• Thu
  • Aug 21, 2014
  • Updated: 2:48pm

Poles position

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am

When British adven-turer Jennifer Murray and fellow helicopter pilot Colin Bodill finally achieved their ambition to fly around the globe via the North and South Poles last year, they had seen some of the most splendid landscapes on Earth.

Yet, for Murray, the most impressive moment was revisiting the site in Antarctica where they crashed in white-out conditions in December 2003. 'It was a miracle that we survived,' says Murray, who is married to former Hutchison Whampoa taipan Simon Murray.

'Our helicopter was a write-off, it was minus 50 degrees Celsius and we were [3,200km] from civilisation. Colin broke his back and suffered tremendous internal bleeding - he nearly died.'

Murray dislocated her elbow and fractured ribs, which she described as 'minor injuries' but 'I was too shocked to do anything', she says. Bodill crawled around to erect a tent, lit a stove and wrapped Murray in a sleeping bag before collapsing. They were found four and a half hours later by rescuers from a logistics company, after the Royal Air Force picked up a signal from the helicopter's distress beacon.

Despite the premature, catastrophic ending to that charity expedition, they always knew they would try again. Murray's latest book, Polar First, chronicles their dogged - and victorious - adventure from December 2006 to May 2007 that took their record-breaking ambition full circle.

'Our families understood why we needed to have another go,' says Murray, 68, who lives in England and Hong Kong. 'It was a healing process; it was like falling off a horse. The crash was awful, but we had to try again.'

In Polar First, Murray's diary entries recount their gruelling expedition. More than 200 photographs illustrate the beautiful, and at times unforgiving, locations they encountered: from the Andes mountains to the scorching heat of the Atacama desert of South America, to the hostile southern oceans and the harsh splendour of the polar regions.

Raising funds for orphans' charity SOS Children's Villages, the adventurers dropped in on the global organisation's villages and schools en route. In total, they travelled for five and half months - 171 days - visiting 26 countries and covering more than 59,000km.

Murray, born in Rhode Island in 1940 to an American mother and a British father, never imagined she would be a high-flying global adventurer with a penchant for breaking one world record after another. After all, her first calling was art and design: she studied textile design at London's Central School of Arts and Crafts and paints watercolours in her spare time. Her life changed in 1994 when her husband bought a half-share in a helicopter.

'He said he didn't have time to learn to fly so I thought I'd better have a go,' says Murray, in Hong Kong recently to publicise her book, royalties from which will go to SOS.

'Flying only entered my life at the grand old age of 54. When you turn 50, you sometimes ask yourself what you should do. I've shown that life doesn't end at 50.' Murray, a mother of three children and a grandmother of five, entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1997, only three years after she obtained her helicopter pilot's licence, when she became the first woman to fly a helicopter around the world, with co-pilot Quentin Smith.

In 2001, she and Bodill competed in the London to Sydney Air Race in a helicopter, setting a new world speed record. They aimed for another record with their 2003 polar circumnavigation flight, cut short by the crash.

It took Murray and Bodill three years to prepare for their second attempt, which required more funds and extra training. 'We also learned to respect the weather; we wouldn't fly if it was bad, especially in the polar regions, where it could change very fast,' she says.

Murray acknowledges extensive support from her family - especially her husband, who undertook his own Antarctic venture in December 2003. With companion Pen Haddow he trekked across the continent unaided, without dogs or supply drops, for 58 days. At 63, he was the oldest person ever to tackle the journey.

Murray has now drawn a line under her airborne expeditions. 'I have made a promise to my family,' she says. 'Maybe mini-adventures, like the family's recent dog sledding in Norway. But no more big ones.'

Polar First by Jennifer Murray (PPP). Available exclusively to SCMP readers at the special price of HK$300. E-mail alexa@ppp.com.hk for details.

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