In My Shoes
An Interview with Levison Wood
Written by Andrew Mazibrada // Portrait by Martin Hartley
Expedition Photography by Levison Wood
Levison Wood was an officer in the Parachute Regiment, and is now well known for his epic walking expeditions in Africa and Asia. He was the first man to attempt to walk the entire length of the Nile: 4,250 miles, from Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda. In 2015, he walked the entire expanse of the Himalayas, from Afghanistan in the west to Bhutan in the east. There have been other breathtaking expeditions too, including a foot crossing of Madagascar and mountain climbing in Iraq. Here he talks to Andrew Mazibrada about what made him want to trek all over the world.
Sidetracked: When you were 21, you hitchhiked from Cairo to London via Baghdad. In Israel, a bomb went off and the borders were closed to all but Jordan. In Jordan, you couldn’t afford to fly out and the only other border you could cross was into Iraq. What on earth happened there?
Levison: That was my third year at university, in 2003. It was the summer break, and a friend and I went to Egypt with the intention of travelling around Israel and then taking a boat to Greece to spend the summer. The Iraq War had just finished. We set off a few weeks after the combat operations in Baghdad finished in May, and before the insurgency had really begun. It was fairly calm, an interesting time, and we wanted to find out a little bit more. I was a fairly reckless 21-year-old.
We travelled around and initially it was fascinating. Then came an attack on the UN HQ in Jerusalem. The Israelis closed all the borders and ports, and the FCO said that everyone ought to leave. We had no money and didn’t have too many options. The only direction we could go was Jordan. It was fairly safe there, as was Amman; then there were subsequent attacks all across the Middle East – this was the start of the insurgency. We were stuck in Jordan and we had nowhere to go. We couldn’t now get to Greece and couldn’t afford a flight home.
We researched a bit and discovered the border with Iraq was open because the US was in control of the border. We got into a taxi and drove 1,000 miles to Baghdad (it cost us $40). We met US soldiers on the gates and fortunately they let us in. We found ourselves at the Palestine Hotel where all the journalists had been staying. Sadly, the top floor of the hotel had been destroyed as a result of a tank commander mistaking a camera-man for a sniper. Our plan was to sleep rough on the roof of the hotel, but we met Martin Geissler, the ITV newsman, and he asked what we were doing there – we were the first non-journalists into Baghdad. He offered us one of his team’s spare rooms whilst we were waiting for an escape plan to materialise. Their security, ex-special forces, escorted us up to Turkey, passing what was likely Saddam’s hideaway at the time.
How old were you when you joined the Army, and what made you join?
I first joined the OTC when I was a student – the armed forces had always been a career I really liked the idea of. I had read autobiographies of Victorian explorers and they had all been in the military. The OTC gave me a flavour of the Army life and I decided I wanted to travel more, having already travelled around the Middle East. I was interested in the whole region, in fact. I hitchhiked from Nottingham to India through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. That took five months and it was fascinating to go to Afghanistan before joining the Army. Then it was Sandhurst after that for a year, and some advanced infantry tactics in the Parachute Regiment. I was in the Paras for about five years.
You have been forced to avoid areas of conflict on your expeditions, for example in the Sudan. How did your experiences in conflict zones like those in Afghanistan prepare you for the expeditions you have undertaken?
The military definitely taught me a lot, giving me practical and, more importantly, mental skills. The Army teaches you to push yourself beyond what you feel is possible. Yet when compared with conflict zones, and tours in the Army, you need a very different mindset going as an individual – you don’t have any backup. No-one is coming to rescue you. I was an independent traveller to these places, but you do learn to appreciate risk. Everyone has guns in these places, and as a former soldier, I was less daunted by this fact; these are soldiers like any others and my understanding of them made it less immediately terrifying.
Do you think serving in the Army in places like Afghanistan has meant you understand the importance of connecting to local people on your expeditions?
In fact, I learned that before joining to Army. I travelled when I was 18, again at university, then hitchhiked to India. I think I learned more from that than from the fairly short time I spent in the Army. The Army didn’t so much teach me that; more to evaluate risk, who to trust. Telling the good guys from the bad guys. Nuances about who is likely to be dangerous and who is not.
You talked about Sudan having something of a reputation, and then entering the country to find the Sudanese to be friendly people. Do you tend to enter places with an open mind? Was that always the case?
It’s a case-by-case basis. You assess people, put yourself in their shoes. See what their agenda is, who they are. How you approach people depends on who they are. I always have a humble approach: I explain what I am doing because sometimes they are quite suspicious. I break the ice by asking people questions, finding out what they are like and what they are all about. People like talking about themselves.
In an interview with Mr Porter magazine, you said ‘I’m not interested in conquering poles, or making solo expeditions across deserts. I’m interested in walking in the company of people. Sometimes I walk with friends. I always walk with the desire to get embedded in the culture, which is why my two heroes are British explorers Sir Richard Burton and TE Lawrence. They got stuck in. They learnt the language. They travelled in disguise.’ Why is that important to you, and what made it so important to you?
For me, I journey because I am inquisitive about other cultures. I don’t have much to prove; I’ve been to war, I have no constant drive to climb mountains or get to poles. It’s an endless quest and it becomes addictive. I feel like I have done that now. I want to meet interesting people and have adventures. Keeping life exciting and meeting interesting people on the way.
I like travelling with a guy called Ash Bhardwaj, who has travelled with me quite extensively and came with me to Uganda, Sudan, India, and Kashmir. He’s a modern-day Renaissance Man and philosopher. He injects intellectual amusement and humour into my trips. I like travelling with Will Charlton too, who was a friend from uni and a doctor in the Army. Whenever he comes out, he adds pace to any journey and I have to keep up with him.
What made you decide to walk the length of the Nile as opposed to other possible expeditions? What drew you to that particular part of the world and that particular challenge?
It’s an area that has fascinated me since I was a kid. The source was a great mystery and has attracted adventurers for thousands of years (including Victorian adventurers) and I wanted a little piece of that myself. When I left the Army, the first thing I did was volunteer for a charity building clinics in Malawi. The founder of the charity asked me to fund-raise in order to source an ambulance. I got fifteen mates together and fund-raised about £50k. We bought two ambulances from eBay and drove them from London to Southern Africa. It was a bloody great adventure. The vast majority of that route was following the course of the Nile, and that was when the idea came to me. I wanted to follow the course of that great river, but instead on foot.
Logistically, mentally and physically, how do you prepare for an expedition like the Nile, or the Himalayas?
Mentally, I need to know that I am going to put my life in a box for however long I’ll be away, and say goodbye. You tend to be so busy that you don’t have time to think about it until you’re on the plane. Logistics takes up the time: the Nile walk was two years in the planning. The Himalayas were easier as I didn’t need to worry about funding – I had the backing of TV people. Then it’s risk assessments and planning etc. There’s never any time to do any particular fitness stuff – it’s a walking thing and you just start of slowly, five to six miles first day, then build up gradually, and then fitness takes care of itself. Put on weight if you want to. Base fitness does the job.
On any expedition lasting months or even years, tragedy or serious emotional experiences are likely to affect or endanger the progress of the expedition. What do you think the people who undertake these expeditions have inside them that allows them to continue?
It’s a mix; it comes down to conditioning. Your first expedition is very different to your fiftieth. It’s totally personal. On the Nile, it was open-ended. There was the instability of not knowing when you’d seen family again, how long it would take. For the first few months it was all new and exciting. After that, it felt somewhat like a prison sentence. Then, after that, it becomes really difficult and you don’t want to do it. That coincided with the Sudan and it was flat scrubland, not pleasant at all; 52 degrees heat and I wasn’t even half-way there yet. I could even get 3G in the Sahara thanks to cellphone masts. I could get Facebook and Twitter, and it was my birthday; there was no booze and all my mates were having a whale of a time in Ibiza. You question what you’re doing there. You slowly transform, you realise it will come to an end, it will have been worth it. You accept it will be miserable, and you eventually become more in tune with your surroundings. Don’t think about the end, think about why you are there and being in touch with what is around you.
During the Nile walk, a journalist called Matthew Power came to speak to you and tragically succumbed to heatstroke and died. Were you otherwise alone at that point? What effect did this event have on your mental state for the days and weeks that followed?
Boston was my Congolese guide and we had two local game park rangers. Matt was accompanied by a photographer. In the Army, I encountered the effects of climate extremes a lot, especially heatstroke. In the desert, it was extremely hot and we knew how to deal with it. It comes on quickly and can’t be spotted. However, this was the first time anyone had died in my arms and it was terrible. It probably gave me some resilience, in reality. The only way to deal with it was to take four or five days off. We had to take his body out of the jungle, find a coffin and all the other associated terrible things. We had to speak to his family and then came those questions, ethical questions that are always asked: is it right to carry on? Ultimately we came to the decision it would have all been in vain had we stopped then.
You followed the Nile walk with an expedition that became the subject of a best-selling book, Walking the Himalayas, and a television series. From the Silk Route in Afghanistan to the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, you walked more than 1,700 miles across the roof of the world, traversing the length of the Himalayas. Was it strange returning to Afghanistan?
Before the Himalayas walk, the last time I had flown in to Afghanistan had been very different. That was during my time with the Army. We flew in under cover of night then, because there were anti-aircraft guns hidden in the craggy hills around Kandahar. I was thinking about it as we flew in to Afghanistan to start the Himalayas walk – I remember it like it was yesterday. That night had been tense, quiet, really dark outside. There were a hundred Paras sitting with me, many of them flying in to combat for the first time. This time it was more peaceful, on a civilian flight. I had grown my beard to try to fit in, but all the people around me were wearing suits and had slicked-back hair. These were the wealthy classes. When we landed at Kabul Airport, I remember thinking that I had thought I’d left this place behind. There was still a lot of military there, despite the NATO withdrawal – American special forces who didn’t seem particularly covert, even former Soviet soldiers, as well as Afghan soldiers. It was a little strange, yes.
The story of the car crash that nearly took your life, as well as that of your brother and your friend Binod, was told in Volume Seven of Sidetracked (published June 2016). How did you meet Binod?
I met Binod when I was 19, when I was in the mountains in Nepal during a civil war going on at the time between Maoist insurgents and the government. He rescued me, actually. There was a lot of fighting and it was around this time the Nepalese royal family was killed. Binod looked after me for a couple of weeks – we stayed in the hills together. So when I decided I was going to walk the Himalayas he was the obvious choice as my guide. It was great to see him, to have this reunion and see his family after 14 years. That’s one of the things I love about the region – it’s so diverse, but so often friendly and welcoming. The people in the western Himalayas, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, don’t have a great deal in common with the people in the east, in Bhutan and Tibet. Their religion is different, and they speak different languages. But they share a common bond that comes from living in the foothills of this vast mountain range and the dangers and challenges that come with it.
And what’s next for you?
Another 1,700-mile trek along the spine of the Americas from Mexico to Colombia. Beginning in the north-eastern tip of Mexico, I’ll be walking the entire length of Central America, through eight countries. I’ll then attempt to cross the Darien Gap into Colombia and South America. Although I lived in Mexico for three months and I trained in Belize with the Army, this is a part of the world I haven’t really experienced and it has some of the most beautiful but unpredictable places on the planet.
There will be unexplored Mayan ruins in the jungles in Guatemala and Honduras, active volcanoes in Nicaragua, the Panama Canal, and the Darien Gap. I want to spend time with people living in the region, particularly in the remote wilderness where life for indigenous tribes and those who work the land remains pretty much unchanged. I’ll be meeting people, which is a large part of the reason for the walk, trekking with pilgrims and hunting with the ancient Bribri tribe, which is a matrilineal society living isolated from the modern world. In some of the cities, I want to see first-hand the cycle of gang violence and drug trafficking.
After that, just before the end, I am going to try to cross the Darien Gap, which has been called ‘the most intense and brutal 90km of terrain anywhere on Earth’. It should be a really interesting walk.
Levison’s book, ‘Walking the Himalayas: An adventure of survival and endurance‘ is available now.