Talking to...Levison Wood

Levison Wood is a British explorer, writer and photographer who has just completed an 1800 mile trek from Mexico to Colombia. Mark Bibby-Jackson asks him...why...?

Levison Wood taking a dip credit: Channel 4/Simon Buxton

When you started travelling, I believe it was when you were 22 and you went hitching down to India from UK?

I probably started at 18 and did the usual backpacking around the world trips to Southern Africa, India and then when I was 21 - mid-university - I hitchhiked around the Middle East and went to Iraq and various places like that and when I was 22, I had just graduated, I hitchhiked from the UK to India via Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and all across the silk route.

That must have been a massive adventure for you?

It certainly was at that age. Being on my own and having to look after myself in places that were potentially quite dodgy, was quite an adventure and I think at that age you don’t worry too much about the risks and just get on with it don’t you.

So, are you more worried about the risks now when you are going on your walks?

Well you are more aware of what can go wrong when you get older, I certainly plan a lot more these days than I used to.

If you were giving advice to yourself when you were starting off on your hitchhiking, what advice - with your wise head on - would you give to yourself as a young kid?

I would probably say don’t change a thing carry on and do it. I was lucky, I got into a few tricky scrapes but I think if I hadn’t of taken those risks when I was younger then I wouldn’t be doing what I do now.

Name

credit: Channel 4/Simon Buxton

Obviously at the moment Walking the America’s is being screened on Channel 4, just looking at your route, I went there 20 years ago myself and it’s a fantastic part of the world. Compared to the other trips like the Nile or the Himalayas, which one do you think has been the hardest for you, the most difficult both physically and mentally?

Probably the Nile was the hardest. Just because it was the biggest thing I had ever attempted and it was a long time, it was 9 months so mentally that was exhausting being away for that time, a lot of it on my own. The Himalayas was very tough going through the mountains and I think this time around with The Americas, the biggest challenges really was physically through the jungle. Well {it is} some of the hardest jungle in the world but also the bureaucracy of eight different countries - that was one of the tougher things, the planning and gaining permission to go through these places especially the gang land areas of Honduras and the Darien gap in Panama and Columbia, so each journey had its own unique challenges.

You mentioned about the gang lands, what were the scariest things you came across?

I think people, at least with animals they are usually quite predictable whereas people, especially when they have had a few drinks or might be off their heads on drugs are not so predictable. You just have to keep a calm head about you. Going through places like Honduras, where you are dealing with gangsters where people are driven by money and greed and business it’s difficult, it’s tricky as they don’t really care about blokes from a different part of the world coming and walking through their area. All they are interested in is making sure nobody interferes with their drugs trade. But you have to respect that and make sure that you are as polite and respectful as you can be.

Carrying on from there do you get bits that you can’t actually put into the programmes as obviously, you are dealing with people illegally trading narcotics. Are there things that have really been quite scary that you haven’t been able to put into the programme?

Well the programme is quite accurate in what we show is what happens. Obviously, there are loads of stories that we just couldn’t fit into the programme as there’s only so much you can get into 4 hours of tv. A lot of stuff goes on, that just doesn’t make it into the programme which is the reason why I write the book as that is a good opportunity to expand on some of those stories a bit more and go into a bit more depth.

So far, we have been focused on the bad bits, what have been the really really good bits, the real highs which you get as you are travelling through?

I’d say probably Nicaragua was my favourite country on this particular journey. You meet some amazing people wherever you go but sometimes some people are just more hospitable and we certainly had that in Nicaragua. It was really, really friendly and welcoming. I think it’s the people that you meet on the way which make it worthwhile. It’s the guides that I have. I think having Alberto who was my local guide on this journey - he came all the way which I’ve not done before on previous journeys, our guide was an exception, but this guy Alberto came with me for 4 months so we built up a really good friendship and it's people like that that make the journey worthwhile.

Name

Levison and Alberto credit: Channel 4/Simon Buxton

So really, it’s not the places you go to, it’s the people you encounter as you go along, would you agree with that?

Absolutely. You can go to some real hell holes and as long as you’re with a good bunch of guys then you can have a lot of fun. Likewise, you can go to some really nice places and if you’re with someone you don’t like then it ruins it.

Nicaragua was your favourite place on this journey - what was your least favourite experience or place you went to on this journey?

I’d probably say in terms of the challenges and the toughest terrain it was probably Panama - going through Darien Gap, really really hard jungle with some really close shaves with snakes and having to wade through rivers for days on end. But you know that’s all part of the fun isn’t it.

I’ve got a phobia of snakes myself and I’d hate to encounter one right in the middle of nowhere. Are there any animals that you have got a phobia about?

The only thing I’m terrified of is sharks which is why I tend to stay away from the water. But I probably need to go and overcome that fear and go diving with them.

Is that going to be your next trip then, are you going to veer away from walking and go swimming somewhere or get on a boat?

Maybe, I think I’m done with walking, the next journey will be doing something else but I’m not sure what yet. I need to give it some thought.

When do you think you will be up for your next trip?

I usually spend a bit of time in the UK and chill out for a bit but I have a big lecture tour going on around the UK so I’ve got to go and cram in 25 cities in the space of a month to do a talk which is pretty epic.

Is that harder?

Yeah, yeah that’s the hardest bit. But then after that come the end of the spring I’m sure I’ll be off again somewhere.

Is this a bit like soldiers coming back from the war when you are back in London, do you find yourself just getting bored and thinking I really just want to get back trekking and being on my next journey?

I never get bored, there’s always something to do. But sometimes it is quite frustrating to come away from being in some incredible places to being in a city which is very different and I always get itchy feet after a couple of months.

Name

credit: Channel 4/Simon Buxton

So what do you get up to when you are in London. How do you entertain yourself when you are over here?

To be honest I’m usually very busy, I’ve been writing a book since I got back and my deadline is actually today so I’ve been locked away in my study writing for the past month and then like I said, I’ve got this tour coming up next week so that will take up another couple of months of my life, so there’s no time for a rest unfortunately.

The lecture tour, is it going to be throughout February?

So the official lecture tour starts on the 20th February and that lasts until the end of March.

When will the book come out?

The book also comes out on 20th or 23rd February.

That’s a quick turnaround...

Yes, get it done today, printed next week and yeah so I’m happy.

Good luck for that.

Thanks, I’ll need it

People are going to regard you as a bit of a hero and a role model and people are going to follow you. Do you have a Shackleton type hero or somebody you look up to on the adventure travelling side?

Yes, I’ve got quite a few but I think the person that inspired me the most was Richard Burton who was a Victoria explorer and went all over the place. I like him as he was quite an academic and he was just interested in people and was curious about different cultures and that’s what he liked to share. For me it's the same content really. I like going to different cultures and showing that to the rest of the world.

Have you ever thought about bailing out, thinking I’ve had enough of this I just want to go back home?

And what - getting a real job?

Exactly, yeah.

It did occur to me once but then I realised it’s not for me.

So you said your next expedition you’re not going to be walking, have you got anything lined up?

Well it might involve a bit of walking but I’m not going to limit myself to walking this time I might diversify it a bit. I can’t say too much or I might get slapped on the wrist if I’m honest.

So you might be starting that after the lecture tour is over and the book has come out?

There’s no definitive timings yet but something will definitely be happening this year.

Do you know what continent it will be or anything like that?

I can’t possibly tell you I’m afraid (laughs)

OK, fair enough. I was trying to get something but fair enough. If you had any tips for anybody who is really interested in the adventure side of things and wanted to start off and wanted to emulate you, what tips would you give to people, it’s certainly not a job that you can just pop down to the job centre for, what advice would you give to youngsters thinking about this?

I think for me, I’m doing what I do now because I’ve spent the past 15 years working towards this and I only got this opportunity as I'd got lots of experience in the army. Obviously, the army isn’t for everybody but it’s certainly a very good platform to learn the right skills and experiences that you use in this line of work. Other than that, I just say to people get out there and travel, you know, just don’t worry about it too much, obviously, there’s always risks but if you spent the whole time worrying about what could happen then you would never do it so I just tell people to get out there and do it.

Name

credit: Channel 4/Simon Buxton

So how did you get the big break, how did you make the transfer from the army into tv?

When I left the army I had reached the point where I was happy that I had done what I wanted to do in my career in the regulars and then thought OK, I fancy a new change. I had always loved travelling, I had been travelling since I was 18 so I ended up basically trying to do it full-time. So, I’ve been doing photography, I was writing a bit for various magazines and was making a bit of money wherever I could selling the odd picture here and there. I also started guiding people and taking them on a journey to remote and dangerous places and one thing led to another and before I knew it I was working with Channel 4, Nat Geo and the Discovery Channel but always behind the scenes and then I was approached by a Director who said you go to some interesting places, why don’t we film what you are doing? So I got this great opportunity - one that I couldn’t pass up really.

Did you feel really nervous the first time you got in front on the camera?

Oh yeah, it was terrifying. The army teaches you a lot of things but it doesn’t prepare you for standing in front of a camera and talking to yourself.

Not for lecture tours I guess either?

No, definitely not (laughs)

OK, I have one last question and it’s just a simple one about your favourite place. So you said Nicaragua was your favourite place in Central America but if you were to go back to one place what would be the place that you would really want to go back to most?

What anywhere in the world?

Anywhere, or even outside the world?

I’d probably say South Africa. I keep going back there so that’s the place I will also return to.

Thinking about space travel, have you ever thought about leaving this earth and going exploring ever further afield?

I’d love to, if I can get onto Richard Branson’s rocket I’d jump at the chance.

Maybe you should have a little chat with him I’m sure that could work out...