By Kari Herbert, Sep 15 2016 12:32PM
The icy breeze burnt our faces and froze our breath, weighing down the delicate strands of our wolf-fur hoods with frosted beads and turning our nostril hairs into icy needles. I cried out with excitement as we shot over the ice and immediately felt the lining of my lungs freeze; I almost saw the sound of our laughter shattering into splinters in this frozen world.
My Inuit childhood friends and I clutched on to one another as we careered over the sea-ice. Beneath the hard cobalt-blue sky, my friend's team of 12 huskies fanned out on their 20ft-long traces, tails held proud and purple-pink tongues lolling to one side. It had taken me nearly 30 years to return to this tiny, isolated outpost of civilisation, but finally I was home.
My first memories are of Greenland and its people. I spent the first few years of my life living with the most northerly tribe of hunters in the world; my first words were in their language, and my first steps were taken on their frozen shores. Now I had returned to my childhood home, to discover how life had changed for my friends and "family", and to rediscover my connection with this raw and hostile place.
I was 10 months old when I first went to the Arctic. My father, polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert, had recently completed an epic dog-sledging expedition across the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole, a journey that had taken him and his three companions 16 months to complete. He had learnt many of his skills from living and travelling with the Inuit, during which time he saw that their unique way of life was changing fast, and so in 1971 we left England to live with a small tribe of polar Eskimo hunters, now called Inughuit (pronounced "In-oo-hoo-it"), in the extreme northwest of Greenland, where Dad was to record the last days of their traditional culture.
The ways of the hunters we lived with were those of their ancestors. Clothing was still made from furs; the men still hunted in skin kayaks in the summer and drove dog teams across the sea-ice in the four-month-long darkness of winter. While the men and my father hunted, my mother and I stayed within the community with the women and children, helping to prepare and sew skins for clothing and curing or cooking seal meat, whale and fish. These people lived on the very brink of civilisation, and were completely in tune with the environment in which they lived.
A great bond soon formed between the villagers and us, so much so that by the time we left Herbert Island - over two years later - I spoke only the local dialect of Greenlandic and believed that our Inughuit neighbours were my family.
Of course we were not the first outsiders to spend time in Greenland - this sleeping giant of an island has been enthused about for over two millennia.
Many early explorers were drawn to the mystique of the north and its frigid wastelands of stark beauty. The Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia returned from his travels to Greenland in the fourth century BC speaking of a place where the summer had no night, and "where neither earth, water, nor air exist separately". The seas were congealed with cold, he said, and there were floating castles of marble and crystal.
The Arctic is a place where myth meets reality - the early sightings of "mermaids" and "unicorns" describe one of Greenland's most graceful inhabitants - the single-tusked narwhal. Still there are places where the world appears to have turned to glass; where the iridescent turquoise-blues of icebergs the size of St Paul's cathedral render one utterly speechless. It is hard to believe that this wild and beguilingly beautiful place is just a few hours away from some of Europe's most sophisticated cities.
No longer do you have to be a rugged polar explorer to experience what Greenland has to offer. Tourist ships frequent the west coast, allowing passengers to get up close to whales and seals and take in sights such as the spectacular Ilulissat Icefjord - the home of the glacier Sermeq Kujalleq, which purportedly calved the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Organised tours can also be booked from the UK, often including dog-sledge and helicopter trips; alternatively, independent travellers can fly direct from Copenhagen. If you are planning to hike, it is advisable to take a guide, or at least let someone know where you plan to go. Even in the height of summer, one must be prepared for the weather to change rapidly - temperatures and visibility can plummet.
Things have changed dramatically since my early days in Greenland, and the rudimentary hunters' huts I remember, with no electricity or running water (ice was collected from nearby icebergs for our daily use), have now all but disappeared. Nowadays, the settlements seem little more than an annexe of Scandinavia, with tourist-class hotels and brightly painted wooden houses furnished with satellite televisions and Bang & Olufsen stereos.
The environment, however, stays essentially the same - the tundra is still covered with purple saxifrage, Arctic cotton, green mosses and Arctic poppies with blooms the size of a newborn's fingernail; Arctic hare, snow bunting, arctic terns, seal and narwhal still proliferate.
Even in some of the more modern settlements, you don't have to dig deep to find the older, grittier side of life; many hunters still use kayaks and harpoons in the summer, seal meat is still a staple in the Inuit diet - although arctic halibut and reindeer meat are more likely to be on the tourist menus - and dog-sledges are the preferred form of transport for any self-respecting hunter.
Dog-sledges have been used by hunters since time immemorial: before wood was brought to the area by whalers and explorers, sledges were constructed from pieces of bone lashed together with thongs made from the skin of a bearded seal. The runners were often made from whale rib or narwhal tusk, then covered with strips of sealskin, or even fish laid head to tail. The fish or fur was frozen to the runners and water painstakingly applied with a piece of fur, until there was a thick, smooth coating of ice the full length of a runner.
By the time we lived in the area the runners were mostly made of steel, but the narrow runners were useless in thick snow; quite often, thick pads torn from babies' nappies were frozen to the existing runners to increase their width. Like their ancestors, our friends applied layers of ice over the padded runners and then finally smoothed the ice down perfectly with a wood plane.
These days, the sledges use more modern materials: imported wood for the frame and platform, durable plastic for their runners, and nylon cord to bind them together, but the design of the sledge in Greenland is still the same as it has been for centuries.
There is nothing quite like shooting across the sea-ice on a dog-sledge - knowing that the bejewelled carpet of ice beneath the creaking sledge is the only thing between you and thousands of metres of hypothermia-inducing Arctic waters. It is out there in the polar wilderness - either on the sea-ice or on the vast ice-sheet that covers five-sixths of the island's landmass, that one gets a unique perspective on life.
Still, Greenland has a profound effect on anyone who travels there. For me, the serenity, the brutality, the majesty and complexity of its environment and its people are without comparison. It is a place that sometimes breaks your heart with its raw beauty, a place that if you ever get a chance to visit will always call you back.
Country code: 00 299.
Time difference: +3hrs.
Published by The Guardian - 7 October 2006