Just desert: the 'unchanging' landscape of the Sahara
Just desert: the 'unchanging' landscape of the Sahara

Walking the Nile with Levison Wood: My life in travel

'A lot of kids travel in their gap year – I took it one step further and carried on'

Chloe Hamilton
Friday 16 January 2015 10:24

Levison Wood is an explorer who spent nine months last year walking along the River Nile.

The hardest bit of walking the Nile was just getting there.

After two years of preparation and planning, fundraising and the rest of it, by the time I got there it was such a relief to be on the way. I thought, "this is the easy bit". And it was; for the first two or three months everything is new and exciting – but six months later it's a bit of a slog. I started in Rwanda and finished at a place called Rashid, east of Alexandria in Egypt.

A lot of kids travel in their gap year – I just took it one step further and carried on.

In my gap year I spent time in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia; I think that's what hooked me on Africa. When I was at university I travelled a lot in the Middle East; before I joined the Army, I hitch-hiked from England to India. I  also went to Iraq in the second Gulf War.

I'm technically still in the Army.

I've done eight years in the reserves and five in the regulars. Obviously in the Army you learn a lot about survival, but a year before my Nile trip I went to Malawi to do a survival course with hunters and learn about predator behaviour.

Hippos are probably the most dangerous animals in Africa.

They kill almost 3,000 people a year. We had to climb up cliffs at Murchison Falls in Uganda to escape a charging hippo. We managed to wake one up that was sleeping in a pool of mud and it came grunting out. I also encountered crocodiles several times, elephants, buffalos and snakes. I found a scorpion in my shirt.

Levison Wood

Crossing the Sahara in summer was physically demanding, but one of the biggest challenges was boredom.

I was walking for days and days on end, seeing so many unchanging horizons in the desert. It's just a case of keeping your mind focused on the day-to-day, like where you'll find water, rather than any big thoughts. For the first half of the expedition I didn't bother with entertainment, but towards the end when I felt like I needed a distraction I listened to audio books – lots of Nile-related stuff and history, a bit of Kipling.

Despite the hardships, every day was incredible.

It was a real privilege to get access to places very few people see. Uganda was spectacular, and the pyramids in Sudan were amazing as well. But it was all the people that did it for me – the hospitality and kindness of people who looked after me along the way. Sudan is usually in the press for all the wrong reasons, but everywhere you go, people invite you into their homes and offer you tea. One guy even offered to build me a house and give me some land if I taught his children English.

One thing I wanted to try to convey was what is happening in Africa in the 21st century.

We tend to have a patronising tone when it comes to Africa, but there's a lot we can learn from the place as well, in terms of humanity and the way that people look after each other. I also learnt about myself and my limitations.

I ate bush rat, grasshoppers and pigeons.

As well as a lot of fish. The grasshoppers were fried and crispy; they tasted like fish food. Well, what I imagine fish food to taste like. It was nice to get to Egypt, which is more Mediterranean, with hummus and kebabs, shish meat and things like that.

In Egypt we stayed in abandoned boats, police stations and army barracks.

We were mainly camping, but in Egypt you can't as it's very inhospitable along the river – lots of people put us up. But there was also one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in, the Old Cataract in Aswan. It's a beautiful old colonial building: Winston Churchill stayed there, Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile there. It's very charming, on the bank of the river.

I enjoy being back in London, where I live.

It's nice just to relax, but I also like going home to the Peak District, to escape the smog for a while. I haven't done enough in South America, so I would like to go there, maybe to Brazil.

Levison Wood's documentary series, 'Walking the Nile', continues on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm. His book of the same title is published by Simon and Schuster, £18.99. You can read an excerpt here.

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