He was the first to walk the length of the Nile, nearly died in the Himalayas, has trekked the Americas and journeyed from Russia to Iran, tackling hostile environments, such as jungles, deserts and war zones, along the way.
Described by Sir Ranulph Fiennes as “a great adventurer and wonderful storyteller”, and to have “breathed new life into adventure travel” by Michael Palin, ambitious adventurer Levison Wood was born to explore. “Sir Ranulph Fiennes is one of my own inspirations, and I have been fortunate enough to speak alongside him on a number of occasions,” he tells me. “It’s not often that you get to work with one of your heroes, so that feels pretty special. What can I say… I’ve learnt from the best!”
Making childhood dreams come true
Levison caught the travel and adventure bug as a young boy. “I grew up reading tales of great explorers past, from Lawrence of Arabia and Alexander the Great, and Captain Scott and Christopher Columbus, to John Hanning Speke, Ernest Shackleton and Wilfred Thesiger, to name just a few. Their stories, combined with the Peak District and my family’s love of foreign exploration and fortunate ability to travel to interesting places like Thailand, Tunisia and Morocco, instilled in me a sense of adventure and generated my desire to travel.”
He grew up in Forsbrook, Stokeon- Trent, Staffordshire, where the wild hills of the alluring Peak District hugely influenced that interest, leading to his adventurous career path. “I was so lucky to be brought up with it on my back doorstep. It was my playground. Mum and dad would take me and my brother out into the wilderness most weekends, rain or shine, and let us discover, lead the way, and explore all the nooks and crannies of the National Park.”
The fifth in a long line of Levison Woods, both his father and grandfather helped to shape his future as an explorer, travel writer and soldier. A former member of the Territorial Army and a geology teacher, his father instilled in him a passion for the great outdoors, camping in the middle of nowhere and passing on all the basics of surviving outdoors. His grandfather, meanwhile, enchanted him through his stories about his time as a soldier in Burma, marching through thick, jungle-clad mountains alongside the Gurkhas , attracting Levison to a career in the army. An army officer advised him to firstly get fit, run a mile and a half in nine minutes, learn military history and to read a map and compass, join the TA, read the news, take a gap year and, above all, to travel. Following these tips to the letter, working on his A-levels at school by day, by night Levison would study contours and ridgelines, do press-ups and swot up on history, alongside keeping up-to-date with international affairs and political scandal and, of course, he travelled.
Going solo – backpacking tales
Levison’s thirst for his first great adventures saw him backpack around the world for six months before university. At 18, he journeyed alone around South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia, falling in love with the continent and cementing his love of travel and exploration, and also took in Southeast Asia, India and Nepal, where his exciting escapades were certainly extraordinary and memorable. Not only did he spend two weeks hiding in the Nepalese mountains when the Nepali royal family was massacred in Kathmandu and the country went into lockdown with people being killed in the streets, but he had his passport stolen and, after a gruelling 53-hour bus journey to Delhi, became so violently ill in India that he was forced to fly home.
Despite its dangers and unpredictability, he found hitchhiking among the best ways to meet people. Always interesting, he says travel by its very nature is a fascinating education. “I enjoy travelling solo because I think it makes it easier to meet people – locals are much more likely to pick you up and take you in when you’re on your own. That said, I’ve also enjoyed travelling with some mates and guides over the past five years. The people you travel with can really make or break your overall experience, so you need to be sure of your company before you set off!”
Levison read modern history at Nottingham University, with his dissertation thesis on travel writing. Continuing to travel through university in his insatiable search of adventure, he’d roam the wilds of the Scottish highlands and trek across the plains of eastern Europe, once hitchhiking home from Cairo via Jerusalem and Baghdad in the middle of the Iraq War!
Romantic notions of life on the mysterious Silk Road took hold and, spurred on by his fascination of the early explorers, after graduating, with an honours degree in History in the bag, just a few hundred quid in his pocket and new rucksack on his back, he chose to travel rather than join the army straight away, following in the footsteps of notable travellers along this impressive overland route through Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Walking and hitchhiking his way by whatever means available sometimes meant by donkey or horse and cart. Five months later, he arrived in Goa, having enjoyed one of the highlights of his early backpacking adventures and the initiation into the world of serious travel. “The Silk Road is an incredible region of the world,” he says. “I’d recommend anyone wanting to do a road trip to go there.”
Army life and royal connections
On joining the British Army, Levison’s stint at Sandhurst saw him train alongside the Duke of Sussex. “We were at Sandhurst together and have remained friends since. Prince Harry’s charity, The Endeavour Fund, for which I am an ambassador, is very close to my heart. It enables wounded servicemen and women to go out and do adventures and expeditions after injury to support their rehabilitation, and I’m very keen to support it year on year. I think it achieves great things!” As an officer in the elite Parachute Regiment, exercises took him worldwide, from Belize and Malawi, “although most of the time we trained in Wales”. His time in the army saw him serve in Afghanistan in 2008, fighting Taliban insurgents. Having being promoted to Captain, while leading paratroopers on a climb of Mount Meera he experienced a moving return to Nepal, where he was reunited with his old friend and guide from his backpacking days there in his late teens. Levison’s five years of service paved the way for his current career, providing the perfect springboard. When it comes to credibility, experience is, of course, everything, and in 2010, Levison left the army, having acquired the skillset and mindset to lead others on expeditions in some of the wildest parts of the world, marking the start of his career as a ‘professional explorer’.
Alongside taking up a career in journalism, he co-founded the adventure travel company Secret Compass, an independent expeditionary enterprise which conducts pioneering and exploratory expeditions to unique and remote areas worldwide on behalf of private clients, television production companies and major networks, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Discovery Channel and National Geographic. Levison led pioneering journeys into undiscovered regions, including the first-ever successful crossing of Madagascar on foot, mountain climbing in Iraq, and a horse riding expedition retracing the steps of the explorers of the Great Game – attempts by the Russian and British Empires to gain influence in central Asia and along the Indian border through subterfuge, espionage and diplomatic deals with local chiefs.
Sensational smallscreen series, bestselling books amd poignant photography
Having made a bit of name for himself through his work for the company, he was approached by a director to make a television programme. The rest, as they say, is history.
On his mission to challenge myths and popular misconceptions and contest stereotypes, the inspirational paratrooperturned- photographer/explorer/ writer/broadcaster now educates and inspires a new generation of adventurers to visit misrepresented and off-thebeaten- track places. By completely immersing himself in unfamiliar cultures, meeting indigenous and influential people, including interviewing the Dalai Lama, along the way, through his honest and authentic accounts of life on the road, Levison hopes to change preconceptions with tales of hope and hospitality, shining a new light on countries and peoples misrepresented in the media.
Enjoying the freedom to explore the world, what does this unrivalled universal globetrotter love most about travelling and his nomadic lifestyle? “The people I meet along the way. That’s why I travel. Even in the most desolate places, where people have near to nothing, I’m greeted with overwhelming hospitality, and their happiness and hope restores my faith in humanity. I try my best to narrate this to my readers in my books.”
He says his journeys are always about the people he encounters, and their kindness and generosity, with his latest series, ‘ARABIA with Levison Wood’, which premieres at the end of June on the Discovery Channel, seeing him meet people throughout the Middle East who gave him hope about the misunderstood region of the world, and discovering what it means to be a modern-day Arab.
Hair-raising moments – occupational hazards
Travelling through the Middle East proved his most arduous challenge, and a moving experience. “Many of the countries I passed through on my Arabian journey were hairraising,” he reveals. “Crossing difficult borders in times of conflict, particularly in places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, not to mention the practical difficulties of travelling across the ‘Empty Quarter’ desert, one of the harshest environments in the world. Unable to get to Saudi Arabia through Yemen, I had to take a dhow around the Horn of Africa, through some of the world’s most heavily-pirateinfested waters.”
He says his most frightening experience to date was the horrendous car accident on a mountain pass in Nepal in 2015, where the taxi he was travelling in went hurtling off a cliff after the brakes failed, falling 450 feet and plummeting into a jungle ravine and rolling ten times. “I recently visited the site of the accident and saw the rusty remains of the car. That was a really lucky escape.”
Levison the ambassador
With his extensive experience in travel and exploration, Levison was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 2011, and is also an elected Fellow of the Explorers Club and a visiting Fellow at CASS Business School. “My role means I occasionally give talks there about my own adventures, and I like to support others in my field there,” he explains. He’s a Patron of the AMECA Trust, too, and has conducted scientific research in Central Africa for the Natural History Museum..
He’s also an ambassador for various charities, including ABF (Army Benevolent Fund), Walking with the Wounded, Ulysses Trust and Tusk Trust. “My role is to increase awareness of the hard work they are doing. I often support them in raising money by giving talks and, where I can, I try to visit their work myself. I recently went to Nepal with The Gurkha Welfare Trust to witness first-hand the projects they are carrying out in rural Nepal to support Gurkha veterans and their dependents. It was really astonishing, and something I am very proud to be a part of.”
He’s also involved with UNICEF’s collaboration with the International Cricket Council’s ‘Cricket for Good’ programme. “UNICEF is one of the charities I work closely with and, this year, I have been asked to work on their new campaign #OD4C, (One Day for Children), with proceeds from the match between England and India on 30th June going towards UNICEF’s work in cricket-playing nations to help children learn to play and be healthy. I will be at the game at Edgbaston at the end of June, helping to raise as much money as possible!”
Incredible Journeys for kids
In his bid to inspire youngsters to find their inner adventurer, the modern-day explorer has made his first foray into children’s publishing, having just launched his first children’s book. ‘Incredible Journeys: Discovery, Adventure, Danger, Endurance’, published by Wren & Rook. Filled with fantastic tales of the greatest adventurers, plus tips for aspiring explorers, the beautifully-illustrated title takes kids’ imaginations on the grand voyages of famous adventurers to undiscovered lands. “I’m really proud of this and, hopefully, it will inspire the next generation of explorers,” he says.
Recounting the dramatic tales of history’s most daring pioneers, with illustrator Sam Brewster’s stunning artwork and vibrant maps showing the routes and bringing various cultures to life, the colourful book explores some of the landmark expeditions throughout history that have inspired Levison’s own travels, from the Silk Road to Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole.
2019 and beyond…
Not one to sit still, with your average nine-to-five lifestyle not for Lev, this true traveller finds himself on the road “more often than not!” and this roving risk-taker says 2019 marks the first year in six years that he hasn’t been on a long walking expedition. “For those, I’d be away for at least six, and up to nine months at a time. Now, I’m doing shorter projects, but more of them, and I’m doing more work with the army, so I’m still away a lot of the time. I’ve been to eight countries already this year – Sri Lanka, Bali, Nepal, Iceland, South Africa, Mexico, Croatia and France, where I visited Normandy for the D-Day 75th Anniversary Events and met some of the Para veterans.” With his eternally-itchy feet finding him always on-the-go, what else is on the agenda? “I’m also filming something exciting in Africa this summer. I can’t say much more about that at this point, but it will be on TV in early 2020, and there may well be an accompanying book!”
‘ARABIA with Levison Wood’ airs at 9pm on Discovery Channel UK from Thursday 27th June and continues throughout July. The paperback version of his book, ‘Arabia: A Journey Through The Heart of the Middle East’, published by Hodder & Stoughton is also out this June: www.hodder.co.uk
His children’s book, ‘Incredible Journeys’, is out now, published by Hachette’s Children’s Group imprint, Wren & Rook: www. hachettechildrens.co.uk
Levison’s Belstaff Fieldmaster jacket is available in-store and on the Belstaff website: www.belstaff.co.uk/Levison-wood-jacket.html Levison’s Explorer’s Espadrilles are available from Oliver Sweeney: www.oliversweeney.com/levison-wood
Follow Levison’s news and progress on his expeditions in real time on Twitter: @Levisonwood For further information, visit: www.levisonwood.com