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Adventure Talks: Levison Wood
As a former correspondent and paratrooper, turned photographer and explorer, Levison Wood was never going to be satisfied with the average nine-to-five lifestyle. Speaking to a packed crowd at our New Bond Street store, he explains the story behind 'Walking the Nile', how to handle deadly snakes and why the thrill of exploration is universal.
The ex-soldier's thirst for adventure began at a young age, when, aged 18, he hitchhiked his way from England to India. A gap year in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia cemented his love of travel and exploration, and his career has taken him across more than 80 countries worldwide. In December 2013, however, Wood embarked on an epic 4,000-mile journey that no amount of tenacity, military training or fearlessness could have prepared him for.
“All the way it was about documenting a moment in time,' Wood explains. 'I wasn't there to provide the history of the Nile; I wasn't there to give socio-political commentary; it was simply my journey walking through six very different countries and my experience.”
Walking the Nile' is the story of Wood's record-breaking nine-month quest across the length of the world's longest river - now the subject of a bestselling book and documentary series. The journey took two years of planning and saw Wood travel through six African countries, starting from the jungles of Rwanda and finishing at the shores of the Mediterranean. Contending with some of the world's harshest environments, not to mention physical injuries (the extreme conditions meant his feet expanded by an unbelievable one and a half sizes), Wood's journey is replete with wild tales of charging hippos, poisonous snakes, 50-degree heat and active war zones.
Of the many perils Wood faced along the way, however, it was boredom that often proved the most arduous: 'There were times when I was walking, literally, for miles on end with the same, unchanging horizon,' he says, 'and, mentally, that’s quite challenging.' But when it came to overcoming precarious situations, Wood found his 'be prepared' military training invaluable. That, and a pack of Marlboros. 'One of the things that saved my life on about three occasions was always having a packet of cigarettes on me. I don't smoke, but it turns out that most African gunmen do!'
“We have a strong legacy in Britain of exploration and travel, and I think Belstaff is a company that exemplifies that.”
Wood regaled the gathered crowd at the Belstaff flagship store as part of an ongoing series of Adventure talks. Nine months' worth of unkempt hair and bushy beard are now gone, and the wounds all healed (his feet are thankfully back to their normal size). Exuding a natural warmth and confidence, his incredible video footage and photographs show lands of extremities, hardship and undeniable beauty.
The countries Wood travelled through might contain some of the world's most extreme living conditions, but it is the scars of war, famine, corruption and extreme poverty that are the most difficult to overcome. Wood maintains that his expedition had no particular message, although he was intent on dispelling some of Africa's enduring stereotypes - and the people he met and documented proved the best way of doing just that.
“I did ask myself if it was all worth it, but I couldn't give up. The one thing that got me through was the people.”
At times Wood admits the abundant hospitality he received was almost overwhelming, but found interaction with the locals a positive indication of how Africa is redefining itself in the modern age. 'It's a journey into the past, and it's also a journey into the future,' Wood explains of his journey. 'In Rwanda, everyone I met over the age of 20 was either a victim or perpetrator of the  massacre, but what I took away from that was an incredible sense of reconciliation and hope.'
Of all the people he encountered, Wood finishes with the story of an elderly camel-herder-turned-guide who claimed to be 150 years of age. 'I don’t think he was quite that old,' Wood laughs, 'but I asked him why he had joined us and he said, "Lev, I'm a very old man and the only thing I wanted to do before I died was go on a really big adventure.
“This concept of adventure isn't restricted to Western civilisation or gap years,' Wood concedes; 'it transcends cultures, race and age. It just goes to show that anything can be cured - apart from wanderlust.”