"Egypt was pretty difficult in the aftermath of the Arab spring" – Levison Wood on a life of adventure
Levison Wood has achieved global fame for his feats of explorations. He talks hospitality in South Sudan, walking the Himalayas, and missing tea and toast when abroad
You’re obviously an adventurous man. What draws you to undertake such gruelling expeditions?
I go on these expeditions to meet the inspiring diversity of people that call these out of the way places home. To be honest the ‘gruelling’ element always has its perks – for every long steep dangerous trek is an epic view and for every night rough camping there are rewards, a clear starry night sky or seeing wildlife as the sun comes up.View on Instagram
And the place or experience that surprised you the most?
Sudan probably defied my expectations the most. I was prepared for the country of the news bulletins, recovering from civil war and years of violence and conflict. What I found were the most friendly and warm people. I’ve experienced generous hospitality in numerous places, unlikely or otherwise, but this sharing and hosting culture was on another level. My guide started to get impatient because every house we passed, someone would rush out and invite us in for tea and food and would be devastated when we said no. Eventually he suggested that we divert our route and go around the villages and camp in the desert so that we could make some headway. One man was so determined to look after us, and said that if we wouldn’t go to his home, his home would come to us. Next thing we knew he appeared with his bed on his head, which he had carried miles out into the desert to make us feel at home.
You were an officer in the Parachute Regiment. What was it like experiencing Afghanistan in the army compared with during your walk across the Himalayas?
It did feel a bit weird going back, particularly flying into Kabul. But to be honest there is a very different atmosphere in the Wakhan corridor, which is where I went when I was walking the length of the Himalayas. It has hardly been affected by war as it is so remote, mountain-locked and inaccessible. It just goes to show that these sorts of things are very localised and that Afghanistan is a massively diverse place.
How did you find the transition leaving the army to becoming a best-selling author and journalist?
Of course the transition is never as smooth as it looks from the outside. It took three four years of being completely skint, sleeping on friend’s floors, not having any money. But it paid off in the end.
What is the piece of journalism, photography or discovery that you are most proud of?
I’m very proud of the latest book Eastern Horizons, which although it is only coming out in November is actually one of my earliest pieces of work. When I was 22 I hitch-hiked from England to India, along the Silk Road and spent months meeting eccentric people in barely-visited countries like Georgia and Pakistan. Like all of my early travels it was massively formative and paved the way for what I am doing now.
A few years later, I got around to writing up the journey and it was the first time I had turned my extensive journals into a whole story, documenting the beautiful places I’d been and giving a window into the lives of all the people I’d met.
Which climate or culture do you have the greatest amount of appreciation for?
I always have a great respect for people that live in the mountains, it’s a hard life when you are that remote. The people in the Wakhan for example have to travel for days and days on foot to get any sort of medical care.View on Instagram
Are there any people you’ve met along the way who stand out, impacted you or taught you something new?
Thousands, but my former guide and now friend Alberto springs to mind. He has shown such resilience, and he joined me on an adventure having never done anything like it before and just got on with it – without complaint or question.
And the place you’ve found hardest to adapt to?
Egypt was pretty difficult in the aftermath of the Arab spring. I was there when I was walking the length of the Nile and it is one of the few places that I’ve actually faced hostility and been ripped off.
How have your travels affected your personality and outlook?
It’s hard to tell as I’ve always travelled, since I was 18, so it’s been at the heart of my personality for a long time. Curiosity breeds curiosity…
You once said going on adventures will force you to have a sense of humour. What do you mean by this?
Well when you’re up to your neck in a swamp or repeatedly being snapped at by crocodiles, you have to be able to develop a sense of humour, or it’s all going to become too much very quickly. You have to see the funny side of things.
What do you miss most when you’re on an expedition?
Tea and toast.
You are also often compared to Bear Grylls. Do you feel a sense of competition with him?
None whatsoever. We do very different things – Bear is all about outdoor survival and demonstrating various incredible feats of human endurance, trekking across mountains in the ice and snow. While I love being out in the wilderness, I’m also interested in coming off the mountainside into the villages where I can meet people who live there. Here I can hear their stories, the challenges they face, the festivals they celebrate and share their stories.
Where would you most like to visit as a tourist?
I’ve still only spent two days in Canada, which is definitely not enough. I’d really like to go to Vancouver Island – the mountains, lakes and coastline looks like a pretty special place to explore.
Levison Wood was speaking at the San Miguel Rich List 2017 launch. Wood helped unearth individuals who have devoted their lives to pursuing the most valuable of all things – experiences. To review the full list visit sanmiguel.com
Levison Wood's latest book Eastern Horizons is published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 2nd and available for pre-order now amazon.co.uk