Action man Ranulph Fiennes, now 74, can’t take things easy, writes Sarah Pollok
Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham Fiennes OBE is a British expedition leader, Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and regarded as the world’s greatest living explorer, but if you ever have the good fortune to speak with him, he’ll insist you call him Ran.
From summiting Everest and circumnavigating the world across its polar axis to crossing the Antarctic unsupported and running seven marathons in seven continents in seven consecutive days, the humble Brit has done more in his 74 years than most could ever dream of.
The most memorable, he says, was his 24-year search for the Lost City of Iram in the Arabian Desert. “I’d organised seven expeditions with some amazing people and we never found it.” Fiennes says it was a combination of will and luck that brought success at attempt No 8.
Despite carrying the weighty title of “World’s greatest living explorer”, Fiennes is the first to admit that as a young man it wasn’t exploring he dreamt of, but following his father in the army. “Until I was 21, I never even contemplated going on expeditions or setting world records or that sort of thing,” Fiennes says. “I just wanted to be like him.” Fiennes’ “one-track mind” led him from cadet school in 1963 to the Royal Scots Greys regiment, where he served for eight years.
He went on to lead countless record-breaking expeditions full of thrilling escapades and risky feats, one of which took him and some fellow soldiers through the war-torn heart of Egypt as they followed the river Nile.
Now, 50 years later, Fiennes is set to retrace his steps in a three-part documentary series alongside award-winning actor and cousin, Joseph Fiennes, most recently seen on our screens as Commander Fred Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale.
In the new documentary series, the pair tackle massive sand dunes, crawl through tombs in Minya and handle deadly snakes and spiders in a test of grit, courage and determination. Although, according to Fiennes, it’s a wildly different Egypt to the one he traversed all those years ago.
“We did the first trip during Egypt’s war with Israel, so there were army soldiers constantly patrolling with shotguns,” he says. Fiennes believes their mode of transport, a hovercraft, intrigued the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture enough to allow them to pass through.
This time, the threat of facing army fire or government resistance was a fair bit lower. “On this trip we were with National Geographic and they had such influence. So, unlike tourists, we could go deep into pyramids, see newly discovered sarcophagi and mummies and so on.”
The attractions and artefacts were something Fiennes had little time to appreciate as an army officer on limited annual leave back in 1969. “We were really looking at our watches and the milometers, we weren’t looking at beautiful, fantastic cultural things. You’d drive along the road, and see a triangular thing in the distance and that was a pyramid and that was it.”
At 74, and with no plans to slow down, Fiennes believes that if you have determination and good health, there’s no reason age should get in the way of travel or exploration. “You need to have a definite strong will and the luck to reach whatever age you are with good health,” he says, going on to suggest that raising money for a meaningful charity can often provide great motivation to climb mountains or run marathons.
So, does a man of his calibre ever dream of a lazy beach holiday, reading a book and getting a tan? “No, I can’t do that sort of thing,” he says, admitting he can’t let a day go by without doing something, even if it’s simply going for a run.
A prolific travel writer and poet, Fiennes says his next biggest conquest isn’t a marathon or a mountain but a book on explorer Ernest Shackleton. “There are 67 books on Shackleton already, but they were written by historians, not people who have travelled,” he says.
As the first person to achieve Shackleton’s unrealised goal of crossing Antarctica on foot, Fiennes seems well suited to the job.
The expedition, which was completed in 1993, was arranged by his late wife, Ginny, a daring explorer herself, who also suggested Fiennes self-amputate his frostbitten fingers after a troubled expedition to the North Pole in 2000.
“I’m not normally moody, but she said I was getting very irritable and pointed out she had big clipper things to cut her cattle’s hooves,” Fiennes says. “If it bled or hurt [the horse] then she cut higher and so the same could be true for fingers.”
Medics and insurance companies would not support an official procedure but Ran heeded his wife’s advice, picked up an electric fretsaw and, with a No 8 wire mentality that would make any Kiwi proud, did the job himself.
Egypt with The World’s Greatest Explorer screens on National Geographic from Sunday March 31, 8.30pm.