We chat to explorers Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Anton Bowring ahead of their BooksEast show at Ipswich Corn Exchange tonight

Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the first day of the Marathon des Sables. Photo: Liz Scarff

Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the first day of the Marathon des Sables. Photo: Liz Scarff - Credit: Archant

What drives legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and long-term friend and expedition partner Anton Bowring? Beating the Norwegians, they laugh. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage spoke to them ahead of their BooksEast appearance next week.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Anton Bowring

Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Anton Bowring - Credit: Archant

Forget GPS, sat-nav and satellite phones. Back in the old days, the duo’s secret weapon to trumping their fjordic cousins was a lady by the name of Morag and her strategically-placed vegetable patch.

“Everything was on high frequency radios up in the Arctic. If you listened on the right frequencies to the aircraft companies up there you could find out who was wanting to go to the North Pole and we listened in. She and her husband in Aberdeen had an 80ft antenna in their vegetable patch,” recalls Fiennes.

“Whatever the Norwegians planned we could hear. Unfortunately it worked the other way round as well. We needed to know what the next challenge was. From the very beginning it became a competitive thing, beating the Norwegians. We’ve always had an intelligence network in Aberdeen in Scotland.”

He and Bowring met nearly 40 years ago. They’ve had some adventures.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes alongside the SA Agulhas

Sir Ranulph Fiennes alongside the SA Agulhas - Credit: Archant


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Strangely, one of the most frightening incidents occurred in a London car park. If you think parking in the capital is expensive, trying finding somewhere on the Thames for a massive South African icebreaker to drop anchor for two months while you load 25 tonne snowcats and such like.

“We and the rest of the trustees agreed to meet at Canary Wharf and plan at breakfast how we would persuade the boss he should let us have our icebreaker outside his banks free of charge. I arrived at midnight... You find yourself going underground, well I’d never been there before and there are car parks all over the place and I didn’t know which one to go to so I went to the biggest.”

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Completely empty, he parked his Mondeo estate and climbed into his sleeping bag.

“About 4am, bang, bang on the window, four men, black uniforms, sub machine guns shouting ‘identity’. I passed my passport out the window and they said, ID too. The back of the car is full of books to sell including an autobiography with a picture of me on the back. So I pass it out the window and I forget the PR blurb underneath says ‘and when he was in the SAS he nearly got put in prison for blowing up public property’, says Fiennes, referring to blowing up an unsightly dam on the set of the film Doctor Dolittle when he was younger.

Anton Bowring in Antartica

Anton Bowring in Antartica - Credit: Archant

“That didn’t help. Anyway, two of them stay with the guns so I sort of wait. They came back an hour later quite disappointed. They said ‘well, you’re alright but do you not know why we’re a bit panicking at the moment?’ They had just killed Saddam Hussein and had treated Canary Wharf as the biggest target in Britain. We had the meeting the next day and Anton got the two months free.”

Expeditions are dangerous says Bowring, but so is crossing the road he adds.

“Planning is almost the biggest challenge. If you plan an expedition well then it makes it easier. If you make sure you account for any possible thing that might go wrong then the chances are you won’t have things that stop you.”

He recalls a major problem with a very old ship many years ago when the 12ft long bolts that basically held the engine to the deck kept snapping in the middle of nowhere.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes and co leave for the Yukon River and NW Passage

Sir Ranulph Fiennes and co leave for the Yukon River and NW Passage - Credit: Archant

“We had the materials on board, some of the spares. Amazingly the first time it happened it took them three or four days to fix it but by the end of it they were doing it in a matter or hours. That’s planning.”

Fiennes remembers another occasion involving three tonnes of mackerel.

“It was for the ship’s crew and they put it in the freezers. Remember, you’ve got 50 people for three years. They got down into the tropics off the Ivory Coast and Anton’s freezers broke down. Three tonnes of mackerel became mackerel slush which got down into the bilges of the ship and could be smelled two years later.”

“It was revolting,” laughs Bowring. “They weren’t gutted as well. Literally mackerel straight out of the sea and frozen. There are certainly things, medical things. Ran can tell you chapter and verse about frostbite because he’s had it many times. I got it once when we were doing a training exercise in Sweden, when you wouldn’t expect in those type of conditions to get it.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is just one of the speakers at BooksEast, the new literary festival being held

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is just one of the speakers at BooksEast, the new literary festival being held in Ipswich. Photo: Ian Parnell - Credit: Archant

“I got it quite badly in my fingers and I normally don’t do the tough stuff. I like ships, I like a nice warm cabin, I like to have everything reasonably cosy, three meals a day. Ran does all the horrible stuff. When I got frostbite it just pointed out to me why I don’t like doing the nasty bits. So I think we work well together because he does his bit, I do mine and we sort of complement each other.”

Bowring, also affectionately referred to as the Admiral, loves the challenge of making the impossible possible. Expeditions have become as much a way of life for him as they have Fiennes.

“I’ve persisted because Ran is so focused on challenges, he will not put them down once he gets the bit between his teeth.”

The last expedition they attempted took five years to plan. Starting with a completely blank canvas, they ended up with a 7,000 tonne icebreaker going down to Antarctica with 25 tonne bulldozers and a team of people determined to cross the Antarctic in winter which had never been done before.

Unloading bulldozers from the SA Agulhas

Unloading bulldozers from the SA Agulhas - Credit: Archant

“In five years we converted that simple idea, and it is as an idea a simple one, into the most complex and technologically advanced one. You put together science and education programmes, a fundraising programme for a charity that provided help for people with bad eyesight in the developing world. There’s no money in it, nobody gets paid for taking part... But to actually put it together so that it’s feasible for me is the biggest excitement of all.”

Life At The Limits - An Evening with Sir Ranulph Fiennes in conversation with Anton Bowring is at Ipswich Corn Exchange from 7.30pm tonight.

They will talk about the legendary explorer’s childhood, school adventures, army life and early expeditions right through to the Transglobe Expedition, Mount Everest, the Coldest Journey Expedition and the world’s toughest foot race the Marathon des Sables. It’s the first time for a long while that Fiennes has spoken in Suffolk.

“Ran’s got a good sense of humour and what we do is we talk about these things together and where this is a reminiscence to be had we sometimes get distracted,” Bowring laughs.

A bulldozer stuck in a crevasse during the Coldest Journey Expedition in 2013, proving it's not all

A bulldozer stuck in a crevasse during the Coldest Journey Expedition in 2013, proving it's not all plain sailing - Credit: Archant

Subjects will range from his countless explorations, hovercrafting on the Nile, white water rafting in Canada, parachuting onto glaciers in Norway, his interesting childhood and army career, including fighting for the Sultan of Oman. They’ll touch on his misdemeanours too, such as the aforementioned incident involving the Doctor Dolittle set and an incident during his army days involving a very lively, squirming piglet covered with tank grease and a crowded ballroom of army personnel.

“What I think got left out was the fact mother was very upset. She said you shouldn’t play around with other pigs without asking them if you can borrow them so we actually had to get the piglet back by night, secretly, with its mother where we got it from a week before. It was extremely dangerous but we did so, de-greased; so in the long run we put it right and knew we mustn’t do it again,” says Fiennes.

“The evening is a very full story, illustrated with a film and it’s funny...,” adds Bowring.

BooksEast is East Anglia’s newest books festival. Born out of Ip-Lit, which brought a wide range to authors to Ipswich as part of the annual Ip-Art Festival, it’s the brainchild of festival director Assis Carreiro and creative programmer Sarah Newman.

Working with associate director Susannah Burke, marketing consultant Andrew Burton and Jayne Gould from the Ipswich Children’s Book Group - which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year - they have assembled a mixture of events running from May 9–15 based around Ipswich Town Hall, Ipswich Film Theatre, the Corn Exchange, gallery spaces and café.

Click here for more details.

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