Greenland hits you smack in the face; first on the nose when the plane door opens and the cabin floods with invigorating Arctic air. You can smell the cold and you gasp. Then, looking towards the sea, the vista might cause your eyes to explode. Ice as far as you can see, mountain upon jagged mountain of blue and white as if the world was frozen to infinity. It is beyond breathtaking.
This country is so mesmerising that Donald Trump wants to buy it, although this might be rather less for its immediate beauty than for its valuable mineral deposits lurking deep beneath that icy vista. Everything about Greenland, from its glaciers and its mountains to the round, cheery faces of its Inuit people, is begging to have its picture taken.
[The Inuit don’t shout at their children. What we need to learn from them]
Everyone takes photos these days – some 1.2 trillion (yes trillion) of them last year alone. But not all snaps are photographs. Images hastily taken on phones may tell you what a place looks like, but a photographer’s mission is to capture how it feels. Proper photographs tell stories, and the saga of the Greenland landscape is vast. To record it, and to do it justice, calls for no small amount of skill.
Wild Photography Holidays can help you develop that ability with inspiring tours guided by recognised experts; Paul Harris, an adventure photographer, and David “Cubby” Cuthbertson, a distinguished former mountaineer who is highly accomplished with a camera himself. There were 12 of us in our party, there to discover our photographic secrets, among us an Alaskan fisherman, an east London social worker, a Spanish architect and two New York millionaires. There were no language difficulties – we all spoke “camera”. We could natter for hours about focus and wide-angles, f-stops and tripods.
‘But it’s not ‘camera club’,’ insists Paul. And he’s right. We were all enthusiasts, but on the right side – I hope – of the line that separates us from the bores, even if our much-discussed lenses did have enough glass to keep a jam jar factory going for a year.
We flew three hours from Reykjavik in a small, propeller-driven plane to land at the extremely short and rock-enclosed runway at Ilulissat on the west coast. It is Greenland’s third largest town with a population of only 4,500 people and, it is said, an equal number of husky-like sled dogs.
The truck ride into town followed the coast, where the urge to start snapping was overwhelming. Ice is hypnotic; everywhere a great shot, then an even better one. Shutter fingers were already twitching.
A four-star hotel in such a small and remote town was a pleasant surprise, the panorama of ice-strewn sea from every bedroom window a bonus. There were even good pictures to be had without leaving the warmth of our rooms. Supper was halibut – the default dish in these parts, and smooth and silky on the palate. But we were warned, somewhat darkly, that this level of luxury might not last.
The first evening, in temperatures a couple of degrees above freezing – in the first week of September – we draped ourselves in layers of thermal clothing to board a small boat to get up-close with the massive, icy bergs. Lenses were carefully chosen, camera settings chewed over – we sensed this was going to be something to remember.
The sun sinks slowly this far north, and playing out before our telephotos was the gradual transformation of blue daylight first to yellow, then sunset-red and pink, and every imaginable tint in between. ‘Whale!’ someone cried. Suddenly we were snapping away like sports photographers at a winning goal as the broad tail of a humpback appeared out of the water to give us a proper welcome to Greenland. We motored on through the ice, nervously noting its unyielding crunch against the hull. ‘That’s what it sounded like on the Titanic,’ one of the New Yorkers joked. ‘Yes, and the berg that the Titanic hit would probably have been born around here,’ another pointed out.
As darkness fell, we crept along the edge of the vast Kangia glacier where its ice meets the sea. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Here, bergs higher than the Statue of Liberty can form – a chilling thought. ‘Got anything good?’ one of our party asked. The rest of us shrugged. We’d already learnt that photographers never reveal their scoops.
I was back in my bed by midnight, frozen to the core. ‘We do this tour in the winter as well,’ Paul explained. ‘It’s been down to minus 35 and the cameras have frozen up!’ From my bed, the distant howl of the sled dogs was the only sound I heard.
The next day saw us swap four-star comfort for five-star adventure with a 60-mile open water crossing of Disko Bay in a fast boat – which, once through the icy shoreline, continued at high speed, bouncing us out of our seats on the crest of every wave. It rained.
After two hours, a desperate-looking Disko Island appeared through the dank mist, the ice cap looking like grey icing on a grim cake. We steamed, thankfully, into the tiny harbour, home to the community of Qeqertarsuaq. Had we missed it, the next stop would have been Arctic Canada. This is a warm-hearted village of 800 people, and the bright red, blue, green and yellow houses (the paint paid for by the government, presumably to keep the people cheerful through the dark winters) spoke of a population determined to make the best of living on the edge of the world. The hotel, with a distinct hostel feel, made the best of providing hospitality, but it was clear that the Greenlanders have yet to fully understand the needs of tourism. I hope they never do, and continue to lead innocent lives, but I doubt they will. We asked for chips, but the lady in the kitchen said she didn’t have any. If we went down to the supermarket for a bag, however, she would fry them for us! I’d give her four stars for that any day.
Looking on the bright side – or 1/125th at f11, as we photographers say – rain can be good for pictures, with dreamy reflections making for interesting compositions. But when everyone was soaked and craved warmth, Paul and Cubby gave us lectures on photo processing software, and helped us understand and get the best out of our cameras. Some of the group were already accomplished, others had a lot to learn, but all were helped patiently and constructively. You never felt there was a question too daft to ask.
Then came the return journey to the mainland, thankfully on flat water and in sunshine this time, to an even smaller community of only 40 people, Oqaatsut. There are no roads here, not even between the tiny coloured houses balanced on rocky outcrops, their backs to the Arctic wind. The only access is by sea in the summer, and by dog sled in winter. A multitude of these dogs, resting during the summer season, conveniently posed while chewing on a dead seal carcass or two. That had shutter fingers twitching. Top camera tip – a long lens is vital for capturing this, to avoid the stink.
The accommodation was warm, clean and as comfortable as you could expect in a remote spot like this where drinking water is collected by boat from the mouth of a nearby river and all supplies arrive on a rusty old ship which deposits its cargo on the rocks that form the harbour. And the food was of the very best kind; a beaming Inuit lady made us a fish soup of halibut, cod and scallops to her traditional recipe. It was worth all the travelling for that alone.
Capturing remoteness with a camera is not easy. Paul Harris gave us pointers, however you can teach an artist how to hold a brush but not where to apply the paint. That’s down to talent. The same with photos. Most evenings I went back to my room and downloaded the day’s shots, on some nights going to bed happy and on others disappointed. But being in the company of able photographers was inspiring – and I think I improved, and so would you.
Wild Photography Holidays certainly gave us wildness aplenty, and as much inspiring photography as you could want. But it is not a holiday. You will be tired by a full day of lugging camera bags and tripods, and weary if you join the sunrise starts and then try to capture a post-supper sunset as well. You also need to be sure-footed to deal with the occasional scramble to get the best shots, but you do not have to be super-fit. Nor young.
One of our New York friends was in his mid-80s and got shots as good as anyone’s. It is, however, a true adventure, and if you approach it as such you will not be disappointed.
The unmistakable feeling of “living on the edge” is never far away, and capturing it in the brief click of a camera’s shutter is a real test. You will return with your memory overflowing with the mesmerising sight of rays of sunlight dancing on ice, the splash of the diving whales or the bark of the sled dogs, the creak of the icebergs as they gently collide. And when your memory fails, you will still have incredible pictures to prove it.
Travel tips and schedule
Wild Photography Holidays (wildphotographyholidays.com) offers West Greenland in Autumn – Icebergs, Glaciers and Inuit Settlements from £3,250 per person. The price includes return flights between Iceland and Greenland, transfers, boat tours, photography tuition, guided walking and nine nights’ full-board accommodation. Flights between the UK and Iceland cost extra.
Next departure: Aug 29-Sept 5 2020.