Sir Ranulph Fiennes: "I remember..."

Fiona Hicks

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, 71, is heralded as “The World’s Greatest Living Explorer”. Having broken several world records, he now focuses on raising money for charity through his expeditions—his target is £20m

…Getting off a ship in Cape Town...

...and a man taking us somewhere. I must have been about a year old. Another memory is from when I was about three years old, screaming on a beach because I didn’t want to go home so early. According to my mum, I was known as the “naughtiest boy at St James”, which was the name of the place where we lived in South Africa for a number of years. 

 

…Tales about my father

He was killed about four months before I was born. I was brought up with stories about him, told by my mother and old army friends of his. I feel thatI know him. I was lucky to have a wonderful, 100-per-cent great mum. Even though we didn’t have any males in the family—I had no uncles, brothers or grandfathers alive, only sisters and aunts and grandmothers—she was a fantastic mum to my three older sisters and me. I was with her the night she died at 93 years old.

 

…My mother saying she wanted to go back to England 

One day in the school holidays, she got my three sisters and me together and explained that because my South African grandmother had died, we had no roots left there. We would be selling the house and going to England—and that was that. We were also told to stop speaking with our South-African accents.

 

…Going to prep school in Wiltshire

Ranulph Fiennes as a boy
Ranulph as a schoolboy in Wiltshire
 

I’d enjoyed school in South Africa, even though there was a bully who used to chase boys around at break time with bamboo. Schools out there had gangs of children, which we used to join and have mock fights with sticks and fir cones. There weren’t any gangs at this English prep school, so I started one. That was unpopular—I was beaten and told there was no place for gangs in Britain. It wasn’t true, but at that particular school it was.

 

…Wanting to be like my dad 

When he was killed, he was commanding the Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment. I’ve got pictures of him before the war leading hundreds of grey horses on exercise. So I wanted to join the army and become colonel of that regiment. But by the time I arrived in the army, you couldn’t get a regular commission if you didn’t go to Sandhurst, and you needed that to become colonel of the regiment. You can’t go to Sandhurst if you don’t have A Levels—and I just couldn’t get those. I had a short-service commission, but that allowed a maximum of only eight years; I’d have stayed on much longer.

 

…Auditioning for James Bond 

One day a person delivered a note from the William Morris ActorsAgency, which said that Cubby Broccoli—who made the Bond films—was fed up with George Lazenby because he was asking for too much. Broccoli decided he’d find somebody who did Bond-type things and train that person to be an actor.

They approached about 200 of us from all over the place. I auditioned because it allowed me to have a free rail ticket from Inverness to London, which I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. This enabled me to go to the Ministry of Defence, where they were looking for an ex-officer to lead an expedition in Canada with the BBC covering it. 

Of course, I had to audition while I was down there. For some reason—God knows why—I got into the last six. Having practised Shakespeare the night before, I got into the room where Cubby Broccoli was smoking a cigar, with director Guy Hamilton just over his shoulder.

Broccoli took one look at me and said to Hamilton, “This one looks like a farmer. Look at his hands.” Even though I had proper fingers in those days, they apparently weren’t what they were after. Still, I got the expedition and we never looked back.

 

Ranulph Fiennes walking
Ranulph was the oldest Brit to run the Marathon des Sables, 2015

 

…Finding the Lost City

This particular expedition took 26 years on and off, during which we did eight long expeditions all for the same purpose. Each one took a long time to plan, with British Petroleum dropping off fuel 300 miles into the sand dunes. Having started in 1968, we finally succeeded in finding the Lost City [of Iram] in 1992. After many false alarms, it was a very special occasion.

 

…Keeping an eye on our competitors

We have an intelligence unit that listens in to our known rivals. We’ll get an emergency phone call saying so-and-so is trying to do the first crossing of Antarctica in winter, and we’ll know we better put our shoes back on again. We’re like any business. There’s another expedition that I’d dearly like to do, but I can’t talk about it because the Norwegians might make their own efforts. They’ve been a pain in the neck for 40 years.

 

…Getting rid of my fingers

I can’t actually remember very much about the actual process of cutting them off [Fiennes performed self-amputation after his left hand was afflicted by frost bite], but I know that it took two days to get through the thumb because I had to turn it round slowly in the vice. My wife brought me cups of coffee constantly. I’ve still got them. I lost them for quite a while but then I found them again—I’d put them in a tin and forgotten. It’s very difficult to chuck them away when you’ve lived with them for 55 years.

 

The full interview can be found in the October issue of Reader's DigestSubscribe online or download the digital app