I grew up on the edge of Peak District in Staffordshire which had a lot to do with it, you know, going out camping as a kid and stuff. But it was a fairly conventional upbringing for the most part. I went off on a gap year at the age of eighteen and caught the travel bug.
Hi Lev. Where does your sense of adventure come from?
Obviously, I joined the Army which helped. And the transition from going from the army to becoming a travel photographer led to a very lucky break in television. But I suppose I’ve always travelled and always loved travelling.
When I was 22, having just graduated, I hitchhiked from England to India. That was an incredible journey. I went to about 25 countries including places like Afghanistan and Iran.
When was your first adventure?
I learnt a lot of lessons, very valuable ones. I was probably a bit more reckless then, in my youth, took a lot more risks, but I think I had to go through that to do what I’m doing now.
Your most recent travels involved walking 1700 miles along the length of Central America. How do you decide what quest to take on and why Central America for your most recent series and book?
For very selfish reasons, I go to places where I want to go and explore myself. And I’m a bit of a history buff so it tends to be places where I’ve always had an interest in them from a historical view.
The Central America journey came about from my fascination with the ancient Mayan civilisation. But there are also a lot of quirky stories – people don’t tend to associate Central America with Britain; we think of Spain or North America. But not many people know that Scotland tried to set up a colony in Panama [the Darien scheme in the 1690s]. It was a massive disaster, and it was ultimately that failed expedition that led Scotland to join the UK. It’s things like that that I find fascinating and try to weave into my stories.
How long does it take to plan these epic expeditions?
They take a lot of planning, and you have to get it right, especially when you’re going to remote areas of places with a lot of political expeditions. It’s got easier, after having organised dozens off big expeditions. The Nile was probably the biggest in terms of trying to get funding and organisation. But because I’ve got the same team now who have been working on these for the last five or six years, we’re pretty slick at putting these trips together. We’re not reinventing the wheel every time we head off.
Where have you found the warmest hospitality?
I think the two friendliest places I’ve been have been the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq and Sudan. Which is surprising because we associate those places with war or poverty. It always seems to be the places where people have the least that you find the warmest welcome.
You encounter beauty but also danger out in the wild. When have you most feared for your life?
Probably for the ten seconds before my car went flying off a cliff in the Himalayas (laughs.) I was in a taxi and the brakes failed as we were going up a mountain pass and we literally flew off a 450ft cliff.
I’m only back a couple of weeks before planning the next trip, really. But it tends to be about four or five months between. I enjoy being back, but at the end of the day this is my job now so I don’t really have the luxury of deciding to stay home.
How soon does the travel itch kick in when you’ve been home for some time?
It is in some respect. But the problem with the internet and social media is that there’s so much rubbish that gets spouted you don’t know what to believe. If you listen to the media you’d never go out in the world because it’s supposed to be this terrifying and dangerous place. The truth is, it ain’t that bad. You have to get out there and see for yourself. I’ve been on holiday in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are some dangerous places but they’re mostly regions. It doesn’t mean the whole country is at war.
It’s too easy to feel like the world has become a much smaller place these days thanks largely to the internet and globalisation...
Yeah, I’ve seen massive deforestation in Madagascar which was very shocking to see. Just flying over the country, you see whole swathes of the country just completely destroyed. I’ve seen hillsides in Uganda on fire. Glaciers in Pakistan which have retreated half a mile in just the last decade.
We know climate change is already taking its toll on the world’s natural habitats, but what examples have you encountered out there while travelling?
But I think the root cause of global warming is overpopulation, there’s just too many people in the world. And the only solution to that is education. If people in more developing areas realise that, you know, you don’t need ten children like you used to to work the fields because of technology. I am anxious, of course, we’re about to reach 10billion people, but hopefully by that point education will have helped people realise that there aren’t unlimited recourses out there.
Finally, what advice would you give anyone hungry to set off on the kind of expeditions that you go on?
I would say just go for it. Don’t be scared, don’t find reasons not to go– there’s plenty of reasons not to do these things. The hardest bit is just making the decision to do it in the first place. These trips don’t have to break the bank, you don’t have to go away for six months, I think you can have an adventure in a much shorter time and do it on the cheap.
An Evening with Levison Wood takes place at G Live, Guildford on Wednesday 1st March, 7.30pm.