Talking the Nile: Levison Wood

Talking the Nile: Levison Wood

do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question often
answered with equal parts optimism and naivety by young hearts set
on becoming famous actors, artists and astronauts. But Levison Wood
has seen his childhood ambition to explore the world fulfilled. A
professional adventurer, photographer and best-selling author, he
has also completed one of the last epic solo journeys left on
earth, walking the length of the River Nile. That’s six countries,
4,250 miles, 7million steps and two very sore feet.

This nine-month expedition was not just a whim. It was the
culmination of 15 years of travel experience and two years of
intense planning and fundraising. And when he set out, Levison’s CV
was already pretty impressive: “Everything I’ve done has built
towards making travelling a career and a lifestyle.” And he has
managed to do just that.

Having ventured to more than 90 countries in his 33 years,
Levison’s adventures began when he was still a poor graduate, as he
embarked on a solo hitchhiking mission through Europe and the
Middle East to India. He later joined the Parachute Regiment as an
officer and served in Afghanistan in 2008. And this was just the

He soon developed an appetite for seeking out dangerous, remote
and often hostile corners of the earth. In 2010 Levison co-founded
the extreme travel company Secret Compass, and has gone on to lead
many expeditions to challenging areas and post-conflict zones.

Speaking to Levison, you can’t help but want to absorb as much
as you can about everything this modern-day explorer has seen and
done. As a starting point, I wanted to know what drives someone to
relentlessly pursue a life of travel and exploration. Is it an
innate desire? Or did he ‘catch’ the travel bug along the way?

Growing up on the adventures of great Victorian explorers such
as Livingstone, Speke and Burton helped sow the seed, but it wasn’t
until he ventured of on his own that Levison really became hooked:
“I’ve been travelling solo since I was 17 and did the usual gap
year before university. But I always wanted to cross the boundaries
and do a bit more. Since then, everything I’ve done has revolved
around travel.”

Levison’s most recent expedition, documented in the four-part
Channel 4 series Walking the Nile, offers a vibrant, honest and at
times harrowing portrait of modern Africa. Why the Nile? With its
dense jungles, unforgiving deserts, colossal swamps and
bullet-laden war zones, it may seem an unnecessarily perilous feat
to attempt. But of course, the Nile is so much more than its
unfriendly topography: “Africa was the first place I travelled to
solo and it’s always had a special appeal for me. I studied the
history of Africa at university and I think that’s why I’ve always
been drawn back to it – it’s a unique and magical continent.”

It would be nice to have an extra continent to explore wouldn’t it?

The River Nile in particular is home to a rich, diverse and at
times bloody history that spans centuries, countries and
civilisations. I wanted to know to what extent this history is
present in the lives of the people Levison met along the way:
“There’s a predominantly oral history in Africa – wherever you go
people tell stories and I think that really plays out. I went to
one village in particular and a lot of the old people claimed to
have met Sir Samuel Baker. Of course, this is highly unlikely as he
was there in the 1860s, but their great-great-grandfathers probably
did meet him, and they talk about it as if it was yesterday.”

The ability to immerse himself in the countries he walked
through was incredibly important to Levison, and was facilitated by
the kindness and hospitality of those he met: “Everywhere I went I
was welcomed. Obviously there were certain places where I did get
robbed like in Tanzania, and I was shot at in South Sudan, but 90
per cent of the time people looked after you and they just wanted
to help.”

I was interested to know who had the strongest impact on him out
of everyone he met. “I was with my guide Boston [Ndoole] for about
four months and I’d say he was one of the biggest influences on my
trip. We really were in each other’s pockets for a long time. But
Moez, who I was with for two months, was also a fascinating
character and a lovely guy. He helped me through some of the more
difficult times – physically and mentally. The hardest part was
walking through the Sahara desert, so it was good to have someone
there who just got on with it!”

Despite walking with guides for significant parts of the
journey, often Levison’s only company was his audiobooks and his
own thoughts: “The loneliness was definitely one of the hardest
bits – just staying motivated to carry on every day. It wasn’t the
music or anything like that but interaction with the people I met
along the way that kept me going.” I ask if his latest expedition
was linked to a quest for self-discovery, but Levison just laughs.
“It wasn’t about ‘finding myself’. It wasn’t so much about a
personal transformation of myself than an opportunity to learn
about the places I was going and to document and share it with
other people. There were no dreadlocks or grand epiphanies!” But
that’s not to say he didn’t have some real moments of beauty and
wonder: “Murchison Falls in Uganda was awesome and a really
spectacular place – so definitely a high point for me.”

And the most difficult moments? “When Matt [Power – a journalist
who came to join him for a week] died in Uganda that was a terrible
tragedy.” Despite their best efforts to save Matt, he suffered
hyperthermia – an extreme form of sunstroke – in the Ugandan heat.
“There were also moments in South Sudan, going through a war zone
you see such horrible things, and you do sort of wonder what on
earth you’re doing walking through it.”

Having seen so much of the world – the good and the bad – I ask
Levison if after all his travelling the earth seems a smaller
place, or does he feel smaller within it? “When you’re on your own
in the middle of the desert or on top of a mountain, you do feel
small and humbled. But I wonder, it would be nice to have an extra
continent to explore wouldn’t it?” And how has travel enriched his
life back home in London? “I’d like to think it’s given me an extra
perspective on the place we occupy. I feel very grateful that I’ve
been able to travel to so many places and see so many amazing parts
of the world.”

Returning to ‘normal life’ after such a long time away must
require a certain degree of reverse acclimatisation, and I wonder
how Levison has readapted to the plugged-in world. “To be honest,
you never unplug, I’m afraid to say. I was fully plugged in the
whole way down the Nile, and it was – if not a downside –
definitely a burden in that you can never escape technology.” I
detect a hint of disparagement for social media and its impact on
the travelling experience, which Levison confirms: “I think social
media is something that has distracted from travel. You know you go
to a hostel now and people don’t talk to anyone else because
they’re too busy playing on their phone, uploading photos to
Facebook.” His advice? “Limit technology where you can.”

So, if not on social media, I ask where we can see photos from
his travels. “I have saved all my best photos for an exhibition
taking place in London in December.” And what else is in the
pipeline – any plans to settle down? “I do have a new trip coming
up but I can’t say where. I’ll never stop travelling, but maybe
I’ll not go for ten months at a time in future. I’m getting on a
bit.” Maybe. But somehow, something in his tone tells me there’s
still much more to come for Britain’s most promising explorer.

Levison Wood’s book
Walking the Nile
(Simon & Schuster UK) is available to buy
now, and you can catch up on the Walking the Nile television series
on 4OD.