Then and Now – Narsarsuaq

In 1971 Narsarsuaq felt remote and abandoned – a mysterious airstrip with empty control tower and massive, gaunt, deserted hangars complete with stories of World War II pilots long gone crazy at Blue West 1. We dropped out of the sky right on schedule, in our deluxe Icelandair jet from Iceland. And then our adventure began. We each had a pack with personal items, but the bulk of our food and tents were still on a ship off the Greenland coast (stuck in the pack ice on their long voyage from Scotland via Denmark, as we would later learn). But there was another ship, the MV Taterak – albeit very small and very, very full of people – that would take us down the fjord to overnight at Julianehaab (now Qaqortoq) and then eventually wend its tortuous way through the ice clogged fjords to Nanortalik in the deep south.

MV Taterak dodging ice floes en route to Nanortalik

In enormous contrast in 2016, Narsarsuaq boasts a modern airport terminal (and the same enormous runway from 1971) with a large adjacent tourist hotel and the nearby delightful Blue Ice Café. We were ready to fly back to Reykjavik after our week-long voyage down the coast from Illulissat on the MV Sarfaq Ittuk. But despite all the modern amenities, the sense of uncertainty was as strong as ever. It’s the wind! (stupid!) In 1971, we hunkered down beside the deserted hangars with our dirty, wet gear not knowing when or if a plane would ever appear to take us back to Scotland after our ten week climbing expedition – “it all depends on whether it can land in the wind.” And nobody could tell us that.

Hotel Narsarsuaq

In 2016 we itended to journey up the Tunulliarfik Fjord by small boat from Narsaq to Narsarsuaq to catch a very similar flight, now on Air Iceland. We were supposed to depart first thing in the morning and visit the settlement at Erik the Red’s settlement Brattahlio en route. Enthusiastic readers of this blog will recognize that as the spot where Phil lost his camera overboard in 1971. As it turned out though, the winds blowing off the glacier and down the fjord were too strong. We eventually left Narsaq around midday with just enough time to catch our afternoon flight. But we were amply rewarded for the delay by a really close encounter with a spectacular iceberg and much bouncing around in the waves through smaller ice that the winds had blown from the eastern arm of the fjord.

Narsarsuaq still manages to feel remote!



Tourism challenges in Greenland and northern Scotland

Greenland tourism seems to have taken off. Would I want to go now? I don’t think so. We had the best of it in 1971 and I wouldn’t want to dilute the wonderful memories.

I’m not sure that I don’t feel a bit of the same about Scotland. I liked the fact that in the 1970’s, if you chose carefully, it was rare to encounter others while out for the day or longer. This is no longer the case with at times, flocks of hill-walkers traversing the country and areas such as Skye being declared ‘full’.

For northern Scotland, road improvements to the south have come at a price. An upgraded A9 provides a highway to the start of the North Coast 500 which strikes me as a lower-cost land-based somewhat-equivalent of the Greenland coastal voyages. Both are characterised by much time and money spent on travelling, hoping to see aquatic and other wildlife but with short overnight stays that bring limited direct benefit to the communities. Of course some might opt to stay longer than one night and immerse themselves in some interesting experience or other – but I suspect many don’t. The main beneficiaries would appear to be the accommodation providers and the coastal transport or camper-van hire companies.

Northern Scotland and Greenland share other characteristics when it comes to their tourism development – both have to deal with the conflicting demands of preserving or enhancing tourism fundamentals in the face of unacceptable-to-some resource developments. In both cases the battle seems to be over.

When it came to the establishment of controversial wind farms in areas of outstanding natural beauty, the Scottish Government frequently saw fit to overrule the democratic process.  Neither the public nor local regional government wanted them but their views were set aside in favour of the developer. As with most contentious issues, nothing is simple. There may be a perception of strong local benefit, but if commercial interests prevail this may be more illusory. Which is what makes the current battle between crofters on Lewis and a giant power company so engaging.

The Greenland government has gone one better, being quite open about exploitation of its mining and mineral resources as the path to an independent Greenland. Near Narsaq in the south, an Australian company is developing an opencast mine. The most controversial aspect of this is the mining of uranium. As this article reports “In a move that sounds counter-intuitive, GME is promoting its mine as a contribution to the new global green economy. According to the company, 80% of the commercial deposits in Kvanefjeld are rare earth minerals, commonly used in wind turbines, hybrid cars and lasers; uranium accounts for only 10%.” That’s alright then?

In Scotland, of particular concern to locals and tourists alike are recent moves by Highland Council. Taking their lead from the ‘fly and fleece’ policy1 of UK airports, Highland Council are embarking on a ‘flush and fleece’ policy by reducing the number of public conveniences, and for those that remain, introducing an extortionate entry charge. Already the subject of correspondence in local and national newspapers with at least one petition, campaigns of civil disobedience are being encouraged – such as by leaving entry doors wedged open. Surely, all of us  value ready access to such essential facilities?  I certainly do not wish to be delayed by the efforts of reading the signage and striving to locate the necessary coinage!

(1)  Fly and fleece involves various measures aimed at the simple extraction of money from travellers and associates. It includes – the introduction of outrageous compulsory charges for simply dropping off or picking up passengers at airport terminals; lack of any seating pre-departure other than in expensive food and drink franchises; and the enforced circuitous routing of passengers through the unhealthy perfume laden atmosphere of retail areas in order to reach departure lounges and seats.


Idle thoughts..

Cape Farewell in ’71 and Since and Still to Come

Reflecting on memories of Greenland…. I started from the commonplace notion that Greenland in general and maybe Cape Farewell in particular would develop in popularity somewhat like the French and Swiss alps in the 19th and 20th centuries. Camps that were for us hard-won would be reached by easy paths leading to cabins with bunks, running water, and meals provided. Bare mountains, vaguely mapped and bereft of ‘instructions’ would have guidebooks with diagrams, graded routes, and pictures of rock faces streaked with coloured or dashed or dotted lines. Choppers and fast launches to handy helipads or jetties would get the punters in at sea level for long weekends or maybe even daytrips. Continue reading “Idle thoughts..”

“Was I there?”

…and a great example of the rewards of keeping a record

A benefit of this blog is that it has enabled others to get in touch with us. Long-lost former climbing companions and others can re-establish contact or those with an interest in the area we visited might seek or share information. There’s no better illustration of this than what happened recently when a former climbing companion of Phil’s got in touch. Continue reading ““Was I there?””


misunderstanding_00002 all you see  –  now where have I heard that, I hear you ask? Well, it’s a lyric from the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields.” Sometimes we fail to understand the obvious and then later wonder how we could have been so stupid. The following incident in a distant settlement in South Greenland illustrates the point. Continue reading “Misunderstanding…..”

Then and Now – Nanortalik

…and somewhere to sit

In 1971 Nanortalik was a delightful little town – except that we spent three weeks there waiting for the ship with our food and equipment to penetrate the dense coastal pack ice. We had expected to be there for perhaps three days. But we made do. We ate the construction canteen out of food. We moved into an empty house. We got jobs mixing cement. We had philosophical discussions late into the night. And we walked all over the island constructing an elaborate decimal hill-identifying scheme that started with Hills 1, 2 and 3 and proceeded to Hill 1.5 and Hill 1.75 etc.

One of the best viewpoints was located at this boulder on Hill 1, looking across to Sermersoq Island.   In 2016 what appears to be the same boulder appears in a post from our Arctic Adventures guide Ida Nordkvist Permin.

Ida-Nanortalik-2016sm 800

(The earlier Then and Now – Coastal Transport, has also been updated with 2017 information)


Last Boat from Taserssuaq

August 26th 1971

A few months ago while searching for something (I no longer remember what!) in a cupboard an old manila envelope fell from a book. Unfortunately the envelope was not full of Scottish pound notes my ancestors had hidden from the taxman. However it did contain some ancient “treasure” – long- forgotten black and white negatives of our Greenland 1971 Expedition. Continue reading “Last Boat from Taserssuaq”