Expedition to the edge

Luke Wright signs on for an Arctic sailing adventure.

It's minutes before midnight and the sun sits defiantly in the Arctic sky. It won't be dark for weeks.

I spot a big iceberg in the distance and ask our ship's captain to head towards the frozen giant. As we draw near, a crisp breeze whips over the ice like an old-fashioned air-conditioner, chilling our faces.

This impressive formation, shaped by water and wind, glows with a luminous assortment of whites and blues. Grinding and groaning under its own immense weight, it looks powerful and fragile at the same time.

A whale breaks the surface. It quickly drops back into hiding; the cold steel of the Inuit harpoon is not far from here. As if firing us a warning, the iceberg cracks like a shotgun and a chunk the size of a car falls into the water. We decide to move on.

I'm on board Australis, a 23-metre steel-hulled expedition yacht that provides tours to remote locations around the world. Australis is owned and operated by Roger and Ben Wallis, a father-and-son team from Victoria.

From Antarctica to the Arctic Circle, they have taken scientists, film crews, soldiers and run-of-the-mill travellers, like me, to some of the wildest and least-explored edges of the world.

I join them and seven passengers at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, for three weeks' sailing along the west coast. Our loose plan is to head north and poke Australis's nose into unknown nooks and hope for a good anchorage so we can go ashore to explore.

While Australis is safe, comfortable and well catered, it is not a luxury cruise and there are no formalities or itineraries. Each day we anchor, take supplies ashore and scramble up the steep walls of mottled rock rising from the water's edge. The mountain tops offer broad views across to the northern ice cap - one of global warming's greatest victims - and give us access to the otherwise hidden countryside that stretches over to the ice plateau.

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Hiking in these secret landscapes dispels everything I previously imagined about Greenland. The green boggy tundra, blue lakes, purple poppies, dark-red berries, orange lichen and white cotton grass defy its reputation as a menacing, lifeless expanse. These places might not have felt human feet for millenniums, if ever, but they are very much alive.

As we eat lunch sitting on the spongy grass, bounded by mountains, the ice cap and a vast valley, I forget the outside world and it seems we have this place to ourselves.

The indigenous people, the Inuit, have forged an existence in Greenland for thousands of years, hunting whale, seal, and muskox.

Animals outnumber humans in the scruffy village of Ikerasak. Hundreds of snarling sled dogs pace in the summer sun, their frantic howling echoing around the valley. The thick smell of dirty dogs and dead fish floats in the air.

This colourful town is strewn with faded blue wooden sleds, broken outboard motors, Skidoos, rusted junk and a jumble of nets. Seal, muskox and bear skins hang and dry next to baby clothes. Neat rows of salty silver fish cure in the warmth. The clutch of houses, painted in bright colours, stands in stark contrast to the earth backdrop. Some homes have reindeer antlers nailed above the front door - trophies of the hunt. The Inuit watch us with shy interest.

The ice becomes thicker the further north we sail, though a kayak I am paddling slides up onto a thin sheet of ice. It occurs to me this isn't the safest place to learn to kayak. A few minutes in this freezing water can be fatal.

I whack the ice with the paddle and manage to carve through. To my left is a gigantic glacier dropping frozen white lumps into the water with an almighty rumble. To my right, on its own epic journey, is a blue iceberg as big as a city block. In front of me, a blanket of thin shards moves quickly on the water. The noises that surround me - the cracking and thundering of the ice, the slapping of the paddle, the Inuit shooting for seal - provide the soundtrack.

For three weeks we explore Greenland's west coast. We hike, kayak, climb, catch fish, drink beer, barbecue, bake bread, find unknown bays, moor in busy boat harbours and sail in the late-night sunlight.

But each voyage has its most special moment. For me, it comes near the end of our journey at 3am. The sun is as close as it will get to setting. The sky is red and orange. We're walking softly in the night looking for ancient Inuit graves set on a mountain side near the town of Uummannaq.

We find them, broken bones and all. We don't speak a word. The silence is broken only by a whale and its calf sucking air together in the distance. The colours, the heart-shaped mountain in front of us, the water moving in the eerie half-light: it feels like something out of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Luke Wright travelled courtesy of SAS and My Planet.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Kangerlussuaq is the main entry point into Greenland and Copenhagen is the main departure city from Europe.

Scandinavian Airlines has a fare for $1840 flying from Melbourne or Sydney with Thai Airways to Bangkok and then Scandinavian to Copenhagen.

Cheapest return fare to Copenhagen at present is with KLM at $1425 where you fly a partner airline to Asia and then KLM with a change of aircraft in Amsterdam.

Scandinavian Airlines and Air Greenland have regular flights from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq with fares from 1250 Danish kroner ($340) one-way. (Fares do not include taxes.)

Sailing there

Ocean Expeditions provides all-inclusive tours (food, alcohol, lodging and boat transport) to many destinations worldwide.

Passengers can tailor a trip to their needs or join an existing tour. Rates start at $381 a person a day and an average tour (21 days) costs $8000 (air fares extra). See ocean-expeditions.com and myplanetaustralia.com.au.

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