Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the adventures that inspired his rum

1st May, 2020 by Melita Kiely

From frontline battles in Oman to parachuting onto Norwegian glaciers, intrepid explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a man well travelled. Now, he’s partnered with UK distiller English Spirit to channel some of his most memorable moments into his own rum. SB discovers more about his storied past.

British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes

*This feature was originally published in the February 2020 issue of The Spirits Business

White. Pure, brilliant white. Can you imagine it? Nothing but a snow‐ covered wilderness stretching for thousands of miles in every direction as the Arctic chill whips around you.

Throughout his multiple, daring expeditions, British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes – or Ran, as he prefers to be called – was often faced with just “miles and miles and miles of nothing”, he tells me during our interview at the Royal Geographical Society in London. We’re there to discuss his latest project in partnership with English Spirit’s Dr John Walters – Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum. But to truly understand the rum, we must first unravel his myriad tales of adventure.

Three wood varieties were used to create Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum – unique in that each one was added to the still during distillation to impart flavour, with no additional maturation taking place after distillation. The rum is made using 100% sugarcane molasses, and the sequoia from British Columbia, Canada, pine from Norway, and date palm from Oman used during distillation were all inspired by memories from Ran’s extraordinary life.

Born in Windsor, England, Ran inherited his father’s baronetcy at birth, as his father had died in action during World War II before he was born, making Ran the third baronet of Banbury. Ran spent his first 12 years growing up in South Africa before returning to England in 1956 to attend Sandroyd School and Eton College.

He joined the British Army and was seconded to the Special Air Service (SAS), where he became the youngest captain. A lark with explosives saw Fiennes asked to leave the SAS in 1966 – and that was really the beginning of his acclaimed adventures.

OMAN

After leaving the British Army, Ran joined the Sultan of Oman’s armed forces in their fight against Marxist insurgents in Dhofar. While fighting in the mountains, Ran developed an obsession with the lost city of Ubar, believed to have been buried beneath the sand dunes of southern Oman. “We knew that it wasn’t just a myth like Atlantis or something under the ocean because it was written about by people like Marco Polo. Other people had, from the air, seen tracks in the middle of the desert,” he says.

It took eight Land Rover expeditions “into the biggest sand desert in the world” with Ran’s late wife, Ginny Fiennes, before the city was found. “We spent 26 years looking for a lost city and the lost city was in the frankincense centre of the world,” he explains. However, it was Ran’s gratitude for the surrounding trees during his time in combat in Oman that proved to be the greater influence on his rum collaboration with English Spirit.

“I realised that what was much more in my mind and my memories was the incredible trees south of the desert,” Ran recalls, “because although Arabia is 90% sand, the bottom 15 miles before you hit the Indian ocean has got mountains coming from Yemen and spreading into Oman. In the 1960s, my memories are of trying to help the Muslims fight the Soviet guerrillas who were trained in Odessa to take over Oman to control the Strait of Hormuz. So I volunteered to join the Sultan of Oman’s army.”

During this time, trees provided life‐saving protection from enemy fire, so date palm was used to create the rum. “For two‐and‐a‐half years fighting in those mountains, the one thing that we longed for was cover. As you move, you’re constantly looking around to see where you can quickly go to for cover when you get ambushed,” he explains. “So you’re constantly thinking of the bushes and the trees and the tamarinds.”

On a mission: Sir Ranulph Fiennes in Dhofar

NORWAY

Ran’s next memory takes him to vastly different conditions – to the frosty glaciers of Norway. In 1970, he was working in Oslo for Dr Gunnar Ostrem of the Norwegian Hydrological Board, and led an expedition to the Jostedal Glacier. The task was to establish the situation of two particular glaciers.

“This huge glacier is the biggest in Europe, probably 6,000 feet high,” Ran explains, “and streaming off it down the various valleys were 28 glaciers.” The Norwegians wanted to keep track of whether the glaciers were advancing or retreating, and to do so they used photogrammetric surveys taken from above. “The photogrammetric survey they had done had only recorded 26 of the 28,” says Ran. “They’d missed out the two easternmost ones. So, when we offered to do it for them with surveyors from the Royal Engineers, they said doing that little bit that they missed out on would be very useful.”

The expedition had to take place in summer, “when visibility is good”, but getting all of the equipment needed to the top of the glacier was a challenge. Carrying the necessary kit up ice and rock was out of the question, so the group was forced to turn to alternative means of travel.

“We had an SAS bloke who was an expert at dropping people out of ski planes to make sure they landed where they wanted to land,” he says. “The best places were covered, unfortunately, with Norwegian pine, so the plans that we had, which were to land in this particular spot because it was low, had to be aborted. Roger Chapman [a retired army officer and expedition organiser] said the worst thing for parachuting – and most of them hadn’t parachuted when we planned all this – was trees.”

With the terrain against them, Ran and his team had no choice but to parachute onto the 6,000‐foot glacier top. “We sadly had to end up dropping into a highly dangerous glacier, rocks and ice, with cliffs falling away, at 6,000 feet,” he adds with a tone of graveness akin to reading off a shopping list, before noting the terminal velocity of a human body is 110mph.

“This meant we had to be dropped out of the ski plane at 10,000 feet, learn how to count to 15 and then pull the ’chute open as you whistled down – and there were crevasses as well. So one thing one longed for was pine forests. It was the opposite to Dhofar; the attraction was what you missed rather than what could save your life.”

Sir-Ranulph-Fiennes-Rum

Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum is available in the UK

BRITISH COLUMBIA

The third and final element to inspire Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum came from British Columbia, Canada, in 1971. “It was the centenary of British Columbia; 100 years of being a Canadian province,” says Ran, who took on a mission to be the first to traverse by water from the northern border of Yukon, 2,000 miles south through the Rocky Mountains on nine interlocking rivers – “the roughest rivers in the world”, claims Ran – to reach Vancouver, near the US border.

“At one point, you’re coming up from the Yukon, and you’re climbing up as you go south towards America from Canada,” Ran recalls. “So as you go up, the water gets less and less, and after a bit we had to switch from rubber boats to canoes, which you can carry. But after a bit you couldn’t carry those anymore because the woods got thicker and thicker as we climbed up to Sifton Pass and then Summit Lake.”

Once the rubber boats had been ditched, the BBC team filming the journey for The World About Us series was unable to continue with Ran because the boats were needed to carry the film equipment.

The documentary‐makers were flown by ski plane to the other side of Summit Lake to await Ran’s arrival, who continued with soldier Jackie McConnell.

All the while, Ginny was in charge of the Land Rover that was used to find the boats to bring fuel and rations for the explorers. “We’re talking hundreds of miles,” Ran stresses, “and we ran into different types of problems.” One such incident was when McConnell injured himself. The pair had to venture out of the woods to a place where a huntsman, called Skookum Davis, had space for a water plane to land and collect McConnell, leaving Ran to complete the journey alone.

“By myself I had to come over Sifton Pass and down the other side to where Ginny and everyone else was waiting,” he remembers. “So I was by myself and there were muskrats, and black bears, brown bears, grizzly bears.”

This triggers an earlier memory from the expedition. “At one point, Ginny was waiting in the woods near where she thought the boats would come down and she could flash them, and they’d come and get the petrol jerry cans. Then a black bear came out of the bush at night.

“She was just outside the Land Rover, and she got her .44 Magnum, or .45 Magnum out, and the mechanism got caught – I suppose she was frightened – and she shot through her shoe. The bullet went right the way through the outer part and missed her foot apart from an abrasion. We kept the shoe for many, many years.”

With “mosquitos all over the damn place” and hornets too, Ran attempted to follow the Indian trails on his own but was unable to make out any markings on trees, so put his trust in the water stream to be his guide. He eventually made it to Summit Lake but explains how the woods “were dense, absolutely dense. The Canadians had made the Bennett Dam on the Peace River, and made this huge lake,” he says.

“And as the water came up, so it dragged the trees of the forest out, and then when winter came and they were lined like a log‐ infested lake, it was icy and snowy and so on, the logs would be sharpening up. So by then we had to switch back to the canoes because rubber boats don’t like pencil‐sharp trees and blow up.”

In a nod to his triumphant achievement, the third wood variety used in Ran’s rum was sequoia from Canada. “I hate to say this, but the reason we chose this was not like the other two emotions I felt in Oman and Norway, it was fear and hatred of these trees,” he laughs. “The trees there were not on the plus side, but they were, again, very scented. And that sort of thing you remember and you ally it to your emotions.”

Still adventuring: Ran with Dr John Walters of UK distiller English Spirit

Still adventuring: Ran with Dr John Walters of UK distiller English Spirit (photo courtesy: Adam Gault Photography)

A TOT OF THE GOOD STUFF

Rum has a long association with exploration and the royal navy, and Ran has one or two notable memories of enjoying a tot of the good stuff during his expeditions.

“Anything that’s not vital to existence, particularly in polar expeditions,” like toothpaste, Ran says, “you just don’t carry it, however good it would be to have. So when Ginny manages to find you, not only will there be petrol to keep the boats going, there’ll be something to keep you going. And the best thing was rum. Rum and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate.”

Ran’s most memorable sip of rum took place after what was inarguably one of his most epic journeys. Following seven years of planning, Ran and his expedition partner, Charles Burton, became the first people to circumnavigate the world on its polar axis without flying. Sticking as close as possible to the Greenwich meridian, it took the pair three years to complete the 52,000‐mile journey, visiting both North and South poles, crossing the Antarctic and Arctic oceans.

To this day, they remain the only pair to have accomplished the route – made all the more remarkable by the fact that “Ginny planned it off a map, off a six‐inch school globe of the world; she planned it with a crayon”, before sending Ran to the Royal Geographical Society for further investigation.

EXPEDITION SHIP

Ran and Burton were found “off an ice float” north of Greenland by the expedition ship, which had “almost given up trying to find the two of us”, Ran recalls. The ship searching for the pair was under the command of fellow explorers Anton Bowring and Oliver Shepard.

“After eight months floating around on ice floats up by the Arctic and north of Siberia and so on, we were in quite a bad way,” he says. “On the day Anton managed to get through the ice – which was very dangerous, the ship could have been crushed – we saw for the first time non‐whiteness and sea. We saw just in the distance two black sticks, the masts of the ship.”

Ran and Burton were first offered a glass of Champagne to toast their triumphant return. But who can deny the first man to circumnavigate the world vertically his liquor of choice?

“We came off the ice on canoe sledges and after eight months out on the floating Arctic ice, it was great,” says Ran. “But I also don’t like Champagne, so I whispered to the chef: ‘How about a bit of rum?’ And that’s how I got it, and Charlie, my friend, who’s sadly died now, agreed entirely. I don’t remember what it was; it was just wonderful rum.”

There are currently no plans for any line extensions or navy strength expressions of Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum, but an expedition is in the pipeline – though it is top secret for now.

“Anton Bowring and Oliver Shepard from the Transglobe Expedition are looking at something, but I can’t tell you about it because of our enemy, the Norwegians, learning what we’re trying to do,” he teases. “I can only tell you it’s north, not south.” And so Ran’s spirit of adventure lives on.

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