Talking sense with Sir Ranulph Fiennes
With Sir Ranulph Fiennes supporting a new campaign to encourage us to get our hearing tested, walk’s Chris Hatherill quizzes the world famous explorer about the various sounds, sights, tastes and – yes – smells he’s encountered on his adventures…
What are some of your favourite sounds from past exhibitions?
Driving Land Rovers in the deserts, looking for lost cities in the sand dunes, the best sound is when the wheels get a grip and you break free of the engine’s clugging sound.
What did it sound like when you arrived at the lost city, and turned off the engine?
At night, when you walked out onto the crests of the huge dunes, the noise of the falling sands was unlike anything else in the world. The wind was very, very slight and if you listened you could hear the millions and millions of sand grains falling onto one another.
Is it possible to describe that sound, is it like glass?
It was like the tiny rushing of a million ants.
What is the scariest noise you’ve heard on your travels?
I was at the Everest Base Camp in a tent when there was this huge explosion. The camp is in between two towering mountain features which are prone to avalanches, and in between is the route to the top. Normally, the avalanches stop well short of the tents. But not this time. The noise was getting closer and closer, like I imagine a tsunami coming towards you, and ahead of it the snow pressure came. I stayed inside my tent so it was just the noise, then the beating of the tent by the pressure wave, and all the snow particles hitting the tent.
And what about the most welcome sound?
In Antarctica, in the late 70s, we missed communication with our basecamp for three days and nights and wondered what had happened. The only person who was in the base camp was the radio operator – my late wife. I was very, very worried. I thought carbon monoxide had probably got her in the hut. Then, after constant trying, I heard the dah-dah-dah-di-di-dah-dah of her call sign, and that was my wife. People don’t think of Morse Code as being romantic, but in those circumstances it actually can be!
Moving on to the sense of touch, you famously performed some, erm, homemade surgery on your hand – has it affected your sense of touch?
The hand that’s half as long as it used to be, feels like – to me – when you touch something with your foot. It’s like the feeling of toes touching something. So I don’t put things in my lefthand trouser pocket – coins and whatnot – because I won’t be able to feel to get them out.
What about taste, do you have a favourite food or dish?
Cadbury’s chocolate. Especially as a sauce on ice cream!
What about smells – are there any that have stayed with you over the years?
Yes – in 1970 we had a very cheap basement flat just next to Earl’s Court tube station. We had neighbours from all over the world and the cooking smells came directly through our flat, as did the rumble of the trains.
And that’s stuck with you over and above all the exotic smells from your travels?
Yes, I’m afraid it has!
What about up north, is there any smell in the Arctic?
There was an Arctic expedition I did with Dr Mike Stroud and one morning he suddenly said, “That’s it, we’ll have to get evacuated”, because he had smelt gangrene in the tent. I had a foot that had been frostbitten and he just knew right away.
Moving swiftly on to sight, you’ve travelled the far reaches of the White Nile and the wastes of Antarctica – is there any one sight, or moment, that stands out?
The Trans Globe Expedition took seven years out of our lives, unpaid, on the first and only time that humans have been around the earth’s polar surface without flying one yard of the 52,000 miles. We went south from Greenwich to the South Pole; we did the first ever one-way crossing of Antarctica, never knowing whether we’d make it to the next bit. We nearly had to get evacuated towards the end, before we completed the circle. We had 17 miles to do from the fragments of our (ice) floe that we’d been floating south on as it gradually got smaller, for three months. Our ship tried to get as far north as it could to meet us without sinking in the ice, because it wasn’t a proper icebreaker. For those 17 miles, all you could see was moving ice blocks in every direction. The ship was there somewhere but you couldn’t see it, and it was moving in a different current to us. And of course we didn’t have GPS. We kept climbing up these big ice blocks, thirty feet high, to look ahead and we really began to despair. And then, to the south, I saw these two tiny black matchsticks – and they were the masts of our ship.
Finally, do you believe in a sixth sense – a feeling of intuition?
I certainly wouldn’t discount it – but I have no proof it exists.
Sir Ranulph is supporting Boots’ Great Big Hearing Test, offering free hearing checks in stores across the UK. Call ✆ 0845 072 0870 or visit www.greatbighearingtest.com