Season in the sun

Along with radical change, global warming is bringing tourists to Greenland, writes Sam Vincent.

Greenland is perhaps history's first case of false advertising. In AD985 an entrepreneurial Viking named Erik the Red set out to colonise this cold island. Erik didn't want to leave alone but his countrymen weren't too keen on following him to what was then a nameless unknown. Erik had an idea. "Iceland" (his homeland) was already taken, and "Snowland," he decided, wouldn't be an easy sell. Neglecting to mention that 98 per cent of his destination was snow and ice, Erik gave the island its present name, convincing his clients they were headed for greener pastures.

Fast-forward 1023 years and the Vikings have long since disappeared, victims of a cooling climate that finally became too hard to endure.

Now, in a bitter irony, Greenland is becoming green. Global warming is happening here faster than anywhere else on the planet, radically transforming the world's second-biggest island.

In the polar north, the once-ubiquitous sea ice is becoming scarcer every year, enabling greater travel by boat but severely hampering Inuit hunters and their prey. In the south, huge swathes of land once covered by permafrost are exploding into life, attracting tourists to a destination that finally reflects its name.

My journey starts where the myth of Greenland started, the village of Qassiarsuk in the island's south. It was here that Erik landed with his fleet of 14 longboats. Lucky to arrive during an unusually mild period, the Norse settlers and their descendants grazed hardy sheep and goats until the climate began to cool around 1300. In 1408 the last written record of their society was made before they simply disappeared, providing one of history's great mysteries. Theories over the years have ranged from mass starvation to an Inuit-led massacre but archaeological evidence now suggests the Vikings gradually abandoned their homes to return to mainland Scandinavia.

Today's settlement dates from 1924 and is a typical Greenlandic hamlet of colourful cottages interspersed with barns of bleating sheep. When I arrive the acrid smell of their dung hangs in the air as farmers clean out barns for the coming summer. In an emerald field nearby, two border collies sprint beside a tractor, tongues flailing madly from their grinning mouths. Were it not for the icebergs floating offshore, I could be in Ireland.

Below the village, the ruins of Erik's settlement are scattered throughout the grass along with two reconstructions of a Norse church and longhouse. Although the ruins are unspectacular - most barely waist-high - they provide a chilling reminder of the ramifications of climate change.

Perhaps due to our own warming worries, the story of the Greenland Norse is captivating the public like never before, with 3000 tourists visiting Erik's farm last year, the most ever.

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I wander among the stones pondering the fate of the Norse while a bitter wind whips off the fiord, causing sheep to huddle behind the ruins. I am so busy watching them I nearly trip over the first church built in the New World, little more than an ankle-high square of turf. The story goes that Erik's wife, Thjodhildr, had the church built shortly after Greenland's conversion to Christianity around the year 1000.

Erik, however, clung to his heathen ways, a sin for which Thjodhildr refused to sleep with him until he converted. He never did, though it is unknown whether she kept to her threat.

The Vikings, of course, weren't the only people to settle in Greenland. Soon after Erik's arrival the first waves of Inuit were migrating from Arctic Canada into Greenland, supplanting the less-advanced Dorset people who had migrated before them. While the Norse foolishly clung to their European ways, the Inuit successfully adapted to the cold, hunting whales at sea from speedy kayaks and heating their homes with walrus blubber.

Today their descendants form the bulk of Greenland's population of 57,000 (equal to Wagga), mainly concentrated in a handful of settlements on the west coast. Danish subjects since 1721, modern Greenlanders are the result of 300 years of cultural exchange, just as likely to have blue eyes and family in Copenhagen as they are to spend their weekends hunting seals and reindeer.

Danish and Greenlandic are the official languages, the latter a notoriously difficult tongue that to the untrained ear sounds like a cat struggling with a fur ball. English is widely spoken but attempts at Greenlandic will be met with wild enthusiasm.

From Qassiarsuk I head 70 kilometres south to the town of Narsaq.

The biggest challenge for travellers in Greenland is getting around, with the rugged terrain, vast distances and lack of roads often making expensive flights the only option. But I am taking advantage of Greenland's thaw by hiking the Qassiarsuk-Narsaq trail, a spectacular track that snakes through a spine of nameless mountains flanked by berg-choked fiords. Twenty years ago the trail was covered with snow well into June but when I leave Qassiarsuk in mid-May, spring has sprung, rushing snowmelt criss-crossing the landscape in icy veins.

For three days I scramble through terrain that looks like the Scottish Highlands; russet slopes giving way to coal-black mountains with summits shrouded in mist. The sky is the colour of dirty snow but when it briefly clears the sun illuminates lush green cliffs and icebergs as bright as blue cordial.

I am the only hiker on the trail but I am never alone. Inquisitive sheep often cross my path while snow buntings jink between the rocks and eagles circle above. At one stage what I think is a patch of snow suddenly sprouts legs and darts across the mountainside. The Arctic hare's winter coat will turn blue-grey as spring turns to summer.

The only signs of humans I see are the occasional fence and distant farmhouse, home to the 53 families that eke a living from Greenland's soils. On my second night on the trail, I decide to stay with one.

Kalista Poulsen is an Inuit farmer who has decided to take advantage of global warming. Along with his French partner Agathe Devisme, the two have recently converted their farmhouse at Ipiutaq (population: three) into a homestay to accommodate the growing number of tourists walking the trail.

Rooms are simple but cosy, each with surreal views of icebergs drifting like clouds across the fiord. Over a delicious dinner of local roast lamb fattened on native herbs, Poulsen explains how global warming in Greenland is a double-edged sword. While many farmers are rejoicing that the warmer conditions are allowing them to grow new crops such as strawberries and broccoli, the weather is now erratic.

Last summer Ipiutaq experienced its first drought in living memory and when it finally broke, the rain came too late, severely disrupting haymaking. Then last winter, milder conditions made it harder for Poulsen's 350 sheep to graze, with frozen rain blocking their hooves where usually soft snow would be easily brushed aside.

"The warming climate is good if you have enough water," Poulsen says. "Otherwise, we too may go the way of the Vikings!" Luckily, a steady increase in summer bookings should prevent this.

Ten hours after leaving Ipiutaq the next morning, I rejoin civilisation in the fishing town of Narsaq. Here I set my scruples aside and regain my strength on a tasty whale steak, accompanied by local beer brewed from icebergs. Foreigners can be shocked by Greenlandic menus brimming with such treats as narwhal skin and seal stew but it must be remembered the Inuit have hunted these species in a sustainable manner for hundreds of years.

After recovering in Narsaq, I fly 400 kilometres north to my final destination, Greenland's capital. Although the closest thing to a Greenlandic metropolis, Nuuk isn't a must-see, its grim housing blocks giving the town a roughness that belies its size. Still, as the island's cultural centre, it has some worthwhile sites. The best is Greenland National Museum, which has a great exhibition on the social changes the Inuit have experienced since Danish colonisation. Spookier are a trio of 15th-century Inuit mummies perfectly preserved in the crisp Arctic air.

When I step outside the air is indeed crisp but the sun is beating down on Nuuk with surprising force, prompting what would once have been an unbelievable scene: sprawled on a rock like a pair of seals, two girls soak up the rays. As I walk past them I am reminded of the saying: "Iceland is green while Greenland is ice."

Not any more.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: SAS (www.flysas.com) flies daily from Sydney to Copenhagen from around $2100 return. From the Danish capital, Air Greenland (www.airgreenland.com) flies regularly to the island's two international airports, at Narsarsuaq (opposite Qassiarsuk) and Kangerlussuaq, 300 kilometres north of Nuuk. Expect to pay around $1200 return.

Staying there: Ipiutaq guest farm (www.ipiutaq.gl) offers a single and a double room for $150/$280. Prices include breakfast and dinner.

Getting around: Air Greenland connects even the tiniest of hamlets. Alternatively, local fishermen are often happy to give you a lift for a negotiated fee. Hiking is a great option if you have the time, although you must be well prepared.

Costs: The Danish krone is Greenland's official currency and costs aren't that much higher than in mainland Denmark. Accommodation and transport are the two major exceptions but both are still cheaper than in nearby Iceland.

When to go: Between May and September is the best time to visit, when the long summer days make the weather bearable. Greenland may be warming up, but you'll still need warm clothes no matter the season.

Further information: See www.greenland.com

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