Explorer Levison Wood, star of Channel 4’s Walking the Himalayas, may have walked the length of the Nile, but he loves a stroll along Putney’s river path too
Words: Vicky Smith
When I ask Levison Wood how he prepared for his recent trek over the Himalayas, his response is rather low key: ‘Well, ultimately, it’s just a really long walk…’ While not incorrect, this summary of a journey that saw the 33-year-old ex-army officer turned explorer, journalist and photographer walk 1,700 miles through five countries over a period of four months, suggests that Wood’s idea of a ‘really long walk’ differs from that of most.
But this isn’t the south west Londoner’s first foray into epic adventuring – last year, he undertook the first ever expedition to walk the length of the Nile, a year-long journey that was shown on Channel 4 and subsequently turned into a best-selling book. Not satisfied with traversing vast swathes of Africa on foot, it didn’t take him long to get itchy feet once more, and Walking the Himalayas – another Channel 4 series and accompanying book of the same name – is the result of Wood’s latest trek into the (relative) unknown.
But what makes a man decide to take a stroll through some of the most unstable places on earth, accompanied for the most part by just a camera, a guide and a yak – is he a glutton for punishment, or just hungry for adventure? As it turns out, Wood’s motivation stems from a simple desire to portray parts of the world that many just don’t get to see: ‘After I made it back alive and in one piece from last year’s expedition to the Nile,’ he says, ‘I thought that I wanted to do something else, and something that was equally as challenging. I wanted to showcase to the world places that they don’t necessarily always see the best of.’
And the series does just that – from the very start in Afghanistan to the end in Bhutan, viewers are provided with a unique insight into places they may not know much about, let alone consider visiting: ‘I think that’s what I always try and do,’ he says. ‘Show people the other side of places that are in the media for the wrong reasons. The Himalayas is a great region that many have heard of but generally just think of snowy mountains, Everest and Nepal, when actually you’ve got incredibly wild parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bhutan that are rarely visited and you don’t hear much about.’
Having been to the Himalayas before, Wood knew it was a part of world he wanted to shout about. And his previous experiences in the region enabled planning to come together quicker than for the Africa trek: ‘The Nile took me two years to plan, but because I’ve been to the Himalayas several times, I already had the contacts in place, and it took about five months to put together.’
I try to show people the other side of places that are in the media for the wrong reason
Aside from planning the route, arranging guides and preparing physically – where again, he adopts a low-key approach: ‘There’s not any specific training apart from keeping a base level of fitness. I try and walk wherever I can instead of taking the tube, and occasionally go for the odd run’ – there’s the all-important question of what to pack when undertaking a journey of nearly 2,000 miles on foot? ‘I always take a compass in case I get lost,’ he begins, ‘and an iPhone because it’s useful to have the maps. But I try and travel light.’ And on his feet? ‘Just a good, sturdy pair of mountain or desert boots. If it ain’t broke…’
During his time with the Afghan nomads exploring Afghanistan’s breathtaking Wakhan Corridor, Levison was presented with some regional delicacies – goat’s eyes and brain. ‘The eye was alright actually,’ he says cheerily. ‘A bit like jelly. But the brain was horrible. Very creamy, a bit like pâté or something…’
The list of challenges Wood faced during filming was long, from altitude sickness to crossing crocodile-infested waters and navigating the line of control between Pakistani and Indian Kashmir. There’s also the nail-biting moment when – after becoming separated from his team – he has to shelter for a night in an old shepherd’s hut in a gorge teaming with bears and wolves.
Closer to home, Levison has just moved to Putney from across the river in Fulham, and it’s an area he’s clearly fond of: ‘I’ve been living in south west London since leaving the army,’ he says. ‘I like it – my mates live here, there’s a good community atmosphere and it’s far enough out to not be too hectic, but close enough to be central.’
In fact, he’s devoted an entire chapter of his new book to his thoughts on this part of the world, and speaks fondly of the river path, Bishop’s Park and Fulham Palace, but it’s unlikely he’ll be sticking around for too long: ‘I’ll be in London for a few months, then I’ll be looking to do something towards the summer. I’m not allowed to reveal where just yet though…’
Walking the Himalayas by Levison Wood is out now (Hardback, £20, Hodder and Stoughton)