Greenland: exploring its epic emptiness on horseback

Hardly anyone lives in Greenland year-round apart from the sea shepherds, the Greenlandic Inuit people who live on the coast and travel mostly by boat. My base was in Tasiilaq, a small village on the east coast nearest to Iceland, and I would go out daily on horseback to explore the local fjords. My host was a sea shepherd who had lived for a time in Iceland, where there is a culture of rearing the indigenous Icelandic horses, and he brought some back with him, one at a time, on his tiny boat. 

During the winter, Greenland is covered in a thick layer of ice but in the summer – I was there at the end of July – the ice recedes, and it becomes an incredible place to ride horses. The terrain can be challenging – at one point we were riding single-file down what felt like a very steep staircase of rocks – but mostly it’s perfect for the Icelandic horses, which are small but strong and are adept at handling the landscape. 

Greenland has no trees, although that surely is about to alter because of climate change. For now, though, there are none, and there are hardly any bushes, just tundra and wild grasses. The landscape is defined by the glaciers, and we rode along beaches surrounded by blocks of ice. The ice has this kind of ringing crystal sound and you can hear with perfect clarity the drops of water as they melt. In fact, the only sounds you ever really hear come from the water – there are no cars or planes, or even really birds – and it is deeply meditative, the experience of listening only to the sounds of the sea and the ice. 

You have to keep your distance from the biggest glaciers, especially if you approach them from the water. It’s a very humbling experience to see their majesty and their scale. In some of them the water has been frozen solid for 50,000 years. It’s sobering too. While I was there, people were constantly telling me how much has changed in the last 50 years, how far the glaciers have receded. Climate change is unavoidable there; you simply have to face up to it.

Olivia Estebanez is a photographer. She was born in Bordeaux and is now based in London. oliviaestebanez.com

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