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The tedium, to put it politely, of lockdown life over the last 12 months has skewed my perception of adventure.
When I swap the monotonous clockwise amble around Bishop’s Park, in west London, for an anti-clockwise route, it’s as though I’m an intrepid explorer. This time three years ago I was climbing a mountainside in Oman; this year heading down from my fourth-floor flat and back up again more than once in a day feels worthy of acclaim.
Unless they were simply humouring me (I admit there is a chance), my friends tell me they’re feeling much the same. As our worlds have shrunk, so has the opportunity for exploration.
How refreshing, then, to speak with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a man who is intimately acquainted with the concept of adventure. Not the “foot in sand” luxury adventure most would be quite pleased with, where you’re “deserted” on a uninhabited atoll with your significant other while butlers and chefs wait around the corner. But real adventure.
In 1979 he set out on the Transglobe Expedition, spending the next three years leading a team in the first longitudinal circumnavigation of the Earth using only surface transport, following the Greenwich meridian. During the trek, he travelled the treacherous Northwest Passage, the route through the Arctic Ocean between the Atlantic and Pacific, crossed the Ross Ice Shelf (an area the size of France), and became only the third party to descend the Scott Glacier.
Other feats include leading a hovercraft expedition up the White Nile, discovering a lost ancient city in Oman, and being part of the first team to cross the Antarctic continent unsupported. In 2003, he ran seven marathons in seven days in seven continents. At age 65, he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. In all, he’s been on 39 expeditions over 53 years. He has been dubbed “the world’s greatest living explorer” by the Guinness Book of Records.
Daunting. But when we speak, he’s not on a satellite phone on some remote tundra, or sheltering on a hillside mid-climb, as I might have imagined; instead he’s riding out the coronavirus restrictions at home in Cheshire. And he remains upbeat, telling me time spent at home, where he’s working on a new book, “hasn’t been a problem” – reminding me that he’d spent a total of 16 months in lockdown during his Pole-to-Pole challenge due to the extreme conditions.
“It’s all about getting into a routine. I go for local walks, and I sit and write so many words or, when I’m at the research stage, will do a few hours in the morning and a few in the evening.” His wife, Louise, keeps 28 horses, which he helps to look after – “all of which helps keep me going”.
He is less happy that the pandemic has halted his lecture tours, forcing a move instead into virtual events in what he dubs “the world of ‘Zoomery’” – admitting his teenage daughter teases him for his lack of digital know-how.
“As I only use a 13-year-old mobile, I think, technology-wise, I may as well be 18th century. Usually I’d get to do upwards of 60 events across the UK in big theatres. Frankly, I miss being able to make a living this way, it’s not the same without the rows of faces in the audience.”
There are real-life encounters on the horizon, however. On Sir Ranulph’s calendar for 2022 is a lecture series aboard Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, which will be sailing from Japan to Canada on a voyage through Alaska’s Inside Passage.
He modestly tells me that it will be “a series of talks that interject” with the itinerary. Pushed further, he explains this will be guiding passengers through the landscapes and wildlife (passengers will likely spot orcas, bald eagles and more), drawing on the memories of his expeditions.
He’s part of a stellar line-up, which includes mountaineers Peter Hilary and Kenton Cool, and polar scientist Felicity Aston.
Was it an affinity for cruise holidays that sold the explorer on this voyage? Though he admits that getting away between expeditions was once the norm for Sir Ranulph, when his first wife Ginny, who died in 2004, “fell in love with Aberdeen Angus cattle and Black Welsh sheep on Exmoor” their days of travelling were curtailed.
And with his second wife, Louise, it’s the horses that get her attention, and once again “put a kibosh” on escaping overseas – “although hopefully it will become feasible at some point”.
Despite that, he tells me he “loves cruising”, finding them “incredibly enjoyable” and made even better when family can come, too. “Part of the attraction is how you’re looked after in such a personable way, whereas any other type of travel you feel like you’re just going through anonymously and in a rush, a taxi driver here and a hotel there.”
We discuss how the cruise industry has grown, with Sir Ranulph impressed with the “huge choice all over the world”, and we agree on the romance of following a shoreline from sea.
“Travelling along the coastlines gives you a chance to see the world in an entirely different way. You see a hell of a lot more that way,” he says.
Bear in mind that Sir Ranulph’s definition of cruise holiday may differ from that of us non-record breakers. For example, he jumps from discussing transatlantic crossing to a two-week trip he took up the Zambezi River to Victoria Falls in the same beat. In reality, the latter was 10 days of camping, following the river in a wooden canoe of the same style used by Victorian explorer David Livingston on the route 150 years before.
He laughs when I point out how this is perhaps not what people are after when planning a holiday.
“Well, it wasn’t a holiday – but it’s not really an expedition either,” he says before a long pause, and adding: “Yes, I would call it a holiday”.
Even at 77 years old, Sir Ranulph appears to have lost none of his swashbuckling spirit. I prod, and I niggle, but he refuses to tell me what his future plans are, but they certainly don’t seem to involve drifting into quiet retirement. Not bad for someone who, in 2003, suffered a heart attack so serious, it took doctors more than 10 attempts to restart his heart. He’d only tell me, with a whiff of mystery, that he and his team “go for polar records’’.
Sir Ranulph remains a maverick figure in a world where it can feel like we’ve already explored every inch. An old-school, “proper hero” that is rare to find these days, as a colleague described him. He talks so nonchalantly, as though we all have experience of unsupported crossings of Antarctica.
I ask him what he would change if he could relive his expeditions, thinking of how plunging his hand into North Pole waters to save his supplies led to frostbitten fingers, and ultimately to him hacking off the necrotic tips with a fretsaw when he returned home.
The answer, put simply, is very little. “I’d be doing it all over again – just a little more sensibly.”