Writer, explorer, photographer and ex-paratrooper, Levison Wood is undoubtedly a man of many talents. After leaving university with a thirst for pushing the boundaries of travel he went on to co-found Secret Compass, an adventure travel company that leads expeditions to some of the most remote regions on the planet. And as if adventures to Afghanistan and Madagascar weren’t enough, in September 2013 he embarked on a record-breaking journey to walk the entire length of the Nile, pushing his perseverance and survival skills to the limit.
With all that on his travel CV and another long walk on the horizon, we had to find out more about this ultimate adventurer.
Where was your last trip?
I was in Cape Town, talking at a travel conference, which was great fun.
Where is your next trip?
I’m off to make another documentary, going on another big long walk. But because of a few security considerations in the areas we’re going, I’m not allowed to say where. But it should be very exciting.
What is your first travel-related memory?
I was about four years old. My parents took me to Greece and we climbed a volcano. What really stuck with me as a child was the complete wonderment and sense of adventure of going to a foreign place, people speaking a foreign language and eating different food.
Aisle or window seat?
Window seat – I always like to see where I’m going.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
Even in this modern age of Google Earth and things, I always like to carry a compass wherever I go, just in case there’s no signal.
Favourite city or country or region?
I like the contrasts so I couldn’t nail down a favourite. I’ve been to 80-odd countries now and they’re all pretty special for different reasons. Although if I was to choose, my favourite city would be Cape Town. Favourite region; it’s not particularly adventurous but I do quite like the South of France.
What is your most unforgettable travel memory?
I was 22, I’d hitchhiked from England to India and I’d arrived in the Himalayas, and I decided to go climb a mountain. It was quite late in the day and when it started to rain I thought it was too dangerous to go back down so I slept in a cave. I made a little fire which lit up the cave revealing all this prehistoric cave art. It was a really special moment to wake up in the morning and be there in the middle of the Himalayas.
What initially drew you to explore remote regions?
From quite a young age I’ve always been interested in the remote as opposed to the more beaten track. When I was 18 I took a gap year; I went travelling to Australia and Thailand and had a great time but I wanted to push the boundaries a bit more. So when I left university I did this big hitchhike from the UK to Central Asia, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and all these amazing places and I just got the bug.
Where is the most remote place you’ve ever travelled to?
I walked across Madagascar about three years ago. We saw people the first and last couple of days but in the middle there was nothing except jungle. That was very remote.
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
Definitely walking the Nile. That trip was an enormous physical and mental challenge. Taking nine months to do anything is quite a long time, so nine months walking was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Are there any home comforts you take with you?
If I’m on an expedition I’ve got to pack light, so I can’t really take home comforts. Although, it is nice to take an iPhone so you’ve got the opportunity to stay in touch – if you manage to get signal.
What would be your top survival tip for people travelling to remote regions?
It’s a controversial one, but I always carry a packet of cigarettes. I don’t smoke, but especially in dangerous places if you ever get arrested or kidnapped – which I did on a few occasions – or you’ve got a gun to the back of your head, offering somebody a cigarette will kind of break the ice and humanise you, and that’s what it’s all about in those sorts of situations.
What do you think this kind of extreme or remote travel can teach travellers?
You can go and see places, cultures and people that are very different to your own. At the same time, you might find people are the same and want the same things and it reminds you of the general sense of humanity. In fact, it's the places where there is extreme poverty or where people don’t have very much that tend to be the most friendly and hospitable places.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
The worst advice I got when I was about 20. I’d already travelled to quite a few places and there was a bloke I’d met who said, ‘you don’t want to travel yet – you’ll have nowhere left to go later’, which is frankly a load of rubbish. The world is an enormous place and there’s nothing to stop you going back to see things. I think you’re never too young to start travelling and you’re never too old to start travelling either so, if you get the opportunity, do it.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
I’ve got this Bedouin sword I brought back from Africa last year, which is from the Battle Omdurman in the Sudan. I was so surprised I managed to get it through customs. It’s now hanging on my wall.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
Back in January 2005, I had a month to kill so I thought I would try and cycle across Spain. I’d been cycling for a week and got as far as the Sierra Nevada mountains but I hadn’t accounted for the enormous mountains after that and the weather, which was snowing and hailing. I didn’t have a sleeping bag so I was just sleeping at the side of the road in a bivvy bag – it was the most miserable experience of my life.
One day I found a town, but as it was late there was nowhere to stay, so I slept on a bench at the local train station only to be woken up by a policeman poking me with his baton. He had me arrested and drove me to what I thought was a police station. In the morning I woke up in a surprisingly nice room, went downstairs and was given breakfast. It wasn’t until all these tramps started coming down that I realised they had put me in a homeless shelter. At that stage, I gave up the bike and rented a car.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I’d probably go home to the Peak District and stay where I grew up.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Don’t be afraid to take risks. I’m not talking about danger, I’m talking about just getting to the starting point and making a decision to go and do something.
If you're interested in finding out more about Levison's recent adventures check out his book Walking the Nile (levisonwood.com/book), or join him on a pioneering expedition at secretcompass.com.