Northern Lights above Greenland

Destination outward bound
I turn to see the Northern Lights behind the wing.
Horizons seem to beckon me, learned how to cry too young
So now I live to sing.
Renaissance – The Northern Lights

We had to be up very early this morning as we had to assemble in the Neptune Lounge at 7.15am to be ready for our trip at half-past seven.  Today we were taking a boat trip to visit the ruins of the largest Viking church, at Hvalsey, and learn about the Viking farmers.

Outside, a dense fog made it impossible to see anything at all, so it was unfortunate that we wouldn’t be able to make the most of the scenery on the way.

When we boarded the local boat via one of the Boudicca’s tenders, it was pretty crowded because one of the other boats had broken down, so their passengers joined ours.  We went below decks and sat in the boat’s galley, but the windows were high up so you couldn’t see out of them unless you stood up.

The boat took speed and rattled and vibrated its way along, the engine noise so loud it was difficult to hear what our guide was saying.  She was an Inuit woman whose name we didn’t manage to get, and she explained to us all about life growing up in Greenland, and what it was like living in a location so remote and thinly-populated.

Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world, about 7% and she said that just about every family has at least one family member who has taken their own life.  Maybe it’s down to the remote location, the long, dark winters, or the fact that there isn’t much to do, but there is also a high rate of alcoholism amongst Greenlanders as well.

The guide also gave us the Inuit’s perspective regarding the hunting and fishing traditions.  For decades environmental groups have protested against the whaling and seal-hunting industry, but for Greenlanders hunting, shooting and fishing are a way of life.  They can’t just walk into a supermarket and buy food, so they have to fish and hunt in order to eat.  Whenever they kill a whale, seal or reindeer, every part of the animal is used; the meat for food, the skins for clothing and waterproofing, and the oil or blubber for fuel.

Inuit people used to be called ‘Eskimos’ but they now regard this term as pejorative, as it translates into English as “eater of raw meat”.  Yet this is exactly what they do, so I don’t know why they see it as offensive.

When the noisy boat eventually arrived at the small landing stage, we all disembarked and walked up a grassy, boulder-strewn bank towards the ruins of the church.  It was very bleak and remote here, and no other buildings were anywhere in evidence.

Hvalsey church was built in the early 12th century and might have been built by Scots-Norse stonemasons as similar structures are found in Norway and Orkney. The church might have been maintained due to the site’s royal ownership.

The church house was exceptionally well built from carefully chosen stones that in some cases weigh in excess of five tons. Its walls, which are up to 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) thick, measure 16 metres (52 ft) by 8 metres (26 ft) on the outside. The gables rise 5 metres (16 ft) to 6 metres (20 ft) from the floor and may have risen 2m higher when first constructed. Side walls, which would have been higher when new, now stand 4 metres (13 ft). The building was plastered with ground mussel shells and would have been white when in use and was roofed with timber and turf.

A 1408 wedding at the site’s church is the last documented event to occur during the Norse settlement of Greenland. Two years later the Icelandic newlyweds, ship’s captain Borsteinn Ólafsson and Sigríður Björnsdóttir, returned to Norway, before sailing to Iceland and settling on the bride’s family farm at Akrar, north Iceland, in 1413. The details were recorded in letters between papal dignitaries in Iceland and the Vatican.

Archaeological evidence shows that over the next hundred years the last Norse settlements in Greenland slowly died out. It was not until 1721 that a joint merchant-clerical expedition led by Danish missionary Hans Egede discovered that the Norse colonies in Southern Greenland had disappeared.

Afterwards it was back onto the boat for the return journey to the Boudicca.  It was still pretty foggy although not as bad as it had been.  We felt sure it would turn out to be a very fine day.

We were back on board before 11.00am, and we went to the Iceni room and had a cup of coffee, before taking part in the quiz in the Lido Lounge.  No prize for us this time!

By lunchtime the fog had cleared and we enjoyed a light lunch before returning to our cabin for a catnap, to make up for the early wake-up at 6.20am.

We spent the earlier part of the afternoon wandering around the ship; going out on deck to enjoy the beautiful weather and clear skies, reading my Kindle, doing some crochet and socialising with fellow passengers.  At 2.30pm the Boudicca weighed anchor and we set off once again, gliding along the cool blue fjords and looking out for whales and icebergs.  At one stage we saw about five or six whale spouts and the odd tantalising glimpse of a black fin, but none of the whales dived down to let us see their flukes.

Time passes surprisingly quickly when you’re not doing anything in particular, and soon it was time to go and get ready for dinner.  Once again there was only Trevor and me, Willie and Lynn at the table; Doug and Sue had obviously decided to eat at the Secret Garden.

Then it was along to the Neptune Lounge afterwards for the show, which was a performance by the Boudicca Show Company called “Dancing through Life”.  It was an excellent show featuring all types of dancing from stage to tap to ballet and starred the excellent male lead, a blond lad called Julian, whose litheness, agility, strength and suppleness were very evident in his dance moves.

The 10.00pm quiz, which we did along with Steve, was absolutely dire.  The theme was the Big Band era, which none of us knew anything about.  When the quiz-master announced the theme there was a collective groan from the audience, so I think we were all in the same boat, so to speak.  The fact that the winning score was 7/15 shows how obscure some of the questions and answers were; our team scored a pitiful 4/15.  😦

As we came out of the Neptune Lounge around 10.30pm we decided, for a change, to go up to the Observatory at the bow of the ship, instead of the Lido Lounge.  It was extremely fortuitous that we did so, because we’d only been up in the dimly-lit quiet lounge for about 10 minutes when somebody, who was looking out of the big windows at the front, called out, “There’s the Northern Lights!”

I shot over to the window while Trevor rushed outside.  Sure enough, there was a green glow in the sky directly in front of us, above the ship’s bow.  I hurried out to join Trevor on the upper decks, regardless of the fact that I didn’t have my coat on and there was an icy wind blowing.  I wasn’t going to miss this for anything, cold or not.  🙂

The whole sky above the Boudicca was alight with the Aurora Borealis, which writhed and shimmered, rippled and glowed in the black velvet skies.  To the left of us was a rising moon, casting its silver reflection on the water and competing with the aurora for our attention.  We saw the bands and swathes of pale green arcing their way over the skies, sometimes gently rippling and at other times forming the vertical lines known as the ‘curtain’ effect.  A small crowd had gathered, and Trevor meanwhile ran back to our cabin and returned shortly with the camera and our coats.

The crowd “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” each time the Northern Lights changed shape or glowed even brighter – it was as if we were watching a fireworks display.  I simply could not take my gaze away from Mother Nature’s light show; it was everything you’d expect and want the Aurora Borealis to be.  In November 2014 we had gone on the Boudicca up above the Arctic Circle (up to 70ºN, in fact) and we’d been lucky enough to see the Northern Lights five nights running.  But tonight’s display surpassed anything we had ever seen.  It was truly magnificent, and we were so privileged to be here, en route to Nanortalik, and see the elusive Aurora Borealis in all its splendour.

Once the cold got the better of us, we returned to the Observatory feeling absolutely euphoric.  What an amazing bonus; it was the icing on the cake of what had so far been a brilliant cruise.  We were still able to see the Aurora out of the big wraparound windows, and the lights kept dancing in the skies for over an hour.  Wow!

It was around 12.30am before we returned to our cabin, still talking excitedly about our unexpected bonus.  It was strange how we’d gone to the Observatory tonight; if we’d done the usual and gone to the Lido Lounge at the stern of the ship, we might not have known anything about the Aurora.  We were definitely in the right place at the right time.  🙂

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