Walk the walk: An interview with Levison Wood

Levison Wood

Levison Wood - Credit: Archant

Former British Army officer turned intrepid adventurer Levison Wood has conquered the Nile and the length of the Americas on foot. His next step – a trip to Suffolk, as he turns his attention to spreading the word of what he terms ‘modern-day exploration’

Levison Wood

Levison Wood - Credit: Archant

To begin our interview with arguably the most talked about explorer of the minute, a definition: “Modern-day exploration means pushing oneself over the limits,” begins Levison. “It’s not enough these days just to visit a country, swim across a lake or climb a mountain – 21st century adventurers must offer something unique in order to secure the necessary investment to live their dream.”

Levison, certainly, has pushed this idea further than most in completing mammoth journeys on foot across some of the globe’s most hostile and hazardous habitats. And in continuing to push physical and mental endurance to the limit, his latest expedition – an 1,800-mile trek from Mexico to Colombia captured for Channel 4’s Walking the Americas – is no less daunting than his previous journeys along the Nile and over the Himalayas.

“No less daunting, but quite different in many ways,” says the adventurer of his American adventure. “It was a different environment, obviously, with a lot of jungle. I also went through eight countries this time. In terms of distance, it was about the same as the Himalayas, just a very different environment. The humidity was tough to contend with, plus environmental factors interrupting you in almost every mile - in the jungle you’ve got a lot of creepy-crawlies, snakes and things like that – but fewer hills, thankfully!”

As a man who honed his craft during his time in the British Army, where he saw action during the war in Afghanistan before going on to emulate his exploratory heroes, Levison Wood comes across as a man to whom walking the length of the Americas is an effort on par with a gentle stroll in the park.

“I guess there is a bit of that,” the 34-year-old laughs. “Because I spend so much time planning them, it’s quite strange – I don’t tend to think too much about what it actually entails. It’s not until I get on a plane and step off that I feel, ‘Hang on, this is what I’m about to do now’.”

There are of course many hardships associated with the extreme climates Levison specialises in, however. In his first televised expedition along the Nile, accompanying journalist Matthew Power died of severe heatstroke, and the explorer came as close as he ever had to quitting mid-way through a journey.

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“Obviously what happened with Matt was an enormous loss and a huge tragedy. I’d only known him for a few days, but that doesn’t diminish the loss and the shock,” he explains. “It was a difficult decision whether to decide to continue the expedition and it raises into question the ethics of the expedition and whether it was right to carry on, but we stayed put for a few days and thought about it and made the decision that if we give up now then the whole thing would be a waste. I think for the sake of Matt’s memory we had to carry on and it gave us even more resolve to do so.”

But even in those darkest moments, the financial faith needed for a life of exploration means that while to the viewer it may seem like a leisurely career, the implications of giving up have far-reaching consequences.

“I think the fact is there’ are so many people invested in these things, so you don’t really have a choice; you’ve just got to keep going,” he says. “There’s your reputation on the line as well, and your own personal pride. You don’t want to come back having failed, so you have to just push on.”

Fans of Levison’s adventures will soon be able to experience a glimpse into his incredible career as he gets ready to embark on a 25-date city tour across the UK. Entitled An Evening with Levison Wood, the show will see the adventurer pitch up in Ipswich for a night at the Regent Theatre on March 19.

“It’s really about building on the series and the books,” he explains. “I’ll go into a bit more background information, what led me to do what I’m doing now, that sort of stuff. It’s going to be more interactive – people will have the opportunity to ask anything they want and I’ll try to be honest and give them advice.”

He’s also quick to point out that by swapping his usual exotic surroundings for the green, green grass of home, Levison hopes to inspire a new generation of adventurers in the same way he was motivated by the exploits of men like Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Ed Stafford. In counties like Suffolk, Levison remarks, a burgeoning explorer can begin to get a taste of walking the wilds. “You don’t need to go halfway around the world to have an adventure,” he says. “Just start outside your front door.

“There is this perception that exploring has to be somewhere challenging – it doesn’t. A large part of what I encourage in people is simply an appreciation of what’s out there. Suffolk is a unique county in that regard – some stunning countryside that, within a few miles, will transform into a bleak landscape. Appreciating that is a bit like understanding art – it’s however what’s in front of you makes you feel. But get out there and feel it!

“I’m looking forward to visiting and to taking some time out to discover new things myself. What I’ve always experienced in Suffolk is a warmth of welcome and a kindness that I could compare to stumbling across a remote village on the Nile. Taking yourself away from civilisation and the thrust of urban life really does make you appreciate encounters with strangers all the more.”

Beyond his visit, there’s little time for Levison to kick back and relax. After finishing his speaking tour, he will be settling into his usual rhythm and reveals there is already another expedition in the pipeline, although he reveal where at the moment.

One thing he remains adamant about, though, is that the art of expedition in the modern age is just as alive and well as it was when his heroes like Livingstone and Stanley first set foot on far-flung shores.

“It’s a huge privilege to be able to travel of course and it’s very rewarding to show people places that they wouldn’t normally see or go to,” he concludes.

“There are lots of adventures to be had and we can only experience them in time; places change, borders change, some places come off the map, some places come back on, and there are ongoing political situations. But there are always new adventures to be had and places to be seen in the world of exploration, and I think people will always be able to travel and see the world with their own eyes.” w

WALKING THE AMERICAS by Levison Wood is published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardcover at £20