Today, airports across the globe are deserted. More than a quarter of the world’s population is in lockdown. Yet when we landed in Kangerlussuaq, a small town in western Greenland, about four weeks ago, on the 4th of March 2020, there were no cases of the deadly Covid-19 virus in this remote and faraway island, located east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
My HER Planet Earth all-female team and I had flown in from Singapore via Denmark the night before, and at the time, the Asian island nation had 112 Covid-19 cases and Denmark just eight in comparison. We felt lucky that we had been able to push through with our expedition – a unique challenge which we had been planning for over a year. Our aim was to cross the world’s largest island, Greenland, on bikes in the middle of winter, as the first all-female team. Up until our departure date, the team and I had been monitoring the situation carefully, keeping our fingers crossed that this fundraising and awareness-building expedition could still go ahead.
The goal of this pioneering expedition was to raise awareness and funds (a team total of $50,000) for underprivileged women affected by climate change in the Asia region. We chose Greenland because it is one of the last final frontiers. Eighty per cent covered in ice, its glaciers are contributing to a rise in the global sea level faster than was previously believed. As this accelerates, many coastal cities will be affected and Asian cities will be hit much harder than others given their population, economic activity and landmass. The processes that control sea-level rise are amplified in Asia. As a result, about four out of every five people impacted by sea-level rise by 2050 will live in East or South-east Asia.
As we arrived in Greenland, we were conscious that because of the increasing fears about the pandemic, we might not be the most welcomed tourist. Nevertheless, we experienced no such prejudice and anyway, over the next few days, we would be biking across one of the most barren and isolated regions of Greenland, the 200km Arctic Circle Trail, which connects the Russell Glacier with the western coast of the island.
This week-long biking expedition turned out to be one of the most extraordinary and unique experiences of my life. The journey saw us push our limits to the brink of exhaustion on multiple occasions in extreme conditions, with temperatures ranging from minus 20 to minus 40 degrees Celsius, across one of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever witnessed. The team rode on all types of terrain, from hard packed and powdery snow, to slippery ice, mud and rock. We cycled up and down many hills and mountain passes and across vast frozen lakes and fjords. The days on the trail were long and tiring, with no shelter from the bitter cold and wind for up to ten hours each day, which sometimes even saw us reach our huts for the evening in complete darkness.
Despite the gruelling conditions, the esprit de corps was strong. The teammates looked after one another with kindness and compassion, which made all the difference. We encouraged each other, made each other laugh, a lot. The extreme conditions emphasised the importance of caring for each other – there was no room for mistakes. We couldn’t afford to be complacent as the risk of frost bite was all too high. We disciplined ourselves to stay close together despite the different biking paces, because if someone got lost, hurt and left behind, they could freeze to death or die of hypothermia within hours.
During the long days on the trail, we had no contact with the outside world. We often thought about our loved ones at home in these uncertain times. However, if truth be told, the lack of connection was a welcome reprieve from the onslaught of news about the Coronavirus we had been subjected to these past few weeks.
When at the end of our journey, we finally rode into the coastal fishing town of Sisimiut, the second largest city in Greenland with a few thousand people, it felt so strange to be back to civilization after days in the vast emptiness of the Arctic Trail. There were cars, snowmobiles, dog sleds, people walking in the snowy streets, staring at our convoy of bikes. Suddenly we realised… that’s it, we had done it! We had succeeded in becoming the first all-female team to fatbike the frozen lands of the Arctic Circle Trail of Greenland. Yet it was the experience as a team that bonded us, more than the achievement in itself.
As we reconnected to the outside world and with our families via WIFI, we realised that in the span of a week, the pandemic had exploded. We had returned to a world in carnage with the number of infections skyrocketing across Europe and the United States especially. After days in isolation, the onslaught of bad news was almost too much. It’s as if we had been cocooned in the Arctic – shielded from the world, a short moment suspended in time.
The day after we flew out of Greenland, the island shut down its borders. There was a first positive case of Covid-19 in Nuuk, the nation’s capital. As a result, the government decided to take swift action to safeguard its 56,000 inhabitants – 90% of whom are Inuit indigenous people – from the spread of the virus. Our team flew home as countries everywhere were going into lockdown, grateful for this incredible adventure we had been able to live and experience together.
There is no doubt that Greenland’s savage beauty has cast a spell on us. This land so wild and remote has a fragility to it that is calling us to wake up to a new world reality. We are all connected to it somehow and our destiny seems interlinked with its very survival. Nations, like individuals, come to light at times of crisis. Despite the growing fear about the virus in our midst, we cannot let our fight to mitigate climate change be forgotten.
In a sense, this pandemic may lead us to a deeper awareness of the ties that bind us all as human beings, and help us get to grips with our biggest emergency and long-term existential threat – the climate crisis. Indeed, what happens in the Arctic, does not stay in the Arctic, but will surely shape humanity’s future and survival, sooner than we think. The question is whether each of us will do our part to safeguard our planet and its most vulnerable, or simply be a bystander.