Levison Wood is afraid of heights. And flying. So naturally, he opted to become a… paratrooper.
When it comes to facing your fears, Wood believes in diving straight at them headfirst, preferably at 150mph.
His lockdown hobby was not the same as yours or mine. His banana-bread tin remained in the cupboard, the garden shears stayed in the shed. Instead, he decided to take up paramotoring. (Paragliding with a giant propeller strapped to your back.) At least, he did, until he broke his leg doing it.
And so Levison Wood was finally stilled.
Wood had spent the last 20 years travelling the world – ‘explorer’ top of his CV.
The car rolled ten times, and that was it – I thought I was a goner
In 2014, he became the first man to walk the 3,750 miles of the River Nile. In 2015, he walked the length of the Himalayas from Afghanistan to Bhutan. In 2017, he trekked 1,800 miles from Mexico to Colombia, including traversing the notorious Darien Gap.
And he recently returned from his most ambitious challenge yet – a 5,000 mile expedition through the Arabian Peninsula from Iraq to Lebanon. (Puts my post-pub Sunday walk up Box Hill in context.)
But it took a broken leg and a global pandemic to finally keep him down – long enough for him to reflect, take stock and write a book about all he’s learnt along the way.
We caught up with him while he was still on UK soil. Because now his leg has healed and the world is opening back up, something tells us he won’t stay there for long…
Let’s start with your early years. Your father and grandfather – both soldiers in the British army – were clearly big influences on your life. Can you talk us through some formative moments…
There was one time when I went kayaking with my dad – I was probably six or seven years old – and he decided to make me do a cliff jump. It was probably only two metres high, but at that age I was absolutely bricking it. I was terrified. I remember standing on top of what I thought was a huge cliff, and being faced with this enormous challenge. We jumped together. My dad held my hand and we jumped off, and, of course, once I’d done it I was so excited I went straight back up and did it again.
It’s those moments where you push yourself – it’s a cliché to say, ‘coming out of your comfort zone’ – but it’s only then that you will develop, you grow. It was moments like that, which really inspired me to push the boundaries even further.
My grandfather was a soldier in the Second World War; he fought in the Far East, in Burma. I remember growing up on his stories of surviving in the jungle for six months at a time. He was also stationed in Hiroshima after they dropped the atom bomb in Japan. There were all these tales he told me about these strange and curious places, and for me growing up in a bungalow in Stoke-on-Trent it all sounded very exotic.
I decided from a very young age that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to travel and see the world beyond my immediate understanding, which not that many people get to do. I felt very lucky. I knew what I was going to do from the age of about ten, that was it; I’m going to go be an explorer. I made my life plan, and off I went.
So, you joined the military ending up in the famed Parachute Regiment. Which was the scariest moment in your Army career?
I was sent on a mission to rescue some soldiers who’d driven into a minefield. They were from my unit and their vehicle had been blown up; that’s all we knew. I took my team off, we had three vehicles. We drove up and then we saw that the vehicle had been completely blown up – and was upside down.
Thankfully, all the three guys inside had been thrown out of the vehicle; they were a bit dazed, but nothing was wrong with them, so they were very lucky. We got them into one of our vehicles, and slowly made our way out.
It just so happened that the vehicle they got into ended up being the lead vehicle for our exit. As we were driving out of the minefield, another bang goes off, and their vehicle got blown up – again! To everyone’s surprise, they’d all been blown clear for a second time – and were all absolutely fine.
The car rolled ten times, and that was it – I thought I was a goner
I was like, OK, this is where I’ve got to demonstrate some real leadership here, because they were around 20 metres away, and it would have been quite dangerous for the guy with the metal detector to come to me.
I had to get my bayonet out and crawl up to each of these guys, stabbing the ground ahead of me, to make sure there were no land mines, so that we could bring them in, back to my vehicle individually, before we then extracted out of the situation.
It’s times like that where you’ve got to really control the situation, because these guys have been blown up twice. Thankfully, nobody was injured – so very, very lucky.
Amazing. Yet perhaps more amazingly, you’ve come closer to death than that, right…?
Yes, I was going over a mountain pass in a taxi in Nepal, the brakes failed – and off we went. It was the middle of the night, and we bounced off the cliff face and 150 feet down into the canyon below. The car rolled ten times, and that was it – I thought I was a goner, but somehow survived.
We were rescued by the local villagers. I felt most sorry for my brother, who was in the car as well – he was visiting me on holiday for a week… poor guy.
One particular incident rafting down the Nile sounded fairly hairy, too…
That was terrifying. We were trying to promote tourism in South Sudan, which had just been announced as the world’s newest country. We got permission from the government to do this pioneering rafting trip, down one of the most unexplored stretches of the Nile through the jungle there. You literally barely see another human being going through the forests. It was very, very beautiful.
As we were coming into the capital, Juba, on the final day, we heard these gunshots ringing out over the hills. We saw that there were a bunch of men armed to the teeth running down the riverbank, shouting and firing over our heads.
We didn’t know what to make of this. They could have been bandits, so we paddled faster to try to escape. They got into their dugout canoes and paddled down after us. It was like a scene from Indiana Jones.
They finally caught us. They dragged us out of the boats, put us all up against the riverbank, guns to the back of the heads. I thought we were going to get executed. Turns out these were the local policemen, although they weren’t wearing any clothes at the time – and they accused us of being mercenaries from Uganda.
I felt a bit more confident that we weren’t going to get shot in the back of the head
Thankfully, one of the guys with us on the rafts was the head of the UN mission, and had a satellite phone on him, which I knew he could use to get a helicopter to come and rescue us. My job was to try and distract these guys for as long as possible while he attempted to make the emergency alert.
One thing I’d learnt from my expeditions was to always carry a packet of cigarettes for these exact moments – even though I don’t smoke – because it’s something to help you break the ice. This is the kind of stuff we were taught in the army; if you’re seen as a victim, your enemy, your captor, will have nothing but contempt for you. You have to empathise, you have to look them in the eye, and try and get some rapport going.
I had a packet of cigarettes in my top pocket, offered the guy that was holding a gun to my head a cigarette, and you could see the cogs turning.
Thankfully, his desire for a fag outweighed his desire to shoot me, and he accepted that cigarette. Just that little moment broke the ice and he had a little chuckle, and then everybody else wanted a cigarette, and before we knew it, we were… well, we weren’t quite out of the shit yet, but at least I felt a bit more confident that we weren’t going to get shot in the back of the head.
And the helicopter turned up…?
It did – full with UN peacekeeping troops. When they landed, the local policemen got a bit of a bollocking.
What’s the riskiest decision you’ve had to make during one of your treks?
It’s often the little things. It’s not the glamorous, sexy things of getting snapped by crocodiles or shot by bandits – although they do make for the best stories. It’s usually, ‘Oh, shall I get in that taxi, the driver’s had a couple of pints’. But you might not have a choice. You go to some countries and all the drivers have had a few. You travel in some countries and everyone’s pissed. So you don’t really have a choice. If you’re going to travel with somebody, you have to take those risks.
Travelling across the Sahara Desert, we had four camels, six jerrycans of water, and I had to take the risk of accepting that our two Bedouin guides knew where the next well was. They said there was a well in three days’ time, and we’d worked out the water would run out in three days. If it wasn’t a well there we were completely screwed.
We got that there, and there was no well there. The Bedouins were like, “Oh, my granddad said it was here in 1936”. I was like, “Jesus Christ”. Luckily, there was a well another ten miles away, but we completely ran out of water. There’s nothing worse than running out of water – with no water, when your mouth goes dry, the sensation of thirst is a pain and agony I simply can’t describe. Luckily, we found this shepherd boy who pointed out a well, a few miles across the desert, and we were all saved. Otherwise we’d have been nothing but sun-bleached bones in the desert by now.
Apart from a fear of running out of water and a fear of flying, is there anything else that you’re scared of?
Getting in cars as they’re going over mountain passes is definitely up there. But you know what, the fear of getting a real job is probably what motivates me the most!
Fair enough – that pushes you on. With that in mind, what’s next for you?
I had about three big trips planned and they’ve all been cancelled because of Covid. I’m hoping that one or two of those might get reinvigorated in the next 12 months or so.
But I’ve also just bought a plot of land out in Southern Colorado near to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. I’m building a retreat out there – a sort of adventure HQ, where people can do activities – almost like a sort of school of exploration, where people can go and learn new skills, do a bit of horse riding, go and learn to paramotor, all that sort of stuff. It’s all slowly happening, albeit virtually, but if I can get out there in August, that would be a great end to my summer.
Now, for people who are used to sitting on their arses for a living, Lockdown was tough enough. I can only imagine what a strain it was for you – someone who essentially travels for a living. How did you cope?
I mean the first couple of weeks were very strange. I felt very claustrophobic. I was leaning on some of my military contacts to find out what was actually going on. And so, I probably got the news a bit sooner than most; and it was a bit of a shock.
That said, it was also the first time, probably in 15 years for me, that I’d have the opportunity to stay still and not be on a plane every week. Once I’d got into a rhythm, I actually – I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I certainly tried to embrace it. Rather than feeling too negative about the whole process, I just tried to see some positives in it.
I did some hobbies that I hadn’t done in ages. I was trying to just explore my own backyard and places that I had not been to in 15 years. I quite got into that, but then, yes, I think by about Christmas I was very much done with it all. Like everybody, I had some pretty low points – especially as I managed to break my leg back in December, just before Christmas. Then my dog died as well.
For me, going away and exploring is what I do – it’s become part of my identity – so not being able to do that was particularly hard.
How did you break your leg?
Paramotoring. That was one of my hobbies. It’s like paragliding but with a big fan on your back, so it was my own fault.
Most people just cooked banana bread. That sounds very on-brand for you. Presumably, the idea to write your new book started during lockdown, too?
Well, actually, this was about three years ago, when I first thought about this idea of collecting together all the various things that I’d learnt along the way. Then when lockdown happened, it just gave me the opportunity to sit down and write it.
It was quite a cathartic experience – reflecting over 20 years of travelling. What are the most important things and lessons that you can learn from doing that? Not just mine, not just my own anecdotes, but the people that I met along the way. There’s everyone from the Dalai Lama to Buzz Aldrin in there, so it’s a real mixture of people that I’ve met, other explorers, leaders in business, sports, science, the whole spectrum.
It’s a bit of all of the wisdom that I’ve picked up along the way. People that inspired and motivated me, as well as my own stories, and actually a lot of things that I haven’t written about before, including my time in the military.
It’s a real mix; it doesn’t matter where you are, or what you’re doing in life, there’s hopefully something there for you.
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Levison Wood, The Art of Exploration: Lessons in Curiosity, Leadership & Getting Things Done is out now (Hodder & Stoughton Hardback, £20.) Wood is also doing a live book tour through the autumn. For tickets: ticketmaster.co.uk