At home in the ice
Mod cons were in short supply in the Greenland house where Kari Herbert grew up but, she tells Louise Johncox, it was a wonderful home all the same
12 December 2004 The Sunday Times Home

Amazingly, despite never having travelled to the polar regions, she agreed and, a few months later, Marie, the infant Kari and her father, the polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert, were on their way to a remote island off the northwest coast of Greenland.

“Mum followed Dad to the ends of the earth — quite literally,” says Kari. “She had faith in his skills and knowledge and put her life and mine in his hands. Their friends were concerned that the Arctic was a hostile place to bring up a child. But Dad had so much experience in the polar regions that Mum couldn’t have picked a better man for the job.”

Wally had spent time with the local Innuit people during his 1968-69 Trans-Arctic expedition from Alaska to Spitzbergen, and was eager to study and film them before their way of life changed forever.

In July 1971 the family flew from London to Copenhagen, where they joined the annual supply ship to northwest Greenland. After 2 weeks, the ship finally anchored off their destination, Herbert Island (named after one of the crew of Captain EA Inglefield, who explored the Arctic in the 1840s). To Marie, it looked like “a razorback ridge of featureless rock”. Launches ferried the family and their provisions, including boxes of Cadbury’s chocolate and Heinz baby food, to the village of Qeqertassuaq.

Their new home was a squalid red hunters’ hut, 14ft by 11ft, pungent with the smell of carcasses. “The walls were stained with blood and grime,” says Kari. “There were bits of blubber and gristle on the floor. My mother was desperately worried.”

Wally installed Kari and Marie in a tent while he scrubbed the hut clean, repainted the walls, built shelves, laid a carpet and set up the cot transported from England. There was little space for furniture: just a wooden platform for a bed, a pink chest of drawers and a table. A collection of blankets from Wally’s South American travels helped transform the rickety shed into a home. His DIY makeover, however, stopped short of mod cons: fires still had to be built every morning, and ice collected and melted for drinking or washing. There was no running water or lavatory.

“You’d just go for a walk and do your business,” says Kari. “The local kids followed Mum, so she’d shoo them away, which they thought was hilarious. She also managed to pee on one of the huskies in the middle of the night.”

When they arrived in the summer the temperature was minus 5C, rising to 10C. In the winter, it dropped as low as minus 35C. Kari’s first memory is of clinging onto her cot while a violent storm battered the hut. “The wind was howling outside; everything was creaking and groaning, the windows were bending in and out. It was really eerie.”

The severity of the climate was in sharp contrast to the warmth of the reception the small community of just 12 families gave the Herberts. Many of the locals believed the island was named after their new residents.

The Innuits lavished affection on Kari, who was raised like one of their own; she played in the snow, ate seal and walrus and soon spoke only in Inuktun, the local dialect. “The children were considered the most precious part of the community,” says Kari. “I was treated like a princess but I became a bit wild.”

The family grew very close to their neighbours, Maria and Avatak Qaerngâq and their seven children, whom Kari regarded as siblings. Wally often accompanied Avatak, a hunter, to film hunting trips over glaciers and icecaps.

After two years Kari’s parents were so concerned that their daughter would find it difficult adapting to life back home that they returned to England. She hated it, and terrified pet dogs by imitating the loud cracking of a whip.

“England seemed inhospitable,” Kari recalls. “I was so used to lots of freedom and love. The English hate kids screaming and running wild. I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t just go up to somebody and give them a hug.”

The Herberts made several more trips back to the Arctic as a family during Kari’s childhood. When she was nine they travelled back to Herbert Island with her younger sister, Pascale, who had her second birthday on the holiday.

They were horrified to discover that Avatak had been shot dead by his wife Maria. “They had a fight and as far as we know alcohol was involved,” says Kari.

The return to Herbert Island also made her realise how much she had changed: “I couldn’t get my head around seal intestines, which I used to eat when I was little.”

In 1991, Pascale died in an electrical accident at home, at the age of 15. Three years later, Kari joined her parents, who were lecturing on a cruise trip to the Arctic, and they spent one day in the mainland town of Qaanaaq, across from Herbert Island. “Most of the families had moved from the island to the mainland by then. They had heard about my sister, so there was a lot of wailing; they make this primitive sound which tears at your heart.”

Back in England, Kari, who had grown up in the Midlands and in Devon, studied media and design at the University of Portsmouth, always wrestling with a sense of not belonging. “It was difficult to adjust to life in England. There was a great sense of loss and grieving. At the same time, I didn’t want anyone to know I was missing people who I thought were my own family.

“Going back there was something I simply had to do,” she says. Kari spent the summer of 2002 revisiting the Qaerngâq family, and in the winter of 2003, she went back to her old home on Herbert Island with her boyfriend, Laurence. “Through him I saw the place as my mother had first seen it . . . a grotty, tiny hunters’ hut in the middle of a frigid wilderness.

“Returning to the hut was strange, partly because it had other people’s stuff inside. In one sense I felt I was home, that I had returned to my roots, but I realised there was no future for me there. I did feel, however, that I had made peace with the place.”
The Explorer’s Daughter: A Young Englishwoman Rediscovers Her Arctic Childhood, by Kari Herbert, Viking, £18.99