In 1979, adventurers Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Charles R. Burton set out to make the world’s first circumpolar navigation, traveling the world “vertically” traversing both the North and South Pole while using only surface transport. Starting from Greenwich in September 1979 in the United Kingdom, they went south, arriving at the South Pole on December 17, 1980. Over the next 14 months, they went north again, reaching the North Pole on April 11, 1982. Travelling south once more, they arrived again in Greenwich on August 29, 1982 almost three years after their departure.
Years later this ‘Vertical’ circumnavigation at Longtitude zero would inspire Mike Horn for his solo and human-powered ‘Horizontal’ crossing of the globe following the Equator at Latitude zero.
On their expedition Fiennes’ team managed to achieve an impressive number of world’s firsts among them being:
- Bothie, their dog, was the first dog to visit both poles.
- Ginny Fiennes was the first woman to join the Antarctic Club and to receive the Polar Medal
- And they played the first ever game of cricket on the geographical South Pole
The groundbreaking expedition that was led by Sir Ranulph Fiennes had first been envisaged in 1972 by Ranulph’s wife Ginny, who had the idea of travelling around the world from pole to pole. It took seven years to plan, and to raise the money to fund the expedition; with all their finances and equipment coming from sponsorship. The fourteen team members from eight countries were all unpaid volunteers.
Their route would follow closely the Greenwich Meridian, the 0°line of longitude. Departing from Greenwich, London in a thirty-year-old ice strengthened vessel, Benjamin Bowring, with a colourful crew of volunteers from many countries and backgrounds. The 100,000-mile route took the Transglobe Expedition team across the Sahara via Tombouctou, through the swamps and jungles of Mali and the Ivory Coast, over huge unexplored crevasse fields in Antarctica, through the inhospitable North West Passage, graveyard of so many famous venturers, and into the unpredictable hazards of the Arctic Ocean. They used a wide range of different transport methods, travelling by icebreaker, Land Rover, rubber boat, skis, snowshoes, skidoo and canoe.
Prince Charles who was the expedition’s patron described their intentions as ‘mad but marvellous’
From England they went to France using the Benjamin Bowring ship. Here they crossed France and Spain in two Landrovers and a Range Rover to Barcelona where they loaded the vehicles and the their equipment into the Benjamin Bowring (which had sailed around) and sailed for Algiers, where they first began to feel the climate change – it was in the high nineties Fahrenheit (35+°C) with humidity ranging around 90 per cent. The insects bit relentlessly and the daily routine of using repellant cream and anti-malarial tablets began. The desert crossing each day began at five in the morning and breakfast consisted of cereal, coffee and bread – no butter because of the high temperatures.
Throughout the journey the crew collected specimens for the British Museum Natural History Section. Most frustrating were the bats they had asked for, which were only captured after four days of climbing about in wells and caves.
South of the Sahara the climate became more typically tropical and the vegetation greener and lusher.
The Sahara crossing proved a useful “run-in” for the Expedition. The equipment, to use Ran Fiennes’ words, “served extremely well”, and the vehicles “proved entirely trouble free”. The radio, installed in Virginia’s Landrover with a nine-foot whip antenna mounted at the rear, “performed miraculously with clear voice contact daily with the ship and radio station in the United Kingdom”.
At Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) the Benjamin Bowring (the ship) was awaiting them once again and they re-loaded her and left for Cape Town and subsequently to Antarctica.
The expeditaion was in Antarctica between January 1979 and April 1981. Five of the party (plus Fiennes’ dog Bothie) overwintered there while undertaking scientific experiments. They lived in huts made out of cardboard with a single layer of insulation. For a more detailed description of that ‘dark and cold Antarctic science time’ check here.
Charlie Burton, Ollie Shepard and Ranulph Fiennes departed to cross the Antarctic continent using skidoos on 28 October 1979. During their crossing they were given aerial support, bringing further supplies and surveying possible routes. At every latitude change they stopped to collect ice-cores to analyse average snowfall rates. They made it to the South Pole on 15 December 1980, where the USA now had a research station.
Cricket on the South Pole
Whilst on the South Pole they played the first ever game of cricket at the South Pole, under very similar weather conditions as the world’s highest football match on Mount Sajama at6542m (21,424 ft) summit.
The Brits gave the Americans a great beating but this couldn’t undermine the pleasure evoked by this historical test match.
The expedition plane brought out some of the members of the expedition who were not taking part in the polar crossing, including the expedition’s dog Bothie. They then pressed on to cover the second half of the Antarctic continent which included trekking along the Scott Glacier.
On January 10, having negotiated a number of difficult crevasses and surviving collapsing snow bridges, they made it to the tip of White Island. At this point one of the snowmobiles developed piston trouble, luckily they had transported a spare engine and it could now be put to good use enabling the three to complete their crossing. Their journey time of 67 days was the fastest time in which the Antarctic continent had been crossed.
The group then travelled northwards via New Zealand, Australia, the USA, and Canada to begin the Arctic part of their journey. The Benjamin Bowring anchored off the Yukon Delta on 30 June 1981, from here the Dunlop expedition aeroplanes set off to transport the equipment and stores for the journey up the Yukon. Originally the same team who had crossed Antarctica were to cross the Arctic, however, Oliver had to leave the expedition due to family commitments and so Ranulph and Charlie for the most part undertook the trip alone.
Due to their earlier experience with an inflatable boat collapsing – and as they were unexpectedly reduced to a party of two – they had to rethink their choice of transport. Luckily they were able to secure sponsorship from the bank Morgan Stanley and an 18ft Boston Whaler called Outrage was purchased and renamed the Morgan Stanley. By 21 July Ranulph and Charlie were on their way travelling along the Northwest Passage. They arrived at Gjoa Haven on 11 August. Meanwhile other members of the team had flown to Resolute where they established the next base and laid down some fuel depots for Ranulph and Charlie.
They discovered that the originally planned northward route was solid with ice and so a more easterly route along the coast of Devon Island was followed. They reached the Tanquary Fjord on 31 August, from here they had to cross on foot to reach Alert on 26 September, here they wintered for five months waiting for the summer when it would be light enough to attempt a crossing. They left Alert on 12 February, beginning their journey on skidoo. They found that the skidoo moved very slowly across the terrain, which was reducing their travelling time, this ran the risk of extending the expedition for another year. A backup plan was put into action which was the delivery by air of two pulks (sledges) that could also be used as canoes in small stretches of water. This enabled them to cover the same distance in a day which would have taken two days on a skidoo. It was planned to fly replacement skidoos out to the men but unfortunately a fire at the expedition’s base camp destroyed the skidoos.
The Canadian firm Bombadier kindly replaced the skidoos and they were flown out. However, they were too light to tow the sledges and so the skidoos they had abandoned earlier needed to be collected from Markham Fjord. With these they made good progress until Ranulph’s fell through the ice taking the sledge with it. They managed to rescue most of a survival kit but were left without a tent and food. A plane left Alert with replacement gear, reaching the men the following morning. However, three days later the men found themselves in a difficult situation again, as they became stranded on an ice floe with open water all around. The winter was mild and open water had developed where there should have been solid ice. Luckily a sudden change in the weather caused some of the ice to freeze and by taking a short detour south they were able to head northwards again.
They reached the North Pole in April. The plane flew out bringing with them other members of the expedition, including Bothie who became the first dog to visit both poles. Ranulph and Charlie set off again to complete the rest of their journey. By 23 April the temperature had risen and so further surface travel was not possible, instead they floated southward on an ice floe. The Benjamin Bowring finally picked them up after 99 days on the ice and sailed them back to the UK.
They had managed to complete their intention and circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole and they managed to establish an impressive number of firsts on their voyage:
- They were the fastest team to cross Antarctica.
- The first team to cross the Yukon and the North West Passage in the same season.
- The first team to reach the North Pole using mechanical transport.
- Bothie was the first dog to visit both poles. He accompanied them for the journey being taken by helicopter to the actual poles.
- Ginny Fiennes was the first woman to join the Antarctic Club and to receive the Polar Medal.
- And they played the first ever game of cricket on the geographical South Pole
Kickass to the max!!
Fiennes would later become famous with many other expeditions and adventures among others his 7x7x7 Challenge: Running 7 Marathons in 7 Days on 7 Continents!