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Shackleton – A biography by Ranulph Fiennes

With names like Fiennes and Shackleton on the cover, the reader can be assured of a stellar read especially if, like me, they are inclined to devour anything they can lay their hands on which has been written about polar exploration.

Ranulph Fiennes is not simply a writer, but also a polar adventurer. He is the only living person to have circumnavigated the Earth’s polar surface. Additional record-breaking explorations include travels by hovercraft, sledge, skidoo, Land Rover and riverboat, to name but a few.

As if these records are not sufficient, Fiennes – somewhat of an overachiever by all accounts - is also a best-selling author of more than two dozen titles, including several works of fiction. Of particular interest in the case of this review is his biography of Captain Robert Falcon Scott - Scott of the Antarctic, as he is widely known, who was in the first instance Shackleton’s expedition leader.

Scott was later to become Shackleton’s arch rival as the two men vied to lead the first expedition to reach the South Pole. Fiennes has conducted meticulous research into the fissure this created throughout their circles which affected not only reputations but also financial support for their missions. The impact of this rivalry cannot be overstated as lives would ultimately depend on it.

Scott was backed by the influential Royal Geographic Society; but if Shackleton’s exclusion was supposed to herald a withdrawal of Royal support and – crucially – financial backing for his mission, the society spectacularly underestimated the underdog’s ambition and charm.

By choosing to first feature Scott in a biography (Captain Scott was first published in 2003) has Fiennes also signalled his own preference for Scott’s leadership over that of Shackleton? There could be many other reasons, of course – a publisher’s commission; access to historic material; and competition in the marketplace.

Whatever the reason he chose to wait a further 18 years to publish an account of Shackleton’s life, it was worth the wait. But throughout the book, as Fiennes deftly and modestly weaves in his own experiences on the ice, I frequently wondered which side of the historic fence he found himself.

Was he a Scott supporter or did he favour Shackleton? Through his own experience Fiennes knows better than almost any living person who made the better leader. Comparisons are inevitable. Add to the bitter rivalry between Scott and Shackleton a third suitor for polar premiership – Roald Amundsen - and you have part biography/part thriller.

In the end it was not the race to the South Pole for which Shackleton would ultimately be remembered as one of the greatest explorers of all time, but instead the spectacular failure of his attempt. That this led to one of the greatest rescue missions of all time is what puts Shackleton head and shoulders above his peers.

For as Shackleton’s polar contemporary Sir Raymond Priestly said when comparing the abilities of the three greatest polar rivals: “For scientific leadership give me Scott. For swift and efficient travel, Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Distributed by Penguin Random House RRP $38.


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