Most people see a river and want to glide down it in a boat. Not Levison Wood. Instead the 32-year-old British explorer and photojournalist recently made one of the last epic journeys left on Earth: walking nearly 4,000 miles alongside the crocodile-infested Nile River.
“The journey was about the people who live along the riverbanks,” he said. “I didn’t want to just get in a boat and raft by them.”
Wood has made a name for himself by finding novel ways to experience inaccessible and dangerous places. He’s hitchhiked from England to India and back, crossing conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan; driven ambulances from London to Malawi for a charity; walked across Madagascar; protected George Clooney in South Sudan; fought Taliban insurgents as an officer in the British Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan; and even helped a pop star perform an outdoor concert in the coldest inhabited place on Earth.
Wood, who has co-founded a company that brings people to remote and dangerous places, says that even in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia there are spots that are safe to visit. The point, he said, isn’t to court danger, but rather to learn the truth about what’s happening in these corners of the world first-hand. We spoke to Wood in the wake of his pioneering Nile walk to find out why he’s passionate about taking risks and trusting strangers on the road.
Q: At 32, your exploration resume is already extensive. Did your parents encourage you to travel?
Both my parents were teachers and they encouraged me to travel from quite a young age. They took us to some interesting places – Tunisia, Kenya, Thailand, around Europe – and I think that instilled in me the need and the desire to go off travelling. When I was 18 I hitchhiked around the world. It was a six-month trip through southern Africa, Southeast Asia, India and Nepal. And then after graduating from university, before I joined the army, I spent about six months hitchhiking from England to India.
Q: Why do you like to hitchhike?
It’s a cheap way to get from point A to point B, and you actually meet local people; you aren’t stuck in traveller’s ghettoes. In less developed countries, it’s a normal way of life. It is commonplace in Israel and around the Middle East. For me, its been a great way to immerse myself in the culture.
There are risks associated with hitchhiking; you have to trust in the kindness of strangers. And in some places it doesn’t really work. Russia, for example – don’t try hitchhiking in Russia. But I’ve never had any problems. I’ve been taken into people’s homes, fed and looked after. There are always these serendipitous moments where you meet incredible people.
Q: Did you set out to hitchhike on these trips or that’s just how things evolved?
Not really. I just think it’s a fun and cheap way to get around. When I was 21, a friend and I hitchhiked home from Egypt. This was during the second Iraq war in 2003. We ended up in Baghdad in August, just as the war was finishing up.
Q: Baghdad isn’t on the way home from Egypt to England. How did you end up there?
We had a look around Egypt, Israel and Palestine. Someone blew up the UN Headquarters in Jerusalem, so Israel closed all of its borders, save for one, and so we crossed into Jordan. Then in Jordan there were terrorist attacks, so they closed all their borders save for the Iraqi border, which was manned by American soldiers. The only way we could escape Jordan was by taking a taxi 1,000 miles across the desert into Iraq. The American soldiers directed us to Baghdad, and then from there we hitchhiked to Turkey and all the way back to England. We were quite lucky, we found some former British soldiers who were able to smuggle us out of Iraq, up through Turkey, and from there it took just a few weeks to get home.
Q: When travelling in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, have people warned you that you shouldn’t be there?
In 2003, things weren’t quite to the point where people assumed that everyone travelling to dodgy places was there to cause trouble. I did have a big beard and was dressed like a local, so people were surprised to find out I was British. The Americans were slightly confused about what I was doing there. I wasn’t really a journalist, but I was doing a bit of photography, so I told them I was there to take photos and they looked after me. I don’t think I’d try the same thing in Syria or Iraq these days.
Q: What if something had gone wrong?
I never go into a place blind. I try to understand the politics and the culture. Danger is usually localised. There are still places, even now, in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq where you can go. You just need to know where the dangers and risks are. There are millions of people who live in these countries, so the chance of getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time is pretty slim. Your chance of getting in a car crash or being run over by a bus in your own country is greater.
Q: A number of journalists have been taken hostage in Syria and Iraq. Do you have to take risks to make a name for yourself as a photojournalist?
For sure. If you want to be in that world, you need to decide if you are comfortable taking those risks. But someone has to cover these conflicts and if no one did it, we wouldn’t hear about many of these things going on.
Q: How did you travel across Afghanistan during your trip from England to India?
I walked, because you can’t really hitchhike in most of Afghanistan. This was in 2004, right before I joined the army. The idea was to follow the ancient Silk Road and make it all the way to India. At that point the focus had shifted away from Afghanistan and toward Iraq so I was fascinated to find out more about what was going on there. When I got to Herat after crossing the Iranian border, the south was still dominated by the Taliban, so I followed the Silk Road across Central Afghanistan where there are no roads. I had to use any means of transport – donkeys, walking, whatever.
Q: You also walked across Madagascar?
Yes, it was one of these places I’d always wanted to see. When you think of Madagascar, you think of jungle and rainforest and lemurs. I led a team of 13 people to walk across the island from east to west in a month: no one had ever done that before. It was an incredible journey because there are no roads. Once you leave the villages on the coast, it’s straight over a massive mountain range. It was a month of incredible wilderness, just jungle.
Q: You also led an expedition to Oymyakon, Siberia: the coldest inhabited place on Earth?
That was a PR stunt, to be honest, to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. In November 2012, I took a pop star called Charlie Simpson, who wanted to play a gig in the coldest inhabited place in the world. We travelled by reindeer and drove across frozen roads to a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere. It was -50C.
Q: Did anyone turn up?
Since it was an outdoor concert, no one really showed up. To get into the Guinness Book, we had to have a minimum of 15 people in the audience, so we had to knock on the doors of local huts and coerce people with free vodka to get them to come outside. We did get at least 15 people. Charlie had to play his acoustic set for 20 minutes continuously so he was pretty cold by the end of it. I think the locals enjoyed it in the end.
Q: How did you transition from the military into photojournalism?
When I was in the military, I took up photography, which is my other big passion. When I left the army, I did some freelance photojournalism, travelling everywhere from Central America, Mexico and India to Afghanistan and Iraq, taking photos of interesting places and people. The biggest challenge was being able to afford this lifestyle. I spent a good 2.5 years with no home, just travelling, and did things like wedding photography to pay the bills.
In 2010, a military colleague and I founded an expedition company, Secret Compass, to set up logistics and security for film crews, journalists and other individuals who want to go to remote, off-the-beaten track places. Using the skills we learned in the military, we started off taking small groups to very inaccessible places, like the Hindu Kush mountains on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. We’ve taken people into Sierra Leone, Panama and Kurdistan, which is now probably not a great place to go.
On top of that, I was doing private security for VIPs and celebrities. I looked after George Clooney in South Sudan, for example. He has something called the Sentinel Project, which looks at war crimes in Sudan. He was there making a film and wanted to go into one of the riskier areas, so we looked after him. On that trip I met a director who asked me what my ultimate mission was. I told him I wanted to walk the length of the Nile, which had never been done before. I was partly inspired by Ed Stafford, who walked the length of the Amazon back in 2008 to 2010. It was the biggest adventure I could think of.
Q: Most people are content to take a boat down the length of a river. Why walk alongside it?
The Nile is a fascinating river. It’s the longest river in the world and it is the lifeblood of North Africa, providing sustenance for millions of people. For me the river is the narrative, the thread: it was about the people who live along the riverbanks; it wasn’t about just getting in a boat and rafting by them. I knew it would be a challenge physically because it’s more than 4,000 miles, but there is no better way of immersing yourself in the culture than walking. I thought it would be the best way of getting under the skin of a place – or in my case, six countries.
Q: Have others attempted to do this?
No one has ever tried it before. The Nile has the world’s biggest swamp, the Sudd Swamp, which is the size of Texas. People go in there and never come out alive.
Q: Is it more dangerous than walking the Amazon?
Certainly in terms of wildlife it is. You have caimans in the Amazon but they are nothing compared to Nile crocodiles. Plus you have buffaloes, elephants and hippos all along the Nile. Not to mention civil war in Sudan, so this is why no one else has walked it.
Q: Tell us about the route you took?
I passed through six countries. I started in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda, on the border with the Congo. That’s the furthest source of the Nile. It flows into Lake Victoria, which then becomes the White Nile. Then I walked into Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.
I set off in November 2013, and two weeks later, civil war broke out in South Sudan. I arrived in a town called Bor, on the edge of the Sudd Swamp, and a local militia stormed the UN base there and killed about 60 people. There was a big gun battle and I was holed up in a compound with this going on right outside.
Eventually the UN ordered all the foreigners out, so we had to be evacuated. This sadly meant that I had to fly over the Sudd Swamp and start again on the other side. So I missed about 400 miles of the Nile. The walk took nine months, a bit less time than I anticipated.
Q: Was there some part of you that thought, “Good, now I don’t have to contend with the Sudd Swamp?”
I was very disappointed to miss the Sudd, mainly because it has always been the nemesis of Nile explorers and it seemed like the ultimate challenge, but it wasn’t to be and it was the right decision. Not for my safety, but for that of my guide and also out of respect for the situation. It would have been reckless to attempt it when thousands of people were getting killed all around us.
Q: Were there other moments of danger?
Absolutely. I got chased by crocodiles, a buffalo and a hippo. There were snakes every day, especially in the Sahara. Quite a few times, you’d empty your boots out and there’d be a rattlesnake or a scorpion in there.
Q: Were you carrying a gun?
No, but there were places where I had to walk with a militia, police or a wildlife ranger. In Egypt, I was constantly trailed by armed members of the secret service. They were concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and others.
Q: What do you do when you’re being chased by a crocodile or a hippo?
You need to know which animals to run from and when to stay still. With a lion the last thing you want to do is run; you have to stand your ground and scare them off. But if you just stand there when a rhino or hippo comes at you, they will keep coming. You have to run. Rhinos have bad eyesight, so you hide behind a tree. Hippos, you have to climb a tree. You can run away from crocs, but they are very quick.
Q: Why did you cross the Sahara in the summertime?
Because I got through Sudan faster than anticipated. I arrived in the desert in May. May and June are the hottest months of the year. I think it was about 56C. And we were covering about 20 miles per day, which is hard work.
Q: Did you have a vehicle carrying your water through the desert?
No. Most of the time I just carried it on my own back.
Q: What kind of team did you have with you?
I’d always have a local guide and translator. It’s good to have the company and also it’s useful to have someone who can speak the language. But it’s hard to find someone who wants to walk a long distance. Further north it became difficult to find guides. No one wanted to walk with me in Egypt. I also had camera crews come out about six times to film for about a week each time. We made a documentary backed by Channel 4 and Animal Planet, and I have a book out now too.
Q: What charitable causes did you raise money for?
One of them is called the Tusk Trust. They are focused on anti-poaching activities in East Africa. It’s very relevant at the moment because at current rates elephants will be extinct in the wild within 10 years, which is horrifying. I spent time along the way with rangers on anti-poaching patrols. Everywhere we went we saw snares and traps and dead animals that had been shot or speared, even inside national parks. Corruption is rife. Some of the people who should be looking after wildlife aren’t doing it. They turn a blind eye if someone gives them money. People are out hunting to feed their families, and as the population in Africa grows this human-animal conflict becomes more and more apparent. I was also walking for Ameca, the charity I transported the ambulances for, and the other is the Army Benevolent Fund, a charity in the UK that helps injured serviceman.
Q: Matthew Power, a journalist who planned to profile your walk for a magazine, died of heatstroke while walking with you. Where did that happen?
We were in Uganda; it was about a third of the way through the walk. He was supposed to have spent a week with me, but three days into our walk together, he tragically passed away.
Q: Did you consider stopping the expedition at that point?
Of course. When something like that happens it’s such a huge blow. You question the value and the point of the journey. I took almost a week off and contemplated if it was worth continuing. It was only after contacting Matthew’s family that I made the difficult decision to carry on. He was a journalist, very much into adventure, and I’d like to think that he would have wanted me to carry on rather than quit. But it certainly puts things in perspective. You can’t take anything for granted.
It was a terrible, terrible tragedy. I would have done anything I could have to prevent it from happening. He was as prepared as he could have been. We had the right amount of water. We had a medical kit. We tried to get a helicopter in to rescue him. I had a doctor on the phone, did first aid and CPR and everything by the book. Unfortunately, sometimes there is nothing you can do. There are risks associated with all these activities.
Q: What was your daily routine like on the walk?
Every country was different. The mountains of Rwanda are different than walking across the desert, for instance. Generally I would wake up early, around 5:30 or 6 am to get some walking in before it got very hot. You might find a village to buy some food, perhaps a fish from the river or some rice. We would try to complete at least eight to 10 hours of walking and cover 18 to 20 miles, depending on the terrain. In the evenings, we’d negotiate with a local chief to stay in a house or camp down by the river. My guide would help me look for firewood and begin to cook while I would take notes in my journal. Our rations usually consisted of dried goat or fish, although we had some interesting meals like grasshoppers and bush rats.
Q: What does bush rat taste like?
It’s the worst thing I’ve ever had. It had very thick, black, rubbery skin. And it had hair on it as well. We boiled it into a stew. Sometimes it was hard to find food. We made catapults and shot pigeons, sparrows and blackbirds. We had rations with us for parts of the walk but there is only so much you can carry. We ate whatever else we could get. The birds tasted all right, actually.
Q: Tell us about a great moment from the walk.
You wake up to some spectacular sunrises on the Nile. It’s beautiful to be in the wilderness when all you can hear is the hippos grunting in the water and the crickets in the bush. But what really stood out was the kindness of the people I met along the way. I don’t think I paid for a single meal in Sudan because people invited us into their homes to eat with them. Outside of every home they have ceramic urns filled with water. And people walk two, three, 10 miles to fill these up – not for themselves but for random travellers to drink from.
Q: What do you hope the lasting impact of your walk will be?
I hope it uncovered a bit of the truth about this part of Africa. You turn on the news and all you hear about is war, poverty, destruction, famine, Ebola. But it’s a buzzing, vibrant place where people are building small businesses out of nothing.
Q: How do you go back to a routine after you’ve been out walking the Nile for nearly a year?
Coming back is often the hardest part. In order to make these expeditions sustainable, you have to write books, give talks and monetise it. That’s the nature of doing this as a profession.
Q: Is the best way to cope with the post-expedition blues by planning the next big trip?
That’s the dangerous option. It’s better to catch up with friends and have a nice meal. But sooner or later, you get itchy feet.
Q: As an explorer, is there pressure to embark on increasingly dangerous expeditions?
The question I hear most often isn’t, “How was it?” – it’s “What’s next?” And I say, “Leave me alone, I just got back!” People expect you to push the limits even further and do something even more dangerous. For me, there are places I want to visit, things I want to do, but I don’t know what’s next.
Q: Is it important to find something that no one has done before?
I don’t think that is important actually. For me, what’s important is sticking to your passions and having the integrity not to sell out and do some naff survival show. You have to do things you believe in and do them your way.
Q: What is your travel philosophy?
For me, it always has. I’ve had close calls. I’ve been shot at and robbed. But that is the law of averages when travelling. I’ve met people I wouldn’t have if I had been afraid to take risks. That’s what life is about: taking risks – calculated risks – but trying to be bold. I think Mark Twain said that in 20 years the only thing you’ll regret are the things you never did.
Q: Do you think men are nomadic by nature?
I read this article in National Geographic about the explorer’s gene and I think it’s a good excuse to travel, if nothing else. But I do believe in the nomadic gene, actually. Some people are predisposed to wander and others are not.
Q: One of our other travel pioneers, Jason Lewis, said that the nomadic gene can be a curse. Do you agree?
He’s right. It can be a curse. It makes relationships difficult. It makes family life difficult. It makes having a stable life difficult. But the positives outweigh the negatives. The payoff is that you get to live an interesting life.
Q: Is that what motivates you to travel?
It’s a combination of curiosity and constantly wanting to see the good in human nature. And I think that’s what travel does.
Q: What do you hope that people take away from your experiences?
The more people that go out and see the world, the better a place it will be. Ideas and concepts are shared, prejudices get smashed and that’s a good thing.
All information correct as of March 2015.