An interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Aimee Spicer

The world's greatest explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, talks to Saga ahead of a cruise to the Northern Lights on-board Saga Sapphire.



Dubbed the World’s Greatest Living Explorer by the Guinness Book of Records, Sir Ranulph Fiennes has notched up numerous record-breaking achievements. Sir Ran, as he is usually known, will be your charismatic speaker on our Norway and the Northern Lights cruise next year. Travel writer Anne Leva has spoken to him to uncover the man behind the exploits.

Q: You’re now in your 70th year and have said that you will reserve golf and gardening for when you are old. When do you think that will be?

A: I take against the process of ageing and becoming technically a geriatric, I object to the whole thing. I fight it but the background realisation is that age will beat you. I’ve suffered all the normal things that occur with age, and it’s a real nuisance. Now if I wake up in the morning with no new aches, it’s a bonus.

Being 60 was not a problem. At 47, you’ll go to the opticians and get your first pair of spectacles. At 58, your wife tells you to stop saying ‘what’ whenever she speaks, and you should definitely not reply that she’s mumbling. Then other things start piling up until eventually everything rots.

Q: How do you keep motivated despite a number of health scares including a heart attack, cancer and losing fingers to frostbite?

A: It’s all down to willpower. You have to establish a regime that will make you feel guilty if you don’t observe it. I look at the clock and get up, I don’t stay in bed for a while longer. And then the first thing I do before breakfast or anything else is my exercise routine, otherwise the day just takes over.

Q: All your life you have had a punishing keep-fit routine. What is your routine now?

A: I do 25 minutes every day, including stretches and squats. I used to run regularly, then it became a jog, now it’s more like a shuffle! If I’m away lecturing, I’ll find a park or golf course and run for an hour. That’s one hour four times a week, plus four hours once a week. I always have a hot bath after exercise. That helps.

I used to compete with a team, it keeps you going because you can’t let the team down. At 69 I had to stop and now I run solo. Joining a club can be a great incentive too, but I make up my own club.

Q: What do you eat to keep fit?

A: We’re told what we should and shouldn’t eat, then each new year it’s the opposite. My own regime is based on oily fish, salmon, tuna and sardines, spinach leaves, olive oil, tomatoes and carrots. I gave up cigarettes 35 years ago and it was not difficult, but giving up chocolate because of pre-diabetes is much harder. I’ve been told chewing gum is quite good, but if I only have one piece of chocolate a week as a treat, that’s a good week!

Q: Do you ever just go on holidays, rather than expeditions?

A: My late wife and I lived in Scotland, and our holidays were spent on the north west coast travelling to the islands in a rubber boat. We did this for years and loved it. Now it’s a little more complicated as I live off lecturing and some years, as a family, we don’t have a holiday at all. Yet by the age of four, before she started school, my daughter had acquired 180 country stamps in her passport. Some years, taking holidays off the back of lectures works quite well.

Q: Beach, mountains or city?

A: I’ve never had a holiday in a town or city. If the family were to revert to the dreadful behaviour of wanting a beach holiday I’d be aching to go back to work. We enjoy riding holidays, in Spain for instance. When my wife Louise was four-months pregnant we went to the Zambezi – the organisers called it an expedition. We travelled in dug-out canoes recreating the journey Livingstone did 150 years previously, and camping in the same places he did. That was a great holiday, but not an expedition.

Q: What do you regard as your greatest achievement, as a man and as an explorer?

A: Whether it’s luck or achievement, I was very happily married for 38 years to my late wife Ginnie. I moved next door to her when she was nine and I was 12, and she eventually became my wife.

(Ed: Ginnie died of cancer. Ran is now married to Louise and they have a young daughter.)

Q: Where in the world is left that you would wish to explore?

A: A group of us have been knocking off records and challenges over the past 40 years, and the one that remains, polar-wise, is the first winter crossing of Antarctica. We started planning this six years ago, but are coming across bureaucracy about available rescue services there. The Foreign Office won’t allow us to go unless we transport everything we need, right down to operating tables, fuel and food for 12 months. We’re used to travelling light, on foot, and carrying our own stuff. We’re still looking at how we can overcome the bureaucracy.

Q: Would you be tempted to explore Space?

A: Yes. In Space you’re sitting down, looking at a lot of nothingness, apart from the stars that you can see from Earth, but it’s the uniqueness of the experience that might be appealing.

Q: How will you cope in the confines of a cruise ship rather than in your usual wide open spaces?

A: I lectured on Antarctica on a cruise off South America, in very rough seas and with only two passengers out of 100 able to listen to my lecture. I’ve also been to Norway many times and of course, the Norwegians have always been our adversaries in polar expeditions! But I’m looking forward to talking about my 40 years of exploration.


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