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A very Russian experience on Greenland’s icy seas

“The motor, she’s OK?” I ask the first officer, only half jokingly.
“Oh yes,’’ he assures me, “they were running today morning.”
The Russian accent adds authenticity to our adventure as we inspect the life boats as part of our orientation around the Grigoriy Mikheev, a 66 m ice-strengthened vessel, formerly a research ship of the Hydrographic Institute of St Petersburg. We are sailing down a big fjord called Sondre Stromfjord and will only reach the Davis Strait west of Greenland in the early hours of the next morning.

On Prins Christian Sund

It is at the town of Sondre Stromfjord, now called Kangerlussuaq, that our group of 13 South Africans has landed after a four-hour flight from Copenhagen. Veteran polar traveller and tour leader Hans van Heukelum gathers his people here like a good shepherd. But this group is certainly not a flock of sheep. It consists of independent, well-heeled, seasoned travellers whose thirst for new places and experiences is never satisfied. And it is at Kangerlussuaq that we begin to meet our fellow travellers from the US, Australia, Russia, the UK and Holland.

The Greenland ice cap or sheet covers most of the “island”, it is 3500m thick in the centre, and because of its enormous weight on the earth, the centre of Greenland is actually below sea level. But according to Stefan Lovgren, reporting for National Geographic News, Greenland’s massive ice sheet could begin to melt this century if global warming continues at its present rate. If it melted completely it could raise the oceans by seven metres.

But these projections do not affect our enjoyment in the present moment. By now three of the prominent people on the 12-day cruise from Kangerlussuaq, right around to Ammasilik on the east coast, have made themselves known: expedition leader and lecturer Steve Blamires, guide and lecturer Dennis Schmitt and South African geologist Dick Foster. Dick is one of us passengers, but his understanding of geology makes a big difference for everyone on the trip. Dennis is American, a multi-lingual anthropologist who is passionate about the far northern regions, and a highly intelligent and entertaining lecturer and guide. Steve, a heavily bearded Scott, is the serious one, keeping everything on track. He is a teacher and writer with a fascination for the legendary Eric the Red who first travelled to Greenland from Iceland. These men are characters ordinary suburbanites like us rarely meet and their personalities colour the whole experience.

The Grigoriy Mikheev is on a long term contract to Oceanwide Expeditions, the Dutch-based company which offers this and other polar cruises. It has been refitted to accommodate 46 passengers and the over-and-under twin I am sharing with Hans is comfortable. I like a cigarette in the evening and have to make my way to the heavy door at the end of the passage and out onto the freezing deck for a puff. Here I am joined by the ship’s doctor, a young German, and the only other smoker among us. Environmental regulations are strict and he shows me how to put my fag out in a film canister, which is then jammed back into a pocket for next time. Somehow the forbidden cigarettes and the freezing cold make the whole exercise quite exciting.

The Mikheev is now our symbol of home security in far-away icy places and on most evenings we meet like an extended family in the little bar-lounge for drinks before dinner. You sign for a bottle of wine and make it last as long as possible by replacing it in the fridge with your name on it, because it’s expensive and with my appetite for the stuff my credit card is going to take a knock by the end of the voyage. Dinners are plain, but tasty and nutritious, served in the rather cramped little dining room by Rosa, the big Russian chief stewardess.

I am fascinated by the quiet, orderly, unflappable Russian crew who seldom waste their breath on small talk, even among themselves, although there is clearly an impish sense humour lurking there. They are mostly silent on the bridge, to which we have free access. One evening in the dining room I sit next to two men I recognise as Russians, and ask one of them if they are crew members.

“No,” he replies.
“So what are you doing here?” I inquire naively, imagining that Russians would never do this for fun.
“Just keeping you company,” he shoots back.
It’s a faux pas because Nikolai and his colleague turn out to be executives of a similar polar cruise company and have an extremely impressive marketing DVD to prove it. They are here to see how the opposition works.

Days later it is early morning and the ship is ahead of schedule. I stroll onto the bridge, which offers the best (and warmest) views of the surrounding icebergs. I notice there is no engine vibration.
“Are we not under power?” I ask curiously.
“No,” replies the first officer.
“Why?” I press.
“Why? Because there is no hurry.”
I get the point. And I’m glad I was never in the Cold War.

Among the highlights of the voyage are visits to Inuit (Eskimo) villages and towns, the first being Kangamiut. The houses in these settlements are all of a similarly neat appearance, painted in various pastel colours. A group of us take the wooden steps to the top of the hill overlooking the harbour and then stroll over to the supermarket. Although Greenland is an independent country, the Danish government, while at pains to maintain the Inuit culture – including their place names – obviously sees that modern amenities and goods are provided for the locals.

The supermarket has virtually everything in it you find in a South African equivalent, including meat, fruit, toys, sweets, wine, pharmaceuticals, and one line you don’t find at Pick n Pay – firearms. Rifles stand on a rack like any other commodity. Greenlanders still live largely by hunting and their favourite food remains seal meat, though unpalatable to visitors. They also hunt reindeer and muskoxen, and you come across drying ribs hanging from window sills, musk ox skulls and reindeer antlers in villages and towns.

Dick Foster shows geological specimens

Landings are made using Zodiac rubber inflatables, and they are now part of our everyday experience. Manned by the Russian crewmen who wait patiently for us as we wander around the landing sites, these hardy rubber ducks ferry us back and forth on average twice a day. The military-style operation involves a briefing, getting one’s gear on – thermal vests and socks (depending on the temperature), waterproof pants, scarf, beanie, mittens, rubber boots, parka and lifejacket. It can get wet on the Zodiacs and staying dry is important if you don’t want to freeze. With a helping hand from the crewman you step aboard and shuffle into position, one by one. On the return trip of one of the outings it begins to rain, and I’m right at the front. The icy drops hit me like razors and I grip my face in my mittens. Now I understand why they were on the must-have list for Cape Union Mart.

Entering Sermilinguaq fjord, with its ice-capped mountains, we watch from the bridge and later board the Zodiacs for the glacier at the far end of a deep valley. This is a beautiful place, peaceful and dramatic, which fuels a feeling of camaraderie among us as we become more familiar with one another and our environment. Dick whips out his Swiss army knife with its little magnifying glass, and soon we are peering at his specimens with new understanding. We walk to the glacier edge where it’s crumbling into ice cubes you could pop into your whisky. Steve points out how the glacier has receded – the results of global warming in front of our eyes.

Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, is a busy harbour town with shops, offices, trucks and cars; apartment blocks, occasional trash in the streets and mothers and their babies in prams. We go ashore in small groups to explore. At the tiny university we wander about as usual, unchallenged and quite welcome. Our arrival interrupts a lesson being taken by a beautiful Danish teacher who comes to the door to answer our questions while her Icelandic students wait patiently in the classroom.
“Oh tourists!” she laughs with a devastatingly beautiful smile.
“What are you teaching,” someone asks.
“Film appreciation,” she grins.

The cultural centre at Nuuk is impressive, with a soaring foyer and modern concert hall. In the foyer there is an exhibition of wonderfully rich abstract paintings by artist Grethe Balle. Nuuk’s seaside museum is excellent. Its artefacts cover the history of Greenland and it is probably most famous for its mummified bodies from the 16th century Thule Inuit culture. Even the clothes of the female adults and two children are remarkably preserved. Most striking is the six-month-old child lying next to her mother, staring straight up at you with hollow eye-sockets, like a broken doll.

Free access to the Mikheev's bridge

Rough seas pound the Mikheev on the way to Ikat fjord and Hvalsey Viking settlement. Pitching and rolling becomes extreme and some of us find the best place to be is on your bunk. Getting into the toilet across the passage is a mission. The ship is great in the fjords, but on the rough open sea we get the full drama. I let go and allow my body to bump from side to side and up and down in the bunk, eventually falling asleep.

The church at the Viking ruins at Hvalsey, built in about 1300, is still standing, without a roof. The stone walls were built without mortar and there is a remarkable “Gothic” arched window at one end. The last recorded wedding took place here in 1408 and one can imagine the congregation arriving in their boats for Sundays services. The Vikings only converted to Christianity in about 1000 AD. Near the church are the remains of dwellings built into the hillside for protection against the cold, and enclosures for livestock. It is peaceful here, and in fine weather the Vikings must have enjoyed an idyllic life next to the calm waters of the fjord.

Morning finds us sailing down Prins Christian Sund, with a cloudless sky behind high mountains and glaciers. We come across plenty of sparkling icebergs of all shapes and sizes, with the translucent turquoise tinge that makes them so beautiful. The Mikheev’s crew navigates a narrow section of the fjord, carefully pushing through the field of ice.

In the evening we gather on the stern deck, at zero degrees. It is calm and there are icebergs all around us – the perfect setting for a farewell barbecue prepared by the Russians chefs. Off-duty Rosa arrives at the party in a skimpy imitation leopard skin dress. Drinks are on the house, and as the party carries on down in the bar, one of the pretty young female kitchen staff makes the rounds among us boys, giving us each an opportunity to pretend we’re James Bond.

At midnight we are crossing the notorious Denmark Strait, living up to its name. Again we slide around in our bunks for most of the night, but the next morning early we step ashore at Keflavik, Iceland, happy to be back on land after the voyage of a lifetime.

If you go: Travellers wanting an expedition of South Greenland can fly into Kangerlussuaq from Copenhagen. For voyages to Spitsbergen (polar bear sightings) you need to fly into Longyearbyen from Oslo. The flights are arranged in conjunction with the expedition company which holds an allotment of flights. Schengen visas endorsed for Greenland are required.

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