Major Levison Wood is an intrepid explorer in the tradition of the great Victorian pioneers such as Shackleton and Scott. He is best known for his extended walking expeditions in Africa, Asia, and Central America. His documentaries feature on Channel 4 and his book Walking the Nile became a Sunday Times best-seller. Here he answers questions from RiverTribe’s travel writer, Ian Watt, about his remarkable treks and what inspired them.
WATT :Tell us about your childhood. Were you the kind of boy who always wanted travel and adventure?
WOOD :I definitely was to a certain degree. I used to beg my dad to take me camping and I would get really excited about being outdoors and under the stars at night. I would dress up and pretend that I was a solider out in the wilderness. But I was also a little bit of a nerd. As I got older, I was obsessed with reading about history, about the British empire, the Victorian explorers.
WATT :You hitch-hiked to India when you were 22. Did this give you the travel bug or was it always in your blood?
WOOD :By this point in my life I’d long had the travel bug. As I see it, there isn’t one pivotal moment, but I guess my fascination with the explorers meant that it was only a matter of time before I wanted to go on the adventures myself. When I left school I told my parents that I wanted to go on a gap year and after a lot of persuading (as they’d never heard of such a thing), I set off to travel around the world. I backpacked for months, hitch-hiking, sleeping rough, going to places I’d never heard of and meeting new people every day. After that, I’d travel at every possible opportunity, making the most of my long university summer holidays.
WATT :Why did you decide to join the military as supposed to a career in photojournalism from the beginning?
WOOD :I always wanted to join the army; I guess it appealed to me because not only would it constitute a working life spent outdoors, it often has the added benefit of a lot of travelling. There was an element of my obsession with history books too, I guess. So many of my heroes – early explorers like Connolly and Kipling – were in the army during the time of the East India Company or the Empire, and it gave them the opportunity for adventure.
WATT : British history has a plethora of inspirational adventurists. Do you have a personal role model?
WOOD :Eric Newby is one of my personal role models. His books are immensely funny –A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush details his adventures climbing, trekking and adventuring in Afghanistan, a trip to summit Mt Samir. It is one of the best books in the great tradition of understated British travel writing, in which Newby treats his climbing expedition as a walk in the park.
WATT :What and who have been the most inspirational subjects for your photography on your travels?
WOOD :Mountains are a particular favourite. In northern Pakistan I visited a region called the Hunza valley, where the Karakoram mountain range towers over the fields. The mountains here are craggy and steep and make the sunsets and sunrises extremely impressive – and a total joy to photograph, as the light falls on the peaks of the Himalayas. The people here too are hospitable and kind, which makes portraits fun to shoot too – anything that truly captures the spirit of a place.
WATT :Many people would say they’re inspired by your travels. Do you believe that there is a growing taste for challenging adventure trips instead of all-inclusive beach resorts?
WOOD :I would say it’s a more broad interest than just adventure travel, more an overarching trend towards more immersive travel. People are choosing to slow down and spend more time in a country or destination. Experiential travel is all about getting to know the local cultures and gaining an understanding of how the local communities work. I think the trend will continue towards that sense of being immersed in local cultures, making sure that your travel experience or holiday is aligned to local culture – and is ultimately undertaken responsibly.
WATT :Has there been one single experience at home or abroad which has changed you as a person?
WOOD :Going off a cliff in my car in Nepal in 2015. I was on an expedition to walk the length of the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Bhutan, and there were strikes in Nepal so we had to get in a taxi to find a safe place to stay. It started to get dark and it was monsoon season so the mountain roads were slippery – we came round a bend and the brakes failed. Our car went careering off the road and rolled – we think about 12 or 13 times – down into the valley. We were lucky that nearby villagers heard the crash and our screams and came out into the jungle to get us with makeshift stretchers. Their kindness saved our lives – and we were immensely lucky. However clichéd it might be, it’s given me a renewed perspective on how grateful I ought to be for everything I have.
WATT : You spend so much of your time travelling – is it difficult to maintain relationships with family, friends and partners?
WOOD : I’ve never been one to miss places particularly, so I don’t get a yearning for home in the way that some people do, but of course I miss my friends and family. But yes, I suppose partners have to be pretty patient when I’m spending five months on expedition at a time.
WATT : We know about your friendships on the road from your Walking series- How important have they been in helping you complete projects and journeys?
WOOD : Of course friendships are incredibly important and I still work with friends I made at university and even more so, in the army. I suppose it’s a matter of being on the same wavelength, and when you’ve undergone training together you have a really close bond – and you have the added benefit of having been taught all the same things. It means that when things go wrong you can react as a team, almost on auto-pilot, sometimes without even having to communicate.
WATT : You’re now a high profile TV personality in the UK- How enjoyable is it being back on the road as ‘Levison’ with the anonymity that travel gives you?
WOOD : I’m not sure about high profile, but yes, being on the road is definitely great for anonymity. If people in the UK might very occasionally recognise me, villagers in Georgia certainly don’t.
WATT : What’s next for Levison Wood – are there any parts of the world that are calling you?
WOOD : My next expedition is a very exciting adventure, a circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula. I want to show people the side of this region that they don’t necessarily always get to see because the coverage of the region is dominated by bad news and war. Not many people know that Dhofar in Oman has a rainy season for example, and that it’s home to leopards, or that you can ski in Lebanon.