“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

The Simple Things - - LIVING -

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.”


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)

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