Levison Woon (Photo: Tom McShane)
Interview 07 January

Levison Wood: How I turned my passion for travel into a career

Hardened wanderer Levison Wood followed up his Nile-trekking exploits with Walking the Himalayas, taking him 2,700km from Afghanistan to Bhutan. We asked him about his latest brush with death and his next big adventure...

This interview was first published in the February 2016 issue of Wanderlust. To get your copy, or subscribe from just £5 for 5 issues, click here

What made you choose the Himalaya for your next challenge?
After the Nile I said I’d never walk again but obviously that didn’t happen. I got itchy feet after nine months! I thought, if I’m going to do a big expedition it has to be something I’m really passionate about. The Himalaya is a region I’ve travelled to quite a lot in the past – I’ve done expeditions to climb mountains there and I’ve got good friends there. It made sense to go to a region that I know well and I thought, ‘Why not walk the length of them?’

Were you doing this on your own?
Similar to the Nile, I had different guides along the way, depending on what country I was in, and then the film crew popped out a few times to film bits of it as well.

What were the main challenges with the Himalaya?

Big hills were a big challenge! Gravity was the other. Most people think the Himalaya is just snowy peaks but actually I was going through jungles, swamps, deserts – the whole spectrum really. We had things like avalanches, landslides and earthquakes as well as political issues. We went to places the Taliban controlled, we went to Pakistan and had border issues… lots of things!

Was there anything in particular that made this trip harder than the Nile?
Physically it was tough. There were big mountains and obviously altitude was a problem.

You must have met some fantastic people?

Well, I met the Dalai Lama. He was very interested in the trip. He invited me into his house and we sat down and had a good chinwag. Bhutan was fascinating – I knew virtually nothing about it beforehand but that was an amazing and really unexpected place. There couldn’t have been a starker difference with India, so it was really cool.

Were there any places that you want to go back to and explore a little more?
Yes, lots of places. The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan is a place that was so wild and so remote that more people should go and see it.

View from Gokyo Ri, at 5,360m in the Himalayas, Nepal (Shutterstock)
View from Gokyo Ri, at 5,360m in the Himalayas, Nepal (Shutterstock)

How did you find Nepal post-earthquake?
I was surprised at how fine it was, actually. In Kathmandu I was expecting something that looked like an atomic bomb had gone off but I could count on one hand the number of buildings that had been affected. People should not be put off visiting.

Did you finish the walk?
Yes, I did – just. I had a dreadful car accident in Nepal where I broke my arm and almost died. I was in a bad way – my arm and shoulder were shattered so I had to come back to the UK for the operation and now my arm is full of metal.

Are you fully recovered?
I’ve got a fairly nasty scar running all the way up my arm but it’s on the mend. It’s crazy to think of all the things that could have gone wrong and that was it. I suppose it’s ironic that on a walking expedition, the one time I had to get in a car (it was to find a guesthouse at night) and that’s where things went wrong. We went off a cliff. Everyone survived but some people were in a bad way. Lots of broken bones and things.

If you could go anywhere – not on an epic challenge, where’d you go?

Well, I’m going to Burma. I’ve not been to Bali yet so I’d like to go and sit on the beach there.

What are the most exciting destinations for travellers are right now?
I’d say Burma now that it’s opening and is kind of semi-democratic. That will continue to be on more and more travellers’ lists.

How do you get from being someone interested in travel to being someone who goes off and pushes themselves to do these kinds of adventurous things?
I think being in the army certainly gave me the confidence to give it a go and I’m just a lover of travel. Ever since taking my first gap year at the age of 18 I’ve wanted to carry on and devote my life to travel. I just thought, ‘I’ll try my best to make it work’.

I wanted to write and to be a photographer but ultimately I needed to make some money first so that’s why I set up a travel company [Lev was co-founder of Secret Compass] and used that as a platform for photography and writing. Then, the TV kind of changed things so now I’m able to do all three. I had a photography exhibition in December and I’ve got two books out so it’s going well.

Do you have to constantly remind yourself to film everything rather than just be in the moment? Does it alter it at all?

The fact you’ve got to film it, take notes, write and take photos… it does become a job in that respect. If I’m not working then it’s nice to turn off and just take photos for the fun of taking photos, rather than thinking, ‘Is this going to be commercially viable?’

Walking the Himalayas (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) is out now

See Levison Wood at Destinations: The Holiday & Travel Show at Olympia London as part of the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival on Sunday 7th February. Book tickets to the show
from just £11 in advance