I wont even attempt to pronounce the name of this small bygd (Danish name for small Greenlandic village) north of Ilulissat. rust me I have tried with several people looking at me confused. Oqaatsut is within an easy half an hour by boat if the icebergs are not in the way and two hours in the winter by dog sled. Here live 45 people in a small cluster of colourful houses.
History of Oqaatsut
The settlement was as Godhavn originally a whaling station of Dutch origin. The Dutch called it Rodebay, meaning Red Bay and named from how red the waters of the bay became during whaling season. Even today most whales in the Ilulissat area are drawn to land at Oqaatsut due to the natural harbour of the bay.
The place was used as far back as the 17th century by Dutch whalers at which time it got its name Rode Bay, but it was only in the 18th century that it became settled by both Inuit settlers and Dutch whalers. However, in 1876 the Danish King asserted the Danish claim to Greenland, monopolising Greenlandic trade, and in 1877, Oqaatsut was made into a Danish colonial outpost operated by the Royal Greenland Trading Department. Denmark held the monopoly on Greenlandic trade up until 1950 and some might claim that we still de facto are monopolising the Greenlandic import and export of goods.
The slow pace of life in a Greenlandic settlement
My reason for visiting and staying the night in Oqaatsut has been twofold. Partly, I wanted for us to have a chance to relax a bit and simply enjoy the quiet of this vast island. In addition, I wanted a chance to experience the life in a small and remote settlement in Greenland. In Greenlandic terms, Oqaatsut is relatively close to civilization, but for two city dwellers like us it seems hard to imagine something further away from everything than this place.
The settlement is situated 22 kilometres north of Ilulissat, and our plan is to walk back on what should be an easy hike. I’ve been told that it should take us slightly more than three times the time of a dog sled – around 7 hours. But the walk is not until tomorrow morning. For now, we simply have to enjoy the magical peace of this place.
Watch out for the Chinese invasion
While to us this small settlement seems far away it must have felt like a different planet for the two middle-aged Chinese gentlemen sailing with us to the settlement this morning. Knowing no English it seemed a daring adventure for them to travel to Oqaatsut without a Chinese speaking guide.
Our captain on the small open boat admitted that he probably had to keep an eye out for them since they seemed constantly confused and out of place. Communication was difficult, but was helped along by a translation app with which the Chinese could make themselves understood – though barely. The sentences that came out in English were to say the least ridiculously hilarious, but it worked to an extend.
The Royal Greenland Trading Department left behind four buildings, which in the days of the Danish monopoly were storage, cooperage, the settlement’s old shop and the old H8 warehouse. Today, the latter houses Restaurant H8 and upon our arrival I’d arranged with the friendly hostess Charlotte for us to eat there both for lunch and dinner.
We dropped by at 12.30 for our lunch, but soon realised that Charlotte as well as her husband Julien were busy attempting to understand the requirements of the two Chinese gentlemen from the boat.
After a long conversation through the computerised voice of the Chinese translation app, it became apparent that the two Chinese gentlemen were convinced that they could only eat food that was cooked, or as they demonstrated by the way of a candle – boiled. They articulated and made understood by the app that as Chinese they had sensitive tummies. It was hard to keep my face straight with the weird translations and ridiculousness of the situation. I might be insensitive, but it was impossible for me or Charlotte to explain to them that the traditionally smoked and dried fish which was on the menu was quite safe even for sensitive tummies.
To be fair, I would be extremely cautious with food in China considering the food scandals that have come forth in recent years, but the safety regulations of Greenlandic food are higher than in most places. In the end the Chinese handed over their translation app which politely requested if it was possible to cancel their order. I felt sorry for them, as I enjoyed my own massive Atlantic Salmon Sandwich on home-made ciabatta – and even more so when we caught up with them at the hotel enjoying two pieces of dried toast and a slice of that American burger cheese which comes in plastic wrapping. Poor guys, but at least they got fed.
We spent the day relaxing, and for my boyfriend to get past his illness. While he enjoyed the view from our hotel room, I went on a walk up the hill north of the settlement from where I was blown away by a beautiful view of Disko Bay and the Paakitsup Nunaa highland to the east. Oqaatsut is most favourably located in this eastern corner of Disko Bay.
Walking, walking and then walking some more…
We set out from Oqaatsut later than planned and the clock was near 10 AM as we reached the first orange dot indicating the route we were to follow. I wanted to set a good pace, worrying that 20 kilometres might prove too much for us. But the landscape begged us to slow down and enjoy the wide horizon.
For the first stretch we followed the coastline south with the Disko Bay to our right. It was a beautiful vista and I felt as if we were alone travelling through the landscape from the ice ages. It soon occurred to me that that was exactly what we were doing. Greenland succumbs under an ice age and the fauna is Arctic and makes inhabitation difficult. Thus, we were alone in a remote plain with views of massive ice bergs close to an Ice Cap taking up 7% of the world’s fresh water reserve. Apart from my outfit and camera, I could almost imagine myself as Ayla travelling across the tundra of the Euroasian continent at the time of the last big ice age.
As we moved inland and to the east we found the small peninsula closing off the Kangerluarsuk – in English Broad Bay. Here we walked down to the waters edge to look for capelins, known as ammasat in Greenlandic. The shoreline was dotted with fishing shacks and as we moved east along the shores of Broad Bay, we saw locals fishing in the fresh waters of the bay.
It was already late when we reached the small pass between BroadBay and an inner lake feeding into the bay. It became the first of many crossings on rocks over water. As we followed the path south, we had a beautiful view of the bay to our right and the Iviangernarsuit highlands to the left. Reaching the southern shores of Broad Bay, we crossed several rivers, one of which offered us a shackled bridge and another giving me a wet foot. But we made it past and at around 6 PM, we had reached the cape at the southern entrance to Broad Bay called Nuuluk.
We were deadbeat tired and wishing for each bend in the route to give us a view of what we wanted to see the most – namely Ilulissat Airport. When we finally reached it, we had another kilometre to go as we followed a track beside the landing strip. We reached the airport entrance around 7 PM and had the woman at the Air Greenland office call us a taxi. It seemed she was pretty used to meeting odd hikers covered in mosquito bites and dead on their feet. We’d walked the route much slower than average, but we did it, and looking back, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. That evening, I bought an internet connection at the hostel and found the Children of the Earth series by Jean M. Auel on the the Danish library app.