Since 1887, Smythson has been creating exquisite products designed to help day-trippers, travellers, and more daring explorers see the world on their terms. One such adventure we were able to help facilitate was the now-legendary Transglobe expedition. Transglobe was the first ever longitudinal circumnavigation of the Poles and was led by explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. As the official diary sponsor of the Transglobe, we were lucky enough to talk to Oliver Shepard, one of the founding team members of the Transglobe, and discover just what goes into planning and executing such a challenging, and oftentimes treacherous, expedition as well as finding out just how they used their Smythson diaries and notebooks on the trip.
“I went to secondary school with Ranulph, but didn’t see him again until we met up in the army. He was a Cavalryman and I was a Guardsman and we became reacquainted on an SAS selection course. Ran (as Shepard affectionately refers to him) was always very good at persuading people to do things, so it didn’t take him and his wife Ginny long to convince me that the Transglobe was a good idea.
“Transglobe had two main aims. The first was to carry out a lot of scientific work and the second was to do it because no one had.”
Initially, we planned on recruiting a host of others to join us on the trip, so we put an advert in the paper and we had about 80 applicants. One day, we invited them all down to the Duke of York barracks where we were based and the first thing we said to them is that if you want to be part of this expedition you would need to pass SAS training. That got rid of 95% of them just like that. In the end, we ended up with me, Ran, a chap called Charlie Burton who had been a butcher in South Africa and a couple of back-ups in case any of us died!
For a trip like that, you need a doctor, a dentist, a meteorologist, a mechanic and a navigator. Ranulph approached me one day and said “Ollie, you studied biology at Eton if I remember correctly, how would you like to be the team doctor?” and I said I’d give it a go. I did a few courses and even learned to pull teeth. He then said “you’ve also studied physics and chemistry. How about doing the scientific work?”, so I said “ok, why not?” and became a meteorologist as well. Charlie took the role of radio operator and cook, Ginny was also studying radio waves, which left Ran as the navigator and team leader. We planned for everything to go wrong and also expected that one of us might die, so just to be on the safe side we all learned each other’s jobs too.
“Transglobe was virtually over when we left. Every ‘i’ was dotted, every ‘t’ was crossed and it was just a question of actually doing it.”
We had to be meticulous in our planning and get everything right. We practiced in Scotland, Greenland and finally the North Pole and we were able to do everything we needed to do—fall down crevasses and get back out of them, practice working in tents which is pretty tricky—and came back feeling very prepared.
On the 22nd September 1979 we set off from Greenwich, London. The ship which we were meant to leave on was a very old model called the M.V. Benjamin Bowring. We had a bit of a false start and fouled up the anchor chain before we left the docks and the ship stopped. Luckily no one watching us embark realised, but we did have to go back to the barracks and decide what to do. Over a cup of tea we worked out we’d just have to drive down to Dover and get the cross channel ferry to Paris instead.
It cost £23million to do the expedition in 1973 which is an awful lot of money. So, we decided to approach hundreds of companies, Smythson included and said to them: “If you are willing to set up a trade stand, we will take it along on our Icebreaker from city to city and set up a 20,000 square foot trade exhibition. We’ll take export orders for you from these cities and test your products.” Some companies even sent their own people out to man their stands in each city. Cutting a long story short, during the trip we took £53 million pounds worth of orders, so it was hugely successful—eventually.
After our next exhibition stop in Algiers (where they thought we were criminals!) we travelled across the Sahara to the jungles of the ivory coast which was quite fun. Then we went to Cape Town and sailed down from there to Antarctica.
Once we got to Antarctica we arranged 4 cardboard huts to live in and work out of. One was a garage, one was Ginny’s radio hut and one was for sleeping in. We also had a spare hut up the hill about a mile away. Antarctica is very dry and fires are common so we had this extra hut in case our other ones caught ablaze. Once we had everything set up we basically closed down the shutters and hibernated all winter.
While we were overwintering in Antarctica there were five of us: me, Ran, Ginny, Charles and most importantly a Jack Russel dog called Bothie. He was a splendid little fellow and was sponsored by so many people he lived like a king. He was sent hats, boots and jackets—Blue Peter loved him.
“He became a quite well-known dog and was the only one to pee on the North Pole and the South Pole!”
From there, we crossed Antarctica via the longest possible route until we came out in New Zealand. We then continued via Sydney (where Charlie got married), Los Angeles and up to Vancouver until we reached the top of the world—a place called the Northwest Passage. Here we crossed some hills called Ellesmere Land and arrived at a place called Alert in top-right Canada and waited there until it got light. Finally, it was over the North Pole and back to London.
All of us kept diaries and each of us kept a small Smythson diary for writing in the tent. When we got onboard the boat we then copied out the scruffy one into an Army S.O. book and then I am still transferring that into a larger, neater Smythson one but I’ve got 52 more days to do!
One of my favourite days, which I was reading in my diary just the other day, was right near the end of the South Pole leg of the trip. Our pilot couldn’t land on Scott Glacier to pick us up, so he flew above us and threw down a box. We opened the box and inside was a bottle of Jack Daniels and some fruit cake. I remember sitting in the sun, lying on the sledge with Charlie, it’s -42 degrees but there isn’t a puff of wind so the cold doesn’t really affect you. We are sitting there, stripped to the waist enjoying a large Jack Daniels. It was wonderful.”
A special thank you to Oliver Shepard and The Transglobe Expedition Trust for allowing us access to the diaries and photographs.