In August 1982, a ship rolled into Greenwich, London, bearing explorers who hadn’t been home in three years. They had been at the North Pole, the South Pole, and many places in between—covering some 52,000 miles overall and earning them the distinction of being the first people ever to circumnavigate Earth’s surface from pole to pole.
Find out how the Transglobe Expedition came to be, what it accomplished, and why then-Prince Charles had cause to call it “refreshingly mad.”
1. The Transglobe Expedition was Ginnie Fiennes’s idea.
In February 1972, Lady Virginia “Ginnie” Fiennes proposed a seemingly harebrained scheme to her husband of 18 months, Sir Ranulph “Ran” Fiennes: a journey around the world—not latitudinally, as was the custom, but longitudinally, crossing through the Arctic and the Antarctic.
The two, both still in their twenties, had no experience as polar explorers. But they were already pretty accomplished adventurers, with a joint résumé that included leading the first hovercraft trip up the Nile and the first overwater traverse of British Columbia. Once Ran warmed to his wife’s idea, they published a request for volunteers that read, in part, “No polar experience necessary. Hard work, great danger, and no pay. No guarantee of success or glory.”
Ginnie and Ran passed most of the ’70s assembling a team, securing funding, and becoming experts in their chosen roles. Ginnie would be base leader, which put her in charge of all communications to and from the explorers, the sponsors, and everyone else involved in the venture; she spent years mastering radio operations. Ran, as expedition leader, took prospective members of the land team on training missions in the UK’s mountainous regions and the Arctic.
2. The journey spanned three years and five continents.
On September 2, 1979, the expedition set sail from Greenwich, London, in a 213-foot-long ship called the Benjamin Bowring (nicknamed the Benji Bee). The land team stopped in Paris and then in Barcelona, where the Benji Bee picked them up and deposited them in Algeria. In late fall 1979, after a trek across West Africa, they were taken by the Benji Bee for a brief stopover in Cape Town before charting a course to Antarctica.
They arrived on the coast in early 1980 and journeyed inland to overwinter near Ryvingen Peak. In late October, Ran and two companions—Charles Burton and Oliver Shepard—set off for the South Pole on snowmobiles while Ginnie stayed at the base to run communications. The trio reached the Pole on December 15 and headed east across the continent, reaching New Zealand’s Scott Base about a month later. The next several legs of the journey were mostly via the Benji Bee: Auckland to Sydney to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Alaska’s Yukon Delta by June 1981.
Ran and Burton started up the Yukon River in inflatable boats and soon switched to an 18-foot-long whaleboat (procured, as always, by Ginnie), which they guided through the Northwest Passage. They then swapped that for snowmobiles to take them partway to the North Pole; eventually, they abandoned the machines to hike on foot, dragging their sledges of supplies behind them. The pair reached the North Pole on April 10, 1982.
The penultimate segment of the expedition was mostly a waiting game for Ran and Burton, who spent more than three months drifting on an ice floe as the Benji Bee slowly battled its way to them from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. The two parties reunited early on August 4; and on August 29, the Benji Bee sailed into Greenwich—completing the Transglobe Expedition and making history in more ways than one.
3. It combined some of polar exploration’s biggest feats.
The Transglobe Expedition earned the Guinness World Record for the first surface circumnavigation via both geographical poles. In other words, its participants had completed a trip around the world, hitting the North and South Poles, by land and sea only; they didn’t fly at all (though planes were hugely necessary in delivering supplies to them along the way).
It was also a grand amalgamation of the greatest landmark moments in the history of polar exploration. They reached the South Pole, which Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had first done in 1911 (beating Robert Falcon Scott of England by mere weeks). They journeyed across Antarctica, which Ernest Shackleton had famously failed to do in 1914 and Vivian Fuchs had accomplished in 1958. They sailed the Northwest Passage, which Amundsen had first done in 1906 (and which many people, including everyone on the Franklin expedition, had died trying to do before him). And they hit the North Pole—such a tantalizing moving target that we’re still not really sure which early 20th-century explorer got there first.
And even when the Transglobe adventurers weren’t covering new territory, they were often still doing it in groundbreaking ways—or just faster. They were the first people to traverse the Northwest Passage from west to east in an open boat, for example; and they crossed Antarctica in 67 days, beating Fuchs’s record by weeks.
4. Then-Prince Charles was the expedition’s royal patron.
The explorers had a powerful ally in then-Prince Charles, who served as the expedition’s royal patron. “It is an extraordinary adventure, and, in my opinion, gloriously and refreshingly mad,” Charles said before it began. In addition to seeing them off at Greenwich, Charles also met them in Sydney and later hopped aboard the Benji Bee on the River Thames to sail into Greenwich with the explorers at the very end of the expedition.
They also had at least 1000 sponsors who donated everything the participants required, from clothing to the Benji Bee itself. Because the Fienneses had no budget for their adventure, they had a strict rule against accepting anything that wasn’t free. That included labor: Nobody involved in the expedition got paid for their work. Still, the explorers did rack up a debt of £106,000—about $135,000, which amounts to roughly $439,000 today when adjusted for inflation—during the journey. They partially repaid it with the advance on Ran’s memoir, To the Ends of the Earth, as well as by “selling wall charts, T-shirts, pamphlets and left-over equipment,” he wrote.
5. The Transglobe explorers brought cricket to the South Pole …
One of the expedition’s lesser firsts involved cricket. When Ran, Burton, and Shepard arrived at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in December 1981, Ran wrote that they were greeted by “friendly and hospitable” American scientists who shared meals with the newcomers “in exchange for washing up dishes and cleaning the canteen.” The two groups also faced off in the first cricket match ever played at the South Pole. The Brits won.
It wasn’t the last time the South Pole was the site of a cricket match. On January 17, 2012, another group of British visitors played cricket against an international team of researchers at the same base to mark the 100th anniversary of Scott’s arrival at the South Pole. The Brits won that match, too.
6. … And came face to face with polar bears near the North Pole.
During the months they spent camped out on an Arctic ice floe, Ran and Burton weathered a number of close calls with polar bears, which they did their best to frighten off by banging pots together and sometimes firing their guns. In one haunting face-off with a bear who refused to be cowed by the noise, Ran actually did shoot the animal in its foreleg. It stopped in its tracks and shuffled off into the water, with “no sign of a limp” despite all the blood, Ran wrote in To the Ends of the Earth.
The frequency of the polar bears’ visits called for constant vigilance that sometimes bordered on paranoia. Once, Ran recalled, “I heard a rhythmic scuffling that I was certain must be a bear. It turned out to be the sound of my heartbeat against the canvas earflaps of my nightcap!”
7. A fire at their Arctic basecamp threatened the mission.
Polar bears were far from the only threat to the success of the expedition. As Ran and Burton were trudging toward the North Pole, a massive fire—whose cause remains a mystery—broke out in the garage back at Alert, their basecamp in Nunavut, Canada. Ginnie reached it first and watched with a few other Transglobe volunteers as eight gasoline drums inside the garage exploded. Gone were all the supplies, including snowmobiles, that a plane was meant to ferry to Ran and Burton during their trek north.
Ginnie transmitted the news to Ran and Burton and encouraged them to press on, which they did, while she scrambled to procure replacement supplies for them, which she did. The disaster wasn’t without a silver lining, though: Now that the expedition seemed like it could fail, the whole world suddenly started paying attention to it. As Ran wrote, “after the night of the fire nearly every action that we took, and one or two that we didn’t, became news from London to Sydney, from Cape Town to Vancouver.”
8. The expedition earned Ginnie the first Polar Medal ever given to a woman.
In 1987, Queen Elizabeth II awarded the UK’s prestigious Polar Medal to Ran, Ginnie, and Burton—making Ginnie the first woman to ever receive it. Two years earlier, she’d been the first woman ever granted membership to the Antarctic Club, an exclusive UK-based dining club [PDF].
9. The expedition’s canine sidekick set a world record.
Ginnie’s Jack Russell terrier, Bothie, who kept her company through the long, cold months running communications in the Arctic and Antarctic, earned an honor of his own: an entry in 1984’s The Guinness Book of Pet Records as “the only dog to have visited both the North and South Poles.” (He reached both spots by plane.) The Fienneses also co-authored a book all about his adventures entitled Bothie the Polar Dog.
At the North Pole, Bothie wasted no time in peeing at the base of the flagpole that bore the Union Jack, “which we were not entirely happy about,” Ran wrote in the book. “Since there were no other vertical objects in the vicinity he was forgiven.”
10. It gets a shout-out in Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
In episode 6 of Mike Flanagan’s horror miniseries The Fall of the House of Usher, viewers learn a little about the backstory of Arthur Gordon Pym, the Usher family’s steely lawyer (played by Mark Hamill). According to patriarch Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), Pym was a member of the Transglobe Expedition who reached the North Pole, where he allegedly discovered that the Earth was hollow—and harboring a hidden “realm of beings who lived beneath us out of time and out of space.” Ran Fiennes has never mentioned that.