Keeping up with the Fienneses

Two cousins – one an acclaimed actor, one the world’s greatest living explorer – just took the trip of a lifetime. But did they take to each other? 

By Simon Ingram
Published 27 Feb 2019, 14:40 GMT, Updated 14 May 2021, 09:43 BST
Photograph by National Geographic

Back in London this evening, these two look like pretty unlikely expedition partners. One very tall, a bit crumpled, a conspicuous tear in one of his shoes and a generally duffed-up demeanour. The other much younger, slighter, soft-spoken, and slick in a sharp suit. One was nominated for a BAFTA after playing Shakespeare; one sawed off his own frost-bitten fingers in the garden shed. It’s an easy guess which is which.

The thing these two do have in common is their surname – and now, also, a journey, which airs this month in three parts on National GeographicFiennes: Return to the Nile follows the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his cousin, the actor Joseph Fiennes, as they journey the length of the River Nile, discovering a culture, an ancient civilisation, and – presumably – a little about each other along the way. Because although they are cousins, prior to this intense immersion in North Africa, the two had barely met. Now ‘Ran’ and ‘Joe’ chat with easy familiarity, and the sort of nostalgic banter that only comes from considerable mileage spend in each other’s company. 

Fifty years in the making

Return to the Nile is a ‘return’ because the show's route follows that of Ran’s first major expedition in 1969 – overland from Alexandria, to the source of the White Nile in Uganda. Under time pressure, occasionally on the wrong side of the law and dodging local conflict at every turn, it would kick-start a career of adventure 74 year-old Ran is still pursuing. And while it might be tempting to think it was Ran who enlisted a protesting, stage-soft Joe into the peril-infested desert, the reality was closer to the other way around. 

“I would love to take the blame for this,” says Joe. “It was actually someone called Robert Taylor, at my agency in London, with whom I had been playing with the theme of somehow ensnaring Ran for some adventure. It was his idea to retrace Ran’s book [of the 1969 expedition] A Talent for Trouble and look at that journey fifty years on.”  

Despite only meeting Ran at a family gathering ‘about 20 years ago’, 48-year old Joe – who is Ran’s third cousin, once removed – knew well of the explorer’s exploits. “My parents would mention his exploits, I read some of his books... and a big part of my childhood dream was to go on an adventure with my cousin, whose legacy is legendary,” he says. “And to have that come true in Egypt was remarkable. 

“Egypt is certainly a place that I’ve thought about, but I’ve always felt that it would be overwhelmingly touristic,” Joe continues. “Which sadly wasn’t the case. I say sadly, because a lot of Egypt depends on tourism as a part of their economy. So anyone who wants to go, go. Amazing, beautiful people, beautiful culture. If you can get there, get there.” 

Ran agrees. “The Nile really is Egypt. It’s the heartbeat of the desert on either side. And thanks to NatGeo we were allowed into areas where tourists couldn’t go.”  

The Fiennes Factor

The family lineage is one of remarkable colour. Distantly connected to royalty, the family’s seat is Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire – with their historic threads revealing characters both illustrious and notorious, from revolutionaries to nobles to scoundrels. Ranulph Fiennes – whose surname, like Joe's, is Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes on more formal occasions – believes a distant relative is pictured and referenced on the Bayeaux Tapestry, that another was involved in the murder of Edward II, and yet another was beheaded by Henry VIII. All are, amongst many others, entertainingly profiled in Ran’s book Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round my Family. Sir Ran himself was born with his Third Baronet title, sadly inherited from his father, also Ranulph – a Royal Scots Greys commander – when he was killed at war in 1943 four months before Ran was born. A moving scene in Return to the Nile shows Ran and Joe discussing the father he never knew, at El Alamein, where Sir Ran Snr had fought.   

So is it all in the genes? Joe is sceptic. “I don’t think being a Fiennes means anything – to be who you are and to fulfil your destiny is far more important than a name.” he says. “Although we certainly are a strange genetic pool.”

The actor’s side of the Fiennes family is no less distinguished. He’s one of six high achievers: his older brother is actor Ralph, sisters Martha and Sophie both writer-directors, twin Jacob a conservationist and brother Magnus a composer. Joe’s fame went international with his BAFTA-nominated turn in the title role of 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, and he was recently nominated for an Emmy for his role in the acclaimed The Handmaid’s TaleSo what can actor and explorer learn from each other’s vocations?   

“Ran is all about the long game. Slow and steady,” says Joe. “He is impeccable at pacing himself. There were times when it was very hot and very arduous, I would rush in like a fool and Ran would be cool as a cucumber. So it’s no surprise to me that he can survive the arctic, Antarctic, ice floes, crevasses, polar bears...” 

“But to be honest, if you’re up against nature,” adds Ran, “it’s never rushing you, unless there’s a tsunami making you want to run fast. Whereas in Joe’s normal world you’ve got film producers and directors who are rushing you all the time.” 

“It was a great privilege to experience this location and landscape. But what I take away is connecting with a family member.”

Joseph Fiennes

Ran Fiennes’s tenacity is infamous: in 2003 he ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents just four months after suffering a massive heart attack and undergoing a heart bypass. In 2007 he faced a fear of heights to tackle the vertiginous – and deeply dangerous – north face of the Eiger, and in 2009 climbed Mt Everest on his third attempt, at the age of 65 becoming the first British pensioner to climb the world’s highest mountain. 

Obvious as it sounds to most of us, all of the above were out of even Ran’s comfort zone; it’s in deserts and the polar regions where most of his teeth were cut and records made. These include the first overland circumnavigation of the globe by way of both poles, and with Mike Stroud becoming the first to cross the Antarctic continent unsupported. In 2000, he may have gained a similar record for the Arctic were it not for a nasty accident – an accident that led to his most notorious anecdote. 

Suffering frostbite on his left hand after removing a glove to salvage an ice sled, back in Britain Ran grew impatient at doctor’s advice to wait for the five blackened ends of his fingers to heal enough for amputation. Taking matters all too literally into his own hands, he sawed the ends off using a hacksaw and a workbench. In Return to the Nile a ghastly moment of bonding sees Ran open a film canister and sprinkle out the amputated finger ends to his cousin’s considerable discomfort.  

But before all of this, Ran was a soldier. After a brief but lively spell in the British Army, by the late-1960s he relocated overseas to take command of an anti-insurgent force for the Sultan of Oman. It was Fiennes’ first experience of the Middle East, and it was during a narrow window of leave in 1969 he led his expedition up the Nile from Alexandria. This was itself a tribute to a previous adventure, or exploratory movement – having read Alan Moorehead’s historical classic The White Nile, Fiennes decided to pay tribute to the expeditions of the 1860s by making his own. Only a century later, however, the expedition from Alexandria to Lake Victoria in Uganda took a brisk 45 days. And with the notable difference to the expeditions of a century before of enlisting a borrowed hovercraft – and a Land Rover, upon which Ran had just spent his life savings. 

“I knew that Joe was either dead or had gone through the windscreen or god knows what. I was incredibly frightened.”

Ranulph Fiennes

Indiana Jones meets The Odd Couple. In Land Rovers

Fast-forward to 2019, and the other chalk-and-cheese characters of Return to the Nile are the wildly contrasting Land Rovers Joe and Ran use to make their journey – over terrain varying from teeming city to often highly precipitous desert dune. In a nod to the original expedition’s principal method of transport, a classic Land Rover Defender was sourced, and – after a few necessary upgrades to ensure both the survival of it and its occupant – set off along the Nile, followed by a rather newer model in support. As Ran remembers, there were a few rather vivid bumps in the road.

“I was driving along in my Discovery on a very narrow tarmac road at about 60mph, Joe was ahead in the Defender, and quite suddenly, like the front wheel had burst, he went off the tarmac and down into the sand – 60mph to nothing, just like that." He remembers, with a clap of his hands for emphasis. "So I knew that he was either dead or had gone through the windscreen or god knows what. I was incredibly frightened.”

“I dodged a bullet there, for sure” adds Joe, who was unhurt. “Ran talks to anyone who goes on an expedition with him ‘the black picture’ – the bleakest scenario you might encounter, meaning if you can mentally prepare yourself for that you can get through whatever might ensue. So I thought that was part of the black picture – just another of Ran’s tests.’”

The Pyramids of Giza, outside Cairo. Joe says: "Ran had to ignore the pyramids [on the 1969 expedition.] It was a joy seeing him all these years later, having done this before but under time constraints, actually take the time to appreciate it."

Expedition initiation

The ‘tests’ Joe refers to are a kind of apprenticeship-initiation the older Fiennes gave his inexperienced cousin in what you might call expedition craft. Far from a couched tour, Return to the Nile is a rollicking, rough-and-tumble journey with its fair share of mishap. Both Land Rovers take to the air on separate occasions, and a memorable scene sees the pair introduced to a menagerie of venomous creatures in the interests of ‘preparation.’ The Fienneses also get extraordinary access to a recently discovered tomb at Al Minya – complete with intact mummies. The extraordinary sequence isn’t for the claustrophobic – or squeamish. 

“We were following Dr Mohamed [Wahballa] up into what he had excavated and looked to me very unsafe,” remembers Ran. “You’re crawling deep inside and you can see sand falling down… it was unique. Only eight weeks after he discovered it, we would be the first people to film and see these people who had been buried there for two and half thousand years.”

Joe nods. “It takes your breath away to come face to face with a mummified corpse in an open sarcophagus.”  

“And they must have had very good dentists,” continues Ran. “Because these skeletons were smiling and they still had all their teeth.”

On the subject of safety, Joe has his own idea of where the real hazard lay. “The real danger was me, both to myself and to others.” says Joe. “I had no experience of an expedition, I had never done off-roading – let alone in dunes or desert – and I had no idea how to deal with vipers and scorpions. And I should probably have given Ran a health and safety briefing on my terrible one-liners. I don’t think I ever did make him laugh.”  


The sarcophagus and mummy unearthed at Al Minya. Return to the Nile was the first production able to film in the newly-discovered tomb.

After the return 

When asked what he makes of the experience, Joe is unequivocal: “Connection. It was a great privilege to experience this location and landscape. But what I take away is connecting with a family member who reminds me of my dad, who I miss… and I loved getting to know Ran and his legendary exploits. It’s right up there with one of the best moments of my life. 

He continues: “and also I think that might translate to another audience out there who might have a member of their family, who has done something - which doesn’t have to be so epic – but who they respect and admire. Taking a journey might give them the opportunity to go and hear that person’s narrative. And to be connected.” 

Of Joe, Ran says: “I found that he was just the most excellent companion, and good fun. I was very immensely impressed – if all actors are as calm when things go completely wrong, my respect for all actors has gone up several notches.”  


The future of exploration

Having found each other and ‘connected,’ in terms of the pair’s future Fiennes exploits, Ran is cryptic – but positive. “I am really keen on getting Joe on one specific expedition. But I think it might be in an element that he’s not terribly keen on. So I have a bit of persuasion to do.”

Joe is shaking his head, but game. “I’d love to. Bottom line, if I could get to repeat this experience, I would in a heartbeat. But perhaps not in -20 degrees C.”
Not for the first time Ran is frowning, like a crotchety professor. “-10 degrees,” he corrects.
Joe: “Is there a big difference?”
Ran: “Huge difference.” He smiles. “I’ll show you one day.”


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