Levison Wood: "Arabia feels so remote and exotic, but it also feels quite homely"

From distinguished hospitality and must-visit sights of the Middle East to walking in the footsteps of a travel legend, we talk all things Arabia with TV's top explorer Levison Wood...

6 mins

You were catching up with friends over drinks when you initially proposed the idea. When did you realise it was achievable?

I think deep down I knew that I was going to do it one way or the other. This had been a journey that I’d had in the back of my mind for some time. Ever since 2003 when I first travelled to the Middle East with my friend Alex, I knew that I wanted to return and to see how everything had changed. Having some previous expeditions like Walking the Nile, I pushed myself and tested myself to the limits in different ways.

I wanted to return to Arabia. I put this expedition off since 2014. After I got back from the Nile I thought, oh maybe I'll do the Arabia one next. It got pushed back and pushed back, until finally last year when I thought 'now is the time to do it' and I didn’t give myself too much wiggle room really.

I knew that I wanted to do it, but everybody that I suggested it to said it was ridiculous and there was no chance, given the situation in Syria. But luckily my mates Simon and Dave were two of my more adventurous friends. Initially they were a bit reluctant, but they both came around and said "we want to come."

8,000km through 13 countries, that's quite an ambitious journey. What challenges did you anticipate along the way?

I knew that from the beginning it was going to be difficult. I knew that getting visas was going to be very difficult. The fact there was the civil war in Iraq, Yemen and Syria meant that just trying to achieve those alone would be really tough. Not to mention getting visas for Saudi Arabia.

But despite all of that I thought well, if anyone could do it then me and my mates who have managed a lot through other places could. We pulled as many strings as we could, we got in touch with as many people in our network in the Middle East as possible and we thought we would give it a good bash.

Levison Wood aged 21 with Alex Coutselous in Petra (Levison Wood)

Levison Wood aged 21 with Alex Coutselous in Petra (Levison Wood)

Did you find yourself limited in how far you could prepare for it?

Yes. We set off and still didn’t have the Yemen visa, the Saudi visa or the Syrian visa, so there were several countries that we didn’t know if we would be able to get into. But from past experience it certainly seems that when you get out on the ground and speak to people that you figure things out. You have to have a certain amount of faith that it’s going to work out.

You visited many of the countries before. Were you surprised by how they had changed, or even stayed the same?

I’ve seen war before, but I was shocked to the core by what I witnessed. We saw cities in absolute devastation, you can’t really un-see that. But on a positive note, there was a lot of diversity. Just to go there and see these hidden gems like the mountains of Oman and the snow-capped peaks in Lebanon, was rather extraordinary.

How did the people compare to when you first visited?

I think one of the big attractions of travelling in the Middle East is the hospitality and the people.  found that in 2003 when I was there. You go to places you wouldn’t have expected like Iraq and inside the West Bank. In places where there is conflict, people would often be the most welcoming.

But to travel this time around, to go to Yemen and to go to Syria in the middle of the civil war, it was really quite humbling. And the people haven’t really changed in that perspective, they’re all very friendly. Sadly, the war has carried on and the politics around that hasn’t got any less complicated. There are so many different groups with so many different agendas, it does seem at times on one hand hopeless, yet the people do seem to somehow manage to keep some sort of hope.

Wadi Rum, Jordan (Dreamstime)

Wadi Rum, Jordan (Dreamstime)

The idea was to give it a more balanced viewpoint. To go to the amazing historical sites that people forget are there and try and do away with some of the stereotypes.

– Levison Wood

How have historic travellers influenced your journeys?

I studied history at university and I have always had a passion for the great travel writers, so some of it goes back quite a long time for me. Personally, I’ve always been quite fascinated by the stories of adventurers, so it had a profound impact on my travels. I try to weave these into my own narrative and books.

With my previous book Eastern Horizons, I did a ‘following in the footsteps of’ type journey, inspired by Arthur Conolly, but put my own stamp on it. For this most recent journey, the most obvious explorer was Lawrence of Arabia.

Were there any places you wish you had more time to explore, or you would go back to do so?

I always feel that when I’m travelling through places. I think if there’s enough time I’d love to go back and explore them more, because generally I’m always on the move. I absolutely loved Syria. I also really want to go back to Lebanon. It’s an amazing place so I definitely hope to go back there too.

Given the controversy in some of the Middle East, some would question 'why go?'

Having travelled the Middle East since 2003, both writing for newspapers and with the army, there were different reasons to go there. This time I wanted to go to get a more balanced view. The idea was to go to this region regardless of how dangerous people perceive it to be and give it a more balanced viewpoint. It shows a bit more of the people and their stories. To go to the amazing historical sites that people forget are there and try and do away with some of the stereotypes.

Mahrouqi leading camels into the Empty Quarter (Levison Wood)

Mahrouqi leading camels into the Empty Quarter (Levison Wood)

I recall you met Abu Tahseen, nicknamed the 'The Hawk Eye' sniper, whom may have fought directly against Western alliances throughout conflict in the region. How did that feel to meet him face-to-face?

Yeah, this guy fought against British troops in Iraq and he fought against the Americans. It’s surreal to meet someone like that, to know he probably shot, maybe killed British troops. But there is a kind of strange bond between soldiers, no matter what side you’re on. At the end of the day, I view it that he was doing his job and I was doing mine. You don’t really take it personally, so when you read that back you actually have a mutual respect almost.

Actually, he wasn’t willing to talk to me when I told him I was there. Seeing us there taking photos, there was no interest. It was only when I told him I was a soldier myself that his eyes lit up and he felt he would tell me his stories. So that was in some ways quite a strange sensation. But there’s a sense of camaraderie. You have to be objective and not take it personally.

How did circumnavigating the Arabian Peninsula compare to your previous expeditions, such as Russia to Iran?

This was probably the most challenging of all the journeys that I’ve done in terms of getting access. On all the other journeys I knew there was a certainty of getting visas. But with Arabia there were so many uncertainties that I just didn’t know if it was possible. That uncertainty was quite familiar, but it made it more challenging. But it was the one that I’d wanted to do for some time, making it the most rewarding.

Dome of the Rock, Dome of the Rock, located in the Old City of Jerusalem (Shutterstock)

Dome of the Rock, Dome of the Rock, located in the Old City of Jerusalem (Shutterstock)

Arabia is the heartland of civilisation. You see that in the culture, the people and the architecture.

– Levison Wood

How would you summarise Arabia?

It is the heartland of civilisation. You see that in the culture, the people and the architecture. It suddenly links its way back to a cross roads between the Western world. It’s very complicated. Despite the fact that in many ways it feels so remote, so exotic, it also feels quite homely.

You mention this is your most challenging journey so far. The big question is: what's the next adventure?

I think I’m going to have a holiday. A nice beach holiday somewhere and relax for a few months.

Following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger, Arabia: A Journey Through the Heart of the Middle East is an insight into Levison Wood's most complex and daring expedition, yet an epic and unprecedented 8,000km journey through 13 countries, circumnavigating the Arabian Peninsula.

Exploring the Middle East through the lives, hearts and hopes of its people, Levison Wood challenges the perceptions of an often misunderstood part of the world, seeing how the region has changed and examining the stories we don't often hear about in the media.

Find out more: levisonwood.com

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