Levison Wood, a British Soldier in the Parachute Regiment, turned explorer, TV star and author, is a great example of someone living out his dreams while living on the edge.
The 35-year-old is known for his causal brushes with death while on expeditions in war-torn countries, jungles and deserts. From getting caught in the crossfire on the roof of the South Sudan Hotel, or his car flying off a cliff when the brakes failed in Nepal, it seems nothing stops Levison from achieving his goal of exploring unknown territories.
His previous Channel 4TV documentaries and books such as Walking the Nile, Walking the Himalayas, Walking the Americas, and now his new show From Russia to Iran: Crossing Wild Frontiers, document his adventurous spirit, making his way by any means necessary. Levison also brings out a personal touch by travelling and living with the locals, and understanding the ways of society in the places he visits.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Levison and explored a bit more about his life and travels.
How did you start your career as an explorer and author?
It all started with wanting to join the army; I guess it appealed to me because not only would it constitute a working life spent outdoors, it often has the added benefit of a lot of travelling – which is basically what modern day exploring is I suppose. As for the writing – ever since I was a young kid I have been totally obsessed by history books. So many of my heroes – early explorers like Connolly and Kipling – were in the army during the time of the East India company or of Empire, and it was this that gave them the opportunity for adventure. They’d earn some kudos and pocket money writing up their adventures.
Which expedition has been your favourite so far and why?
The nine months walking the length of the river Nile is up there. There was so much anticipation involved – it was about three years in the planning and we didn’t know how long it might take, I estimated anything between six months and two years, and you have to really get yourself organized to make that happen. What makes a great expedition is the people you meet, or even who guide you – and I had both of these. My guide Boston was a real laugh, a larger than life character and the people in the countries along the Nile were so generous: in Sudan we started to have to avoid the villages because everyone was so hospitable that it would slow us down. One night we were camped out a couple of miles from a village and a man carried his bed out into the desert on his head in an attempt to host us and make us comfortable!
Can you tell us about your new show that’s about to air this month? How and why did you choose this destination to explore? How do you usually select your destinations?
In the new show for Channel 4, we started in the remote and little known corner of southern Russia and followed the spine of the Caucasus mountains towards Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and into Iran. The region has been victim to conflict and war for the past couple of decades, so it hardly gets any visitors, but the landscape is sublime: snow-capped mountains, canyons and volcanic deserts. I met all sorts of characters – wolf-hunters, biker gangs and the mothers of boys who’d run away to join ISIS. We also returned to see some of the people who’d taken me in when I was there over a decade ago, which was pretty funny.
Your new book ‘Eastern Horizons’ will launch in November. Can you tell us more about it and the story behind it?
Eastern Horizons is the story of my early travels hitchhiking from Nottingham to India when I was 22. I did the whole thing on a budget of not much more than £500 and crossed Europe, Russia, Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. By hitching I’d meet heaps of people and I either slept rough, or managed to find some kind person to invite me into their home. I wrote it a few years after I finished the journey and have hardly altered or edited the text, so it’s a great window into those regions more than a decade ago.
What has been your most challenging or dangerous experience so far?
Going off a cliff in a car in Nepal in 2015. I was on an expedition to walk the length of the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Bhutan, and there were strikes in Nepal so we had to get in a taxi to find a safe place to stay. It started to get dark and it was monsoon so the mountain roads were slippery – we came round a bend and the brakes failed. Our car went careering off the road and rolled – we think, about 12 or 13 times – down into the valley. We were lucky that nearby villagers heard the crash and our screams and came out into the jungle to get us with makeshift stretchers. Their kindness saved our lives – and we were immensely lucky. However clichéd it might be, it’s given me a renewed perspective on how grateful I ought to be for everything I have.
What are the main dangers in your line of work? How do you avoid or minimise them?
To be honest, cars and vehicles generally are the most dangerous thing. Even when I’m walking, they are still a risk. I walked down a road in Costa Rica with my guide Alberto that is known as the road of death. Trucks were careering past us and aquaplaning on the roads, it would have only taken one tweak of the steering wheel and we’d have been pushed down into the valley hundreds of metres below. Unsurprisingly we very quickly decided to talk the long way round.
How much planning goes into each expedition?
Masses and masses – lots more than people think. There is always a lot more paperwork than people think too: mainly visas and permits and boring bureaucratic processes like that. The more thoroughly you plan for every eventuality, the more you can minimise the risk if something goes wrong.
We hear your next expedition will be in the Middle East. What attracts you to this region and what are your thoughts on the dangers and political situation in some areas of this region?
I’ve been fascinated by the Middle East since reading about the adventures of great explorers when I was younger. 2000 years ago it was the heart of human civilisation, the most advanced place on earth, and now all the stories and coverage we hear about it focuses on war and conflict. It’s probably my most ambitious trip yet, but I want to show people the side of this region that they don’t necessarily always get to see. Not many people know that Dhofar in Oman has a rainy season for example, and that it’s home to leopards, or that you can ski in Lebanon. As for the dangers, the best we can do is plan well to minimise any risk.
What’s next for you from here? What are your future career plans?
Five months in the Arabian peninsula for a start. After that – it would be telling!
You have also been involved in fashion collaborations with brands such as Belstaff & Oliver Sweeney. How did you get into the world of fashion and what is your go to style?
I’m not sure that I would describe myself as ‘in the world of fashion’ and most of my fashion interests are about functionality. I have designed a waterproof espadrille with Oliver Sweeney that is the perfect thing to put on after you take off boots on expedition. It has holes for drainage and a thorn-proof sole and is lightweight so it can dry quickly. Likewise my Belstaff jacket is so hard wearing that it made it through the Darien Gap – a stretch of jungle and swampland in Central America that is notoriously challenging.
Do you have any advice for aspiring explorers?
Stick to your guns, because, as Mark Twain puts it: ‘Twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed about the things that you didn’t do than the things that you did do. So go out, explore, dream and discover.’
Follow Levison’s new adventures on the Channel 4 show ‘From Russia to Iran’ airing on the 20th August 2017.
Special thanks to Adventure Photographer Simon Buxton for the exclusive images.
Feeling adventurous? Take inspiration from Levison Wood’s explorer style: