Adventurer Levison Wood speaks to Msafiri about his epic journey walking the length of the river Nile, and reveals some of the challenges and dangers he encountered along the way
From the mountains and rainforests of Rwanda to the murky swamps of South Sudan and the arid beauty of the Sahara desert, British explorer Levison Wood has experienced every part of the African landscape. Last year the intrepid 32-year-old set out on an epic journey to walk the length of the river Nile in an adventure that took nine months and spanned 3750 miles across six countries. Along the way he ate rat stew, was robbed at gunpoint, evacuated out of a war zone and, tragically, witnessed the death of a colleague.
Wood began his incredible adventure in December 2013 in the lush, misty rainforests of Rwanda where the source of the Nile is found. After trekking through some of the most remote and lawless regions of Tanzania he made his way past the shores of tropical Lake Victoria in Uganda before heading on to wild, war-torn South Sudan and then the vast deserts of North Sudan. He completed his journey in September 2014 on the golden shores of the Mediterranean in Egypt.
Wood was accompanied on his trip by his guide Boston, an ex-soldier from the Congo. He was also followed, for part of the trip, by a film crew who were making a documentary about him. The documentary aired in the UK in January. Unable to carry food with them, Wood and Boston survived by fishing, living off the land and buying food from locals along the way. By making the journey on foot, Wood gained numerous opportunities to meet the local people and gain an insight into their lives and culture.
“I remember being in Sudan,” he says, “and the Sudanese people are probably the most friendly and hospitable I’ve ever met anywhere in the world. It says a lot about a country that when you walk along and everyone runs out of the house offering you food and water and you are inundated by the hospitality.”
Some of the locals Wood met on his travels were inspired to join him, with one particular man accompanying him for 46 days to help look after his camels. Wood says: “I remember asking him ‘why on earth did you do that?’ At any stage he could have left and gone home to his family and grand-children. This guy claimed to be 150 and he wasn’t, he was only about 70, but the fact is that he said to me, ‘Look, it’s just a great adventure’. And it goes to show that, actually, adventure is universal and goes across the cultures. It doesn’t matter how old you are; you can still have a great adventure.”
The nine-month expedition was certainly filled with adventures – many of which were truly hair-raising. Wood narrowly escaped being eaten by crocodiles, had to cut off part of his toe after it became infected by a sand fly bite and came face to face with a 20ft python. Whilst in Tanzania, things took a sinister turn as the adventurer and his guide were robbed of their equipment by a gang at gunpoint. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Wood found himself in the middle of a gun battle in South Sudan. Civil war had just broken out and local militia had overtaken a UN base, killing 60 people. Wood was arrested and brought before an army commander who threatened to kill him if he continued into the rebel side. As a result, he was evacuated to the capital and flown to North Sudan. This meant missing out on 400 miles of the journey, but Wood realised that it was the most prudent option even though he was unable to claim the title of being the first man to walk the entire length of the Nile.
As with any epic journey, there were amazing highs and crashing lows. Throughout the expedition Wood experienced every aspect of Africa’s diverse and beautiful landscape, but he cites Murchison Falls national park in Uganda as the most stunning place he saw. Here he and Boston trekked through the vast savannah and thick riverine forests catching glimpses of elephant, giraffe and other wildlife at close range. “It’s filled with wildlife and an amazing place to go and visit,” he says.
The lowest point
The lowest point of the trip also came in Uganda when American journalist Matt Power, who had joined Wood for part of the trip, collapsed and subsequently died of suspected heatstroke during a tough trek through the remote plains of the Ajai Wildlife Reserve. Wood and his companions had been trekking for hours in intense 48°C heat and were completely cut off from civilisation – a rescue helicopter would have taken four hours to reach the stricken Power. Although Wood had only known his colleague for a few days, his death still left him reeling with shock.
“It was an enormous loss and a huge tragedy, what happened with Matt,” he says. “It was a difficult decision whether to decide to continue the expedition and it raises into question the ethics of the expedition and whether it was right to carry on. But we stayed put for a few days and thought about it and made the decision that if we give up now then the whole thing would be a waste. For the sake of Matt’s memory we had to carry on and it gave us even more resolve to do so.”
Wood is certainly no stranger to challenging environments. As a journalist and photographer, he spent ten years covering conflicts, events and stories from around the world. His work has taken him across the globe, from the streets of Baghdad to the mountains, deserts and jungles of Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan. Wood also spent a number of years as an Officer in the British Parachute Regiment, where he served in Afghanistan fighting against Taliban insurgents in Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul in 2008.
Wood’s passion for travel has taken him to over 80 countries in his lifetime, but when he is not travelling he’s based in London. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society as well as the Explorers Club. He is also a director and co-founder of the exploration company Secret Compass which has led pioneering expeditions into places such as Madagascar, Iraq and Burundi.
His passion for exotic travel dates back to his childhood when, at the age of ten, he met the conservationist and wildlife artist David Shepherd at a book signing.
“I thought what an incredibly charmed life this guy has to be able to go out to Africa and paint elephants,” says Wood, “and as a ten-year-old I was very impressed and thought I’d love to do something like that with my own life. I realised of course that I couldn’t paint so I thought there must be other ways of doing it. And so I made a decision at a very young age that I wanted to explore parts of the world that people don’t know too much about.”
Wood’s first major travel experience, and indeed his first introduction to Africa, was a trip around South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia at the age of 18. “I just fell in love with the continent,” he says, “and over the years I kept going back. I went back with the army a couple of times and did lots of training missions in Africa. Then, about five years ago, I drove the length of Africa following the course of the Nile and thought what an incredible way to do it. But the problem with driving is, of course, you’re going so quickly you miss a lot. So I thought it’d be a great idea to try and walk the length of the world’s longest river and actually meet the people who live alongside it.”
It’s Wood’s obvious determination and tenacity that led him to achieve his ambition, but he admits, with hindsight, that he would have taken his time a bit more if he had the chance to do it all again. The physical and mental stress of walking 15 to 20 miles each day – and an estimated total of seven million steps – left Wood exhausted. He admits that he should have completed the journey in 12 months rather than nine in order to enjoy it a little more.
“It’s a difficult one,” he says, “because you want to keep the momentum going and cover the distance and, on the other hand, you want to have conversations and meet people, so there’s always going to be that conflict.”
Wood’s aim was to show people the reality of life in Africa through his documentary and subsequent book. “There’s a lot more to Africa than Bob Geldof and a bowl,” he says. “It’s all you hear in the news. Not everyone is starving, not everyone is impoverished. I mean that’s the case in some places, but not everywhere in Africa is in the middle of a civil war. Actually the day-to-day lives of African people is what I wanted to show to the world and I think hopefully it comes across that it isn’t just an expedition to me, it’s the encounters and the humanity met along the way.”
Wood was drawn to the Nile through a fascination with rivers and water. During his time in the army he led the parachute regiment’s kayak team and on previous trips to Africa he kayaked along the rapids in Jinja, the Ugandan source of the Nile, and he was also part of a white water rafting expedition in South Sudan.
“Rivers are lifelines to people, to communities, and they bring people together,” he says. “The Nile is the longest river in north Africa so it draws people together. It’s where civilisation was born, so it’s importance can’t be overestimated really; the Nile is the lifeblood of North Africa.” He adds that while the Nile is life-giving to some, it can also be dangerous.
“You’ve got to be very careful,” he warns. “There were tributaries that you had to swim across at times – I didn’t spend too much time swimming in there because of the crocodiles and it’s something you try and avoid to be honest. I saw locals battling with the currents. There are lots who do swim in it because it’s the only place to wash and get water from.”
He reflects that the experience has left him with a sense of gratitude for all the good things in his life. “Across the Sahara desert you’re running out of water and you see death at first hand,” he says, “and you come out of that with a more philosophical view on life, more of a fatalistic view as well, that you just have to accept things for what they are. It’s made me a lot more tolerant, perhaps.”
Wood is keen to foster the spirit of travel through his documentaries and his work with Secret Compass, “It’s a huge privilege to be able to travel,” he says, “and it’s very rewarding to show people places that they wouldn’t normally see or go to…There’s always new adventures to be had and places to be seen in the world of exploration and I think people will always be able to go and travel and see the world with their own eyes.”
So what’s next? It must be tough finding an experience to beat walking the length of the Nile. “I’m not sure I want to walk for another year across a continent,” says Wood, “but I’ve definitely got some more adventures planned, so we’ll see.”