Levison Wood: Life Through a Lens
Hair-raising treks, mountain disasters and being caught in crossfire; Chantal Borciani gets a glimpse of life with intrepid explorer Levison Wood ahead of his talk at Wimbledon BookFest
Levison Wood’s insatiable thirst for adventure started early; aged just 21 – when most of his peers were scooting off to Spain or Greece for a holiday – he decided to hitchhike to India, travelling through Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
After a career in the armed forces, he has made his name as an explorer, bestselling author and photographer and has continued to travel to some of the most remote and inhospitable places in the world.
During his latest expedition, he returned to the Middle East and travelled 5,000 miles through 13 countries. The four-month adventure is documented in his latest TV series, and his bestselling book, Arabia, A Journey Through the Heart of the Middle East.
“The idea with this book was to go to the region with perhaps the most stereotypes and show it from a different angle,” explains Levison.
“I hope this journey conveys a new perspective on the Middle East. We hear about terrorism and bombings, conflicts and war, and while inevitably there were moments of danger, part of it was incredibly positive. I went searching for stories of humanity, of hope, of positivity and I found those in bucket-loads as well as the more clichéd, negative side.”
“In Iraq I was travelling through the frontline of ISIS territory, which was fascinating in itself but then you come across these oases of peace and calm, like meeting the Marsh Arabs who have lived a life that has been virtually unchanged for 2,000 years. It was so interesting to meet such remote communities – I’m always so touched by the spirit of the people on the ground.”
Never one to shy away from danger, Levison’s Arabia expedition saw him meet individuals from Hezbollah in Lebanon and embed with Syrian forces in Syria. “It wasn’t to justify anyone’s political agenda but rather to see what life was like up close and try to uncover why people were doing what they were doing,” he explains.
Fairly early on in the trip, Levison was caught under ambush in Iraq. “We were embedded with the Iraqi militia who were fighting ISIS when the gunfire broke out. When you actually start getting shot at by ISIS it’s a combination of trepidation but also a dawning that this is history in the making. Even war reporters and journalists rarely get that sort of access because they’re usually a couple miles away from the frontline. So to be right in amongst it was something quite remarkable.”
Surprisingly, this experience is not Levison’s most terrifying anecdote; that accolade is reserved for a “road traffic accident”. Inevitably, Levison’s driving incident is no prang on the M25…
“I was on my Himalayas journey [a previous expedition televised on Channel 4] and my car went off the edge of a cliff. The brakes failed at night and my car went down a 150-metre cliff and rolled about ten times. I was convinced I was going to die and was very lucky to survive with just a few broken bones,” Levison recalls.
The dangers of his line of work were brought into even sharper focus during Levison’s mammoth 4,000-mile, nine-month walk of the Nile, which was filmed for another Channel 4 documentary. During the trip, journalist Matt Power who joined Levison to cover part of the trip for a magazine, tragically died of heat stroke on the trek.
Understandably, the experience left an indelible mark on Levison. “It really brings it home to you that these are not just jollies. I don’t take anything for granted. You have to remember that every day could be your last. I really try to appreciate the good things in life and live in the moment – that’s something that’s stayed with me for all my travels since then.”
Home to Hampton Court
When we chat in August, Levison has already clocked up 19 countries this year and admits he is rarely at home for more than a couple of weeks at a time. “I don’t find it hard to acclimatise anymore because I’ve gotten used to living a life of contrasts. One minute I’ll be in a tent up a mountain and the next I’ll be at some posh dinner party in south west London.”
Having previously rented in Fulham, home is now near Hampton Court. “I live just next to Bushy Park, which is lovely and it’s right next to Hampton Court Palace so it’s beautiful for a summer’s walk. The route from Petersham Nurseries along the meadow to Richmond is one of my favourite Sunday walks.”
Following his talk at Wimbledon BookFest, Levison heads to the Congo with UNICEF and has more trips slated for 2019. Yet whether trekking through rainforest, camping amid the desert or embedding in war-torn countries, the explorer admits it’s the little things he misses from home.
“It’s not the luxuries I miss, it’s probably just a good cup of tea or a nice pint.”
Levison Wood will be speaking at Wimbledon BookFest on 5 October. wimbledonbookfest.org