“Being in the wilderness… you realise none of it matters. You are so insignificant in the scheme of this wonderful planet”
Kari Herbert has exploration in her blood and she’s passing it on to a new generation of intrepid adventurers in the belief that everyone needs to wander off and explore at least once in their lives. Here, she talks to Phoebe Smith about a childhood in Gr
A‘‘ctually, I don’t like being cold,” is not a statement that would usually cause you to raise an eyebrow – especially early on a winter morning in Penzance when the wind is howling off the sea and permeating through every stitch of your clothing. But when it comes from the daughter of a British polar explorer – who spent the first few years of her life living above the Arctic Circle in Northwest Greenland – it comes of something as a surprise. Though perhaps not as much as her next admission: “Dad hated the cold too…” Kari Herbert’s father was Wally Herbert, the first man to travel to the North Pole from Alaska on foot, who followed in the footsteps of Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica, and a man who has various mountains named after him in both polar regions. Unlike the aforementioned adventurers, however, his is not a household name.
“It was a case of bad timing,” muses Kari as she sips her coffee, and snuggles further into her duvet jacket. “The moon landings were at the time he was most active, so he never really got his dues. But he was brilliant in so many ways – I had big shoes to fill.”
GROWING UP TRIBAL
Kari’s mission to fill those shoes certainly started young. Indeed her first steps and first words were taken within a hunting community of 12 Inuit families on Herbert Island, a remote outpost even to Greenlanders. Though she can remember how hard it was to live up there – they had no electricity, had to source water by boating out to icebergs and hacking off what they needed to melt, and hunted for food – it was the coming back to Britain that she found hardest.
“Living in a tribe, there is a real sense of community – nothing you own is yours. Everything is shared and that goes for love and companionship too. You’re part of something that is really special and unique. But coming back to England in the 70s, there was none of that. People expected kids to behave a certain way, but after growing up there – I was wild.”
She laughs a mischievous laugh as she says this and smiles knowingly. It’s actually her love of the wilderness that brought her to choose the southerly reaches of Cornwall as her home when she herself became a mother, to daughter Nell, a few years ago.
“I find cities and towns very difficult,” she confesses. “I love the idea of London but within four hours of going there, I just long to come home. Here, we go out in all weathers and stock up on being outside – it’s just what we do.”
Getting out into nature and embracing that sense of exploration learned from her father is something Kari not only tries to instil in Nell, but tries to teach others, through talks and her books.
“It’s not easy to stop being too protective – I know it wasn’t easy when my mum took me to the Arctic – imagine having a new baby and heading to somewhere that really was quite a remote, desolate place. But it’s important to remember that though we live in a time when there’s a sense of fear, children need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them – unless of course it’s frostbite or a polar bear!”
Growing up surrounded by hunters and wildlife informed the way Kari connects with the world
around her now. Of all her memories ‘up north’ she recalls how in tune they were with the environment.
“They just had a quietness that we don’t have,” she explains. “A hunter would lie on their belly next to the water and, in a few minutes, be able to tell that there was a storm coming, when it would arrive, how severe it would be and if we should stay or move on. It was just incredible. They were so attuned to everything.”
Kari makes a conscious effort to try to sit and absorb the world around her now – indeed she has a real sense of calm about her when she talks about the polar regions and her repeat visits there over the years as a travel writer.
“Being in the wilderness, you are faced with yourself and you can’t hide, you have to accept who you are – including all the fears and anxieties that would usually bring you down,” she explains. “Out there you realise none of it matters, you are so insignificant in the scheme of this wonderful planet – I think everyone should experience that at least once in their life.”
Her favourite areas are deserts – “both sandy and white” – with The Empty Quarter in Oman and the North Pole being two particular memorable locations.
“When I travel, because it’s somewhere different from home, I seem to take in the nuances, the little hidden messages, beauty, and the exquisiteness of nature, which we can forget how to connect with. But you don’t have to take a big rucksack and travel hundreds of miles to do it,” she enthuses.
Since becoming a mum, and establishing a publishing company with her husband – fellow explorer Huw – she’s learned to find adventure closer to home. Although they have taken their daughter to Greenland to see where her mum grew up – Nell keeps in touch with a young Inuit girl she met there.
“I think the thing is just to get on a bus or a bike, or
“Women should go out and have adventures, no matter how small, because it’s soul food”
even just walk and go to somewhere beautiful – a little wood you’ve never explored near your house, a stroll by the sea or river – there are so many places where you can find that space if you allow yourself to.”
Amid all the exploring locally, raising Nell and writing books, does she dream of going and attempting any world firsts like her father did before her?
“Exploration has become a bit more about athletic sporting challenges – which doesn’t sit terribly easy with me,” she confides. “Dad’s missions were about knowledge – crossing the Arctic Ocean was about science, too – some of the measurements the glaciologist on his expedition took have become the baseline for climate change. So ticking things off is not what it’s about for me.”
Indeed Kari’s books attempt to highlight some of the unsung heroes of exploration who have made amazing discoveries – many unknown outside of their specialist fields such as botany or geology.
She cites the example of Margaret Mee, a botanist who in the ’50s and ’60s went in search of the Moonflower in the Amazon – which blooms just one night a year. “She had a revolver strapped to her pants and, when the tribespeople said she must go back to their houses at night time to be safe, she would say, ‘ Leave me – I’ve slept with the jaguars’. She was amazing, and so timid and elegant to look at that you’d never know how adventurous she was.”
When it comes to women ‘adventuresses’, Kari thinks that they have been underrepresented in the media – and still are to an extent. “Most children draw a man with a beard when told to imagine an explorer – my daughter included, and she should know better…” she laughs. And though things have changed, she notes that it’s still harder to get sponsorship or be taken seriously as a woman.
“So much that women do is underappreciated,” she says. “We do have lots of additional pressures that we never get credit for – and maybe we don’t need credit, but we do need the understanding that we have them. Women should go out and have adventures, no matter how small, because it’s soul food. Every person deserves that – regardless of gender, race or background. We all need to have these moments with nature, because what’s the point of being on this planet if we can’t appreciate the gift it is?”
Her advice is to travel as much as we can to meet some of the incredible people in the world – most of whom are good and decent. And above all to remember to make time for ourselves. “We are enablers, nurturers and we often forfeit our needs for the sake of everyone else. But our own needs are really important. So forget about the washing up – just get outside.”
She smiles as the Cornish waves crash on the shore and the wind continues to blow.
“And remember to wrap up warm.”
Mountains and the sea offer Kari the solitude she still craves, but she’s a believer that adventure can be found anywhere, even just a walk or bus ride from your front door
Kari’s childhood was more than a little out of the ordinary and instilled in her a sense of adventure for life. Now she’s travelling in teh Arctic with her own daughter (opposite)