Ben Fogle reveals how his TV challenges have rebuilt his confidence

‘I was destined for nothing’: Severely dyslexic, blighted by acne, an academic failure – Ben Fogle felt lost after school. Here he reveals how his TV challenges – including his latest trek to the South Pole – have rebuilt his confidence…

  • Ben Fogle and Dwayne Fields re-created infamous polar expeditions from more than a century ago
  • READ MORE: Ben Fogle, 49, broadcaster, writer and adventurer shares memories of Seymour Street, London

Ben Fogle has left home many times before to go off and climb Everest, run across the Sahara or row the Atlantic, but he was shocked by his own emotions as he prepared for his latest adventure. 

‘I haven’t actually mentioned this to anyone, but just before heading off on this trip to Antarctica I suffered vomit-inducing homesickness and anxiety about it. Really weird. I’ve never had that before,’ says Ben, 49, of his departure for the South Pole to make a new Channel 5 series called Endurance: Race To The Pole.

He would be leaving his wife Marina and young children Ludo and Iona to go off with his friend, fellow explorer and presenter Dwayne Fields, to spend a month out on the ice re-creating the famous-but-doomed polar expeditions of Scott and Shackleton more than a century ago.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his four companions died on the ice in January 1912, having been beaten to the Pole by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. 

Sir Ernest Shackleton escaped his ship Endurance when it was crushed by pack ice in November 1915, but died on his next expedition in 1922. 

As a professional adventurer, Ben Fogle has already run 156 miles across the burning Sahara for the Marathon Des Sables, raced to the South Pole with Olympic gold medal-winning rower James Cracknell and climbed Mount Everest

Ben and Dwayne, 39, were to wear the same clothes and furs, use the same wooden skis and sleds, eat the same meagre rations and sleep in the same kind of canvas tents in which Scott and his men ultimately met their doom. 

Ben had been to the Pole before, but he was ambushed by dread as his departure loomed.

‘We had to leave on Boxing Day and for about seven days running up to the day we left I thought I was going to pass out. I thought I was going to vomit. I completely lost control of my state.’ 

Did it spoil Christmas? ‘I felt terrible for the family. I disguised it a bit, but I just walked around in a daze and I had complete regret. I wished I hadn’t agreed to do the trip, if I’m honest.’

Ludo is 13 years old and Iona is 12. ‘They were absolutely amazing. We speak very honestly, so I told them what I was feeling and they could see it. I wear my heart on my sleeve,’ says Ben. 

‘My family were encouraging me, reminding me they had the dogs and all their extended family around them and they had work to do while I was away. I’ve never known Marina, Ludo and Iona work so hard to reassure me.’ 

Did that help? ‘It just made me more homesick!’

And all this was before he’d even left their home in Fawley, Buckinghamshire. Ben and Marina married in 2006, after meeting while walking their dogs in Hyde Park. 

He was already famous, having captured the hearts of viewers on Castaway 2000, one of the first British reality shows. 

The young, posh, likeable blond boy emerged as a natural leader among the volunteers who started a new community on the remote Scottish island of Taransay.

‘I wish I’d been able to see those qualities in myself at the time,’ says Ben, who had ‘zero confidence’ after failing his A-levels at private school. 

‘I was very dyslexic, I could hardly write or read. I still can’t really spell, I get my letters muddled up. I wasn’t good at academics, I wasn’t sporty, I had no kind of tribe. I had terrible acne, so I was really aware of my appearance. A combination of all of those things just left me really lost.’

So instead of university he went travelling, teaching in an orphanage in Ecuador and helping to save turtles in Nicaragua and Honduras, pushing himself beyond his comfort zone, a habit that fame would only feed. 

Ben and with Dwayne Fields, a fellow professional adventurer and the first black Briton to reach the North Pole, in Antarctica 

‘I’ve struggled to rebuild my shattered confidence through challenges, whether it was living on Taransay for a year or rowing across the Atlantic.’

In late 2005 Ben took to the ocean for the Atlantic Rowing Race alongside Olympic gold medal-winning rower James Cracknell. The pair spent 49 days at sea, finishing in Antigua in January 2006. 

‘I decided to take on something that every sensible bone in my body said was a stupid idea. I saw James the other day, we went for a walk in Henley and I told him for the first time how he had changed my life with that row.

‘I’d been living for years with a loud voice in my head that told me I was destined for nothing, then a heroic Olympian was saying, “Yeah, I think you can do this with me.”

‘That was the first stepping stone of rebuilding my confidence and making me who I am now.’

Ben has also run 156 miles across the burning Sahara for the Marathon Des Sables, raced to the South Pole with Cracknell to re-create the 1912 rivalry between Scott and Amundsen (in a repeat of history, they came second to the Norwegian team), and climbed Mount Everest. 

He has written 11 non-fiction books and a series of children’s books, and presented television shows such as Countryfile, Crufts, Animal Park and New Lives In The Wild.

Heads turn as he walks into a riverside hotel in Henley-on-Thames today, deeply tanned and dressed in a navy sweater and shorts, even though it’s cold and raining outside. ‘Not as cold as the Pole,’ he jokes.

How do his kids feel about his adventures? ‘I present it to them and say, “This is what I’ve been asked to do.” I let them decide what they would or wouldn’t be happy with. 

‘My daughter’s very vivid imagination runs wild, so if I’m on a boat or in what she considers a vulnerable or dangerous place, it really scares her. I’m very respectful of that.’

Wasn’t she worried about Antarctica? ‘Funnily enough, not at all. Her fear is more about water. They’ve been to northern Norway, so they know what extreme cold is.’

Would he turn a trip down if one of them objected? ‘I would take it into account. I don’t know why I felt the way I did this time. Maybe the sickness was a blip. I hope so.

‘It’s a heck of a journey, you go to Chile, then wait for the weather. I was still homesick when I got there. I worried this might be the end of my travelling. I couldn’t do that again. It was awful.’

Once they arrived in Antarctica, however, he felt a lot better. ‘By the time we were filming I was OK. I’m very good at getting into things.’

Did he call the kids while he was away? ‘I think I spoke to them once. That might horrify some people, but I remember calling them on the satellite phone in their early years and it would cause more distress for Marina than not calling. 

‘If someone’s sick or ill, I’m still stuck there. I can’t get out. When I’m home I’m fully present. The children just know that when I go away, I’m focusing on the job. I owe it to the production. I owe it to my teammates.’

How will he feel if Ludo or Iona grow up to do the same to him? ‘I’ve tried to envisage what happens if my son or daughter says they want to go and row an ocean one day. Just the thought of them being out at sea with no communication, I see what I have put my mother and Marina through.’ 

Sir Ernest Shackleton (centre) in 1915. The explorer managed to escape his ship Endurance when it was crushed by pack ice in November 1915, but he died on his next expedition seven years later

He shakes his head. ‘On a positive note, though, as a parent you want to lead by example. I want to encourage them to be brave in what they do.’

He did have to protect his daughter from a vicious social media backlash in 2020, after posting her suggestion that everyone should gather on their doorsteps to sing Happy Birthday to the Queen. 

‘I got death threats and rape threats to my daughter. We had to call the police in. I’ve never seen social media so alive with hatred and vitriol and disgust. So I realised then that there was a very ugly, nasty side to people. But it’s not representative of everyone,’ he insists. 

‘I’ve stepped back from social media, because I don’t have time for that. I want to live in the now.’

Were the police any good in that situation? ‘No, of course not.’ Was his daughter OK? ‘I tried to shield her from it. Our children don’t really engage with social media. It made me sad.’

Close as he clearly is to his family, Ben still couldn’t resist the chance to re-create the expeditions made by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, his heroes since childhood, alongside Dwayne Fields, a fellow professional adventurer and the first black Briton to reach the North Pole. 

‘We were out on the ice living as they did,’ Ben says. ‘I really like Dwayne. He’s a hard grafter. He doesn’t complain. He has worked seriously hard to get to where he is and broken down a lot of barriers in a world where most adventurers look and sound like me. 

‘He’s done that on his own and I really admire that and we got on really well – except when I burnt the food a few times.’

They lived off hard biscuits, melted snow and heated up pemmican, a mixture of tallow (animal fat) and dried meat, even though Ben is a vegetarian. 

‘I did the same with this as I do presenting New Lives In The Wild, when I am living with people who have only got bear or roadkill to eat. It’s a concession to my job.’

The pair slept in reindeer skins, wore woollen socks, long johns, trousers, mittens and sweaters instead of high-tech layers, and wrapped themselves in gabardine (a tightly woven fabric) for protection against the wind instead of modern down jackets. 

‘The film crew had a bag of extra coats and layers just in case but we didn’t use them. The old-fashioned kit was definitely fit for purpose.’

Were they ever really in danger? ‘We had a film crew of five and two guides,’ Ben says. 

‘The safety net was tremendous compared to what Scott would have had, but don’t forget Antarctica is an incredibly dangerous place. It doesn’t matter if you’re out there in modern kit with modern vehicles, you can still die in an instant. 

‘A storm comes in, the tent blows away, the car runs out of fuel, you’re a goner. No flights can reach you.’

Dwayne Fields: Day I had a gun pulled on me 

Will Smith (left) with Dwayne in Iceland 

Dwayne Fields had hoped to go to the Antarctic with Ben Fogle and James Cracknell when they were looking for a third person for their expedition in 2009. But he applied too late.

‘People said to me, “That’s not what we do,”’ says Dwayne, 40, who was born in Jamaica but moved to Stoke Newington in north London when he was six. 

‘I had those words in my head, “That’s not what we do.”’

As a child he’d loved the nature in the Caribbean, and he wanted more than to live on a housing estate and work in Boots. 

‘I wanted to see the world,’ he says.

The turning point came when he had a gun pulled on him. 

‘My moped had been stolen and when I went to get it back from a rival estate this guy pointed a gun at me and pulled the trigger twice.’

The gun jammed, but Dwayne knew he had to start afresh. So he decided to do a charity run for Mothers Against Guns, then completed the Three Peaks Challenge (climbing the highest peaks in Scotland, Wales and England within 24 hours). 

In 2010 he joined an expedition to the magnetic North Pole and became the first black Briton to reach it. 

He met Ben for lunch after that and they’ve been friends ever since. 

‘We’re from different backgrounds but have so much in common,’ he says.

More recently Hollywood star Will Smith asked him to explore an Icelandic glacier with him for his 2021 nature show Welcome To Earth. 

‘It’s highly unlikely you’ll see two black guys on a show that involves exploration,’ he said at the time. ‘It just doesn’t happen.’

Dwayne has set up the #WeTwo Foundation to encourage kids to explore, last year taking a group to the Antarctic. 

‘If you want people to fall in love with the world you have to show it to them,’ he says. 

‘If I can get more people to think, “Dwayne’s not that smart or tough, I think I could do that too,” I’ll be a happy man!’

Andrew Preston

The deadly nature of the place really hit home when Ben read aloud an extract from the diary kept by Scott in 1912, when the ailing Captain Titus Oates sacrificed himself to try to save the rest of the team, saying he was ‘going outside and may be some time’. 

‘Reading those words during a massive storm, in the same kind of tent they were in, when I was cold and hungry and wearing exactly the same clothes, I had tears streaming down my cheeks.’ 

The wind was howling outside as Ben stared at the small, round opening through which Oates would have pushed himself while the others watched. 

‘I couldn’t help but imagine being him, going out there. Then also imagining those men in the tent, not stopping him. What must that have been like, to let someone walk to their death?

‘They were cut from a different cloth. I don’t think it was a better cloth. They had values we can admire, but I also think they were too stiff-upper-lipped. Too emotionless.’ 

Sorrow rises in his voice. ‘I have always attributed great heroism to Scott, but when you’re out in the thick of it, wearing what they wore and living as they did, it makes you question a lot of the decisions they made.’

The British team was on a scientific expedition, they were not meant to be racing to the South Pole until they discovered that their Norwegian rival Amundsen was trying to get there first. 

‘Scott did not have the rations, the food, the knowledge or the stamina to race to the South Pole,’ says Ben. 

‘He should have realised he wasn’t capable of doing that and coming home alive.

‘Risk-taking to the detriment of other people’s lives? I find it hard to admire that.

‘Dwayne and I would lie awake talking about what we’d have done. We both have children, so I couldn’t help but think of the family Oates left back home.’

As he speaks, Ben sounds like a man who has finally found the confidence he lacked for long. 

‘I have little moments of self-doubt. I think you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. But genuinely, I feel a tremendous inner peace.’ 

His eyes suddenly fill with tears. ‘To be honest, my children, they’re my best friends.’

This expedition has clearly brought deep emotions to the surface, so will it be his last? 

‘After we got back, I spent a couple of weeks at home being fully present to my family,’ says Ben, looking thoughtful for a moment, until a smile spreads across his face. 

‘Then I went off to Colombia to make a film about a woman who was brought up by monkeys.’

Of course he did. That’s the sort of thing Ben Fogle does and he’s not about to stop now, however hard it may be to leave his family. 

‘Honestly, it’s the best story I’ve ever done. That will be out next year but it’s blooming amazing.’

  • Endurance: Race To The Pole is coming soon to Channel 5 and My5.

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