mentally and physically fatigued, we pause for lunch in a ravine where a river roars out of a snow tunnel. The water is so cold it makes my head ache when I drink it! 

With some relief we arrive on the gently sloping ground above two metallic green-coloured lakes above Lake Taseq. A series of cairns with red and white circular markings suddenly make an appearance as we head for Lake Taseq which occupies most of the bottom of the valley and is hemmed in by mountains on three sides. A river leads out of the far western end of the lake which the map shows flowing over a waterfall in a branch of the Narsaq Valley. The route does not take us near the falls, but round the lake's northern shoreline across patches of sly bog where deep purple butterwort dance on slender stems.

The lake is the largest we have encountered, about 2.5 km long, and is marked on the map as the reservoir for the town of Narsaq. As a result no camping is permitted in its vicinity, not that this matters as I do not see one suitable camping spot because the ground sloping down to the shore is littered with boulders and stones. If mining goes ahead at nearby Kvanefjeld, the waste materials left behind after flotation will be dewatered and stored in a tailings facility here, meaning this beautiful lake will be turned into a dump site. It’s hardly surprisingly that many local people are opposed to the uranium mine. It will totally and irretrievably alter the magnificent environment on their very doorstep.

Lake TaseqLake TaseqIf mining goes ahead, this lake could become a tailings dam

A short ascent up a bank of moraine near the western end of the lake brings us to a ridge overlooking the Kvanefjeld Valley. There is no discernible trail, the descent is hideously steep in places, and we have to cross several patches of compacted, treacherous snow. By now I’m feeling very tired and my left hip joint is beginning to throb due to the weight of my rucksack. Today has undoubtedly been the toughest of the trek and I’m mightily relieved when we finally decide to stop and make camp for the night. We find a flattish pitch close to a small stream of water that is fed by snow melt. It’s not a good idea to drink from a spring or seepage in this area due to the high levels of fluorine in the water emanating from the underlying bedrock.

Alpine conditions!Alpine conditions!Another steep snow slope, just traversable without crampons

Some 400 m away from our campsite is the Narsaq River. Across from this we can see a zig-zag road leading up to the abandoned Kvanefjeld uranium mine, betrayed by plumes of spoil that spill down the hillside. Near the start of the mine road are a series of black mineral piles which Martin is itching to inspect! From the porch of our tent we have a stunning view of the Narsaq Bay stuffed full of icebergs. Purple harebells nod in the gentle evening breeze as we eat our dinner and sip the last of our Brennivín, watching the setting sun turn the sky above the bay apricot, salmon pink and finally chalky mauve. Martin convinces me that tomorrow he will find a specimen of tugtupite at the mine. I hope he makes his discovery quickly as I do not relish the thought of spending all day fossicking for minerals!!

Camp in the Kvanefjeld ValleyCamp in the Kvanefjeld ValleyGrandstand views over Narsaq Bay from this, our final camp


Searching for 'Reindeer Blood'

Martin is a man on a mission today and there is a sense of purpose in his actions. I’d like to think it’s because it’s the last day of the trek and he’s looking forward to returning to civilisation, but I know it’s really all about his eagerness to get up to the mine!! We break camp for the last time, heading downhill towards the river. Swiftly flowing and deep, this could prove to be a real challenge to cross but fortunately we find a dilapidated plywood bridge where the river is braided. This traverses the main river channel, and we carefully make our way over some slimy rocks in a side channel to reach it.

Having shed my 18 kilo rucksack, I feel like I’m floating on air as we make the 200 metre ascent up to the mine entrance. The 1.5 km road, disused for almost 40 years, is in poor condition having been washed out in places which has left deep channels, although a 4X4 would still be able to drive it. As we ascend, a view of the Narsaq glacier between the Ilímaussaq and Nakkaalaaq Mountains comes into view. This glacier, like many others in Greenland, is retreating at a very fast rate. In a couple of decades it will no longer exist.

After 20 minutes, we arrive at the entrance to the 970 metre long adit that has been driven through the central part of the Kvanefjeld deposit and which is sited some 100-150 metres below the surface of the plateau above. Unsurprisingly, the entrance has been blocked up and the metal door in the centre welded shut to prevent people accessing the workings and being exposed to harmful levels of radioactive air.

Kvanefjeld Uranium Mine EntranceKvanefjeld Uranium Mine EntranceThere are plans to reopen this mine

On our return to the valley floor we head across to where approximately 15,000 tons of ore has been placed in a series of piles for shipment to Denmark. It never left the site after the country decided against the use of nuclear power. The piles of black ore bear all the hallmarks of being avidly picked over by mineral collectors seeking tugtupite and other specimens. Martin explains that the black rock is lujavrite which is composed mostly of black arfvedsonite amphibole. It also contains crystals of the mineral steenstrupine - a sodium silicate mineral which contains trace uranium, thorium and caesium. It also contains several REE which is why the license for the Kvanefjeld deposit is currently held by Australian mining company, Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd. (GMEL), which, in collaboration with a Chinese company, wants to recommence mining here.

The valley is eerily quiet, the only sound the rushing river and Martin chucking rocks about nearby. Suddenly my eye alights on a rose pink shade amid some black and grey crystals. I stroll over to Martin and show him. He casts me a sheepish look and mumbles, ‘well it might be tugtupite I suppose’, to which I let out a celebratory ‘yeah’ and punch the air with my fist. He does not look amused and spends the next 15 minutes ardently searching, before he has his own eureka moment!!

Ore piles at Kvanefjeld Uranium MineOre piles at Kvanefjeld Uranium MineMartin looking for the rare mineral, tugtupite

Tugtupite was first discovered in 1962 at Tugtup agtakôrfia and is derived from the Inuit word tuttu (reindeer) meaning ‘reindeer blood’. This predominantly pink coloured mineral is extremely rare worldwide, being confirmed in two other locations in Quebec and Russia, and is therefore sought after by mineral and gemstone collectors. It is often polished and fashioned into items of jewellery, and is an interesting feature of the local economy. Our specimens aren’t fabulous, but we are contented with our finds as we set off down the dusty dirt road towards Narsaq Bay.

The dirt track runs parallel to the Narsaq River and slowly descends 300 metres back to sea level. It makes for monotonous, if far easier walking. We finally get a view of the falls at the end of Lake Tarsaq and the first signs of civilisation appear in the form of fences, mown fields and weatherboard farmhouses and sheds. We cross a rickety metal bridge over the Narsaq River which has obviously been patched up several times after being washed away in floods, and soon reach the coast where carpets of mauve harebells frame stupendous views of the bay crammed full of turquoise and white icebergs.

The road to civilsationThe road to civilsationSmall sheep farms outside Narsaq

The pungent smell of sea and seaweed assails my nostrils and a refreshing breeze blows in off the bay where flocks of seagulls shriek nosily above the icebergs. Several of these have beached and warrant closer inspection. One melting rapidly is almost as tall as me and mushroom-shaped, created by the action of water as it bobbed about at sea. Every so often a noise like a musket shot echoes round the bay as an iceberg calves.

Bergs in the bay!Bergs in the bay!Beached icebergs dot the shoreline of Narsaq Bay

Icebergs in Narsaq BayIcebergs in Narsaq BayEvery so often a noise like a musket shot echoes round the bay as an iceberg calves

A fishing settlement of just over 1,500 inhabitants, Narsaq is situated on a plain at the foot of a 685 metre mountain named Qaqqarsuaq which towers over the colourful weatherboard buildings which look like the spilled contents of a box of Quality Street. It’s a great feeling to hit a tarmac road after slogging over some of the roughest terrain imaginable!

The Narsaq Hotel is a mustard-yellow building with the flags of Greenland, Demark and Iceland fluttering outside. We get a spacious room in their hostel overlooking the harbour. The following day we catch a ferry back up the picturesque Tunulliarfik Fjord to Narsarsuaq which is the perfect end to a fabulous trip. From the water we have the opportunity to spot some of the landmarks we had trekked over and past during the last week whilst passing icebergs as big as a house.

Iceberg in Tunulliarfik FjordIceberg in Tunulliarfik FjordSome of the icebergs we saw from the boat were as big as houses

Although by no means easy, this 6-day 70 km route rewards trekkers with fascinating history, geology and scenery. With the added bonus of being close to the international airport at Narsarsuaq (which keeps the cost of helicopter travel and/or boat transfers down), it is a must for those who wish to experience a truly memorable multi-day trek in a remote part of Greenland.


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