Having a man die in your arms makes you question your life, says explorer Levison Wood
- Credit: Archant
Levison Wood heads to Ipswich Corn Exchange this month. He talks about the challenging, risky and often lonely life of a modern day explorer.
Every expedition has its lows as well as its highs; the monotony, knowing catastrophe could be waiting around every corner... There are always moments where you feel like walking away. That was never more true than on Levison’s Nile adventure.
“It was a long journey and it had a few disasters. We had a journalist, Matt Power, came out to write about the journey who sadly died of heat stroke on the way. You’ve got a lot of time to reflect and when you’ve been through something like that, had a man die in your arms, you do question what on Earth you’re playing at,” he recalls.
There have been a lot of close calls and scrapes, which he’s learnt to accept as part of the job; adding it wouldn’t be an expedition if there weren’t risks.
“I don’t go out looking for trouble but it does tend to find me. The car crashing off the edge of a cliff in Nepal was probably a low point, but I was so glad to be alive it really didn’t matter to be honest. We’d finished walking for the day and were looking for somewhere to stop. We got in a taxi and the brakes just failed.”
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It’s made worthwhile by the amazing things he gets to see and amazing people he meets.
“I met the Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, that was incredible, the normal people I walk with on a daily basis. I’m in a very privileged position and don’t ever feel sorry for myself even when it’s a bit rubbish. When you’re surrounded by extreme poverty and people just get on with their lives you kind of just realise that you don’t have much to complain about really.”
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The TV presenter wouldn’t change a thing, adding: “We are who we are because of what we’ve done, good or bad. I’d like to go back and see more of places but we’ve only got so much time and the world’s still a big place.”
He usually plans one big expedition a year, squeezing in writing for various newspapers and magazines as well as other trips. Last year he spent time on the frontline just outside Mosul, Iraq; taking photographs and writing about the state of affairs there for The Telegraph.
“The first time I went to Afghanistan I was 22. I hitchhiked across the country back in 2004. I’ve been kind of doing this for a long time. It sounds strange but it’s quite normal to me to go to places like that,” says Levison, whose first ever travel memory was of a holiday to Greece with his parents when he was four or five; recalling having to learn to ask the Greek shopkeeper for some sweets in Greek.
It’s a challenging, risky and at times lonely life. Sadly, says Levison, there’s little time for a personal life at the moment. The past three or four years have been a bit of a whirlwind.
“I’m living the dream I’ve had since I was a kid - I just never grew up. I’m prepared to make a few sacrifices at this stage in my life and to do what I really enjoy. It’s a real privilege to be able to do what I do but nothing comes for free and you do have to make choices. It’s all work at the moment, if you can call it work which I don’t to be honest. I consider it an incredible vocation.”
But if somebody whose thirst for adventure matched his came along?
“Well, I guess (that’d be great), that’s not my priority at the moment,” laughs says Levison, who has only walked away from one adventure, when he tried to cycle from Madrid to Gibraltar.
“It was 2005 and didn’t stop raining. I was poor and slept at the roadside and didn’t eat for days. Eventually I got arrested by the Spanish police who thought I was a tramp and spent a night in a homeless shelter. After that I gave up cycling and went to Morocco instead where the weather was better.”
The army was a great platform for the best-selling author, who’d always wanted to write about travel. TV has been the icing on the cake, allowing him to bring together the different mediums he loves to share stories and inspire others to follow their dreams like he has.
Always honest about life on the road, he hopes to challenge our preconceptions and inspire a new generation of adventurers with tales of hope and hospitality, firmly believing the more people go out and see the world, the better a place it will be.
“One of the fundamental questions I’ll try to answer as part of this show is what does exploration mean in the 21st Century. We’ve got things like Google Earth where you can zoom in and see places, what’s the point,” says Levison, who’s visited almost 100 countries and been described as a great adventurer and wonderful storyteller by Sir Ranulph Fiennes no less.
“For me, it’s about rediscovery and showing people places through a different set of eyes. Borders close, borders open; countries come and go. The world changes so quickly these days that one person’s journey is very different to another’s. I think that’s what exploration’s all about. Its not necessarily planting flags in the map.”
Travel broadens the mind?
“Absolutely and that’s what I’ve taken great pleasure out of, challenging a few clichés and stereotypes and showing people you don’t have to believe the normal media narrative when it comes to places,” adds the renowned photographer, who says he’d be an artist if he wasn’t travelling; describing painting as the “ultimate freedom”.
Levison will share his experiences and exploits as a modern day explorer during the evening with tour.
Keen to immerse himself in local cultures and customs, he’s entertained audiences around the world with stories about his life as a soldier in the parachute regiment, serving in Afghanistan in 2008; being chased by crocodiles and hippos in Africa and shot at by gunmen to being arrested more times than he can remember.
This show also includes behind the scenes moments from walking the length of the Nile and the Himalayas, both of which were documented by Channel 4; alongside his most recent travels walking 1,800 miles along the length of Central America, taking in eight countries from Mexico to Colombia and his bid to cross the treacherous Darien Gap.
He’s looking forward to answering audience’s questions; but don’t ask where he’s off to next.
“I can’t give away that secret. The exploration community’s quite small and I don’t want people to pinch my ideas,” he laughs.
• An evening with Levison Wood visits Ipswich Corn Exchange on March 19. His latest book, Walking The Americas, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is out now.