Lev Wood has just walked 4000 miles along the River Nile. I caught up with the adventurer and former soldier just after he got home.
Alastair: What’s your 30 second summary of your recent grand adventure, when people ask you what you’ve been up to?
Lev: Okay: ‘Walking the Nile‘. I’ve just done the biggest adventure of my life, walked almost 4,000 miles, through six different countries, all the way from the source of the River Nile in Rwanda to the Mediterranean Sea in Egypt. I went through every kind of terrain that Africa has to offer. And for me it was a fascinating way of exploring Africa in the 21st century with its diverse peoples and cultures.
Alastair: It sounds to me that’s not the first time you’ve given that answer. [laughing] Did you enjoy the walk?
Lev: That’s a harder question.
Lev: Before I left, I thought 80% would be dreadful and 20% would be interesting.
Before I left, I thought 80% would be dreadful and 20% would be interesting.
Alastair: Ooh… I should always ask people about the percentage of happiness to misery they’re anticipating!
Lev: Actually what I found was that it was probably closer to 50-50. I’d say half of it was dreadful, miserable, boring, and just generally crap. And the other half was really interesting and good fun. On a journey like this, where you’ve got so many different landscapes and different cultures, every day is different and it was fascinating. For me that’s what spurred me on and gave me the motivation to wake up each day and walk for 20 miles; all the little adventures along the way.
Alastair: What was your record distance in a day?
Lev: There were two days, where I did 53 kilometers.
Alastair: That’s good going. When I cycled through Africa, my impression was that the highs of my life were higher and the lows were lower. Do you think that’s a fair summary?
Lev: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a real privilege to be able to do something like this. You get unique access and see things that very few people ever get to see and that some people can only dream of, really. And yet, with that comes big risks as well and some terrible lows. Not just the monotony and the boredom. But you know, I had a couple of tragedies along the way.
Alastair: I was very sad to hear that. That is terrible when we’re essentially just mucking about playing at stuff.
Lev: Exactly. I’ve also seen for myself the reality of places that are experiencing terrible poverty and war. So, you know there are high highs and low lows.
Alastair: I try not to ask the boring questions people always ask in travel interviews. So this one is purely out of my own interest from having done a similar route: what was your favourite country down the Nile?
Lev: I loved Uganda because it was just really visual and actually a real adventure. I went to see gorillas in the wild, some incredible water falls, Murchison Falls, proper rainforest jungle and everything. It’s got the whole spectrum of Africa and so I loved that. But actually the biggest surprise was Sudan, which was incredibly friendly and the people there were amazing. They would rather die than drink water before a guest, you know. It’s just incredible hospitality. It motivated me to walk for two and a half months through a desert which was pretty barren in most parts. But when you come across these villages and you’re treated so well: that’s what gives you the motivation to carry on.
Alastair: My experience was exactly the same in Sudan. That was my surprise wonderful place. Your answer shows there’s two angles to adventure. There’s the adventure that a lot of people think of: gorillas and waterfalls, which is all wonderful, great stuff. And then there’s the surprising random little poor villages, with kind people that you remember forever, like in Sudan.
Lev: Exactly, yeah.
Alastair: Why did you decide to walk the Nile, why didn’t you cycle it? You make me look like a wimp now!
Lev: I’ve always been fascinated by that river. Not just because it’s the longest river, but because it does pass through some very diverse areas. I’ve always had an interest in Africa. And about four years ago, I drove from England down to Malawi. I followed parts of the Nile along the way and it just got me thinking that it would be great to explore this in more depth and do a bit of photography and a bit of writing.
Alastair: You’re a very good photographer.
Lev: Ah, thanks, Al. I just thought, what’s the best way for me to really explore the countries along the way and meet the people? Walking is the way that humans left Africa all those hundreds of thousands of years ago. And I just thought it would be a really raw and visceral way of meeting the people along the way. And you’re really putting yourself at their mercy and kindness. That for me was an important draw.
And I like to test myself and challenge myself and I thought walking was a good way of doing that. And finally it did also play quite a good marketing pitch for the people who wanted to make a film about it as well!
Alastair: So, what’s a better river, the Nile or the Amazon? [laughing]
Lev: Well, walking the Nile has given me a huge respect for Ed Stafford. I had a big respect for him beforehand of course, but doing it myself… Wow – it took him two and a half years. In the Amazon there are no roads, it’s just hacking through swamps and bush the whole way in the jungle and it must have been really shit, to be honest.
The Nile had different challenges. I’d probably say I was up against it more in terms of wildlife and people and politics. But the going and the terrain wasn’t as difficult as the Amazon, because it’s a lot more populated. There are villages along the way where you can get re-supplied and there’s paths along the river for the most part.
But, for me that’s part of the attraction. It wasn’t just about the physical challenge. It wasn’t just about the extreme athleticism aspect. It was about meeting the people and finding the happy medium.
Alastair: I think I would have preferred the Nile too for exactly those reasons. Why did you do the trip for telly, why didn’t you do it just for the hell of it?
Lev: If I thought I could have got the funding and just do it myself, I would have done to be honest, because having TV along is a pain. Obviously, I’m very grateful that they were there to help me raise the necessary sponsorship. I don’t think I would have managed to get the funding without. I did try, it took me the best part of three years to get the money together and get the backing. But I don’t think I would have done that without the TV.
Alastair: Did you enjoy the TV side of it once you got into it, or was it just a bit of a pain?
Lev: It was a pain. I don’t think I enjoyed it, no. I mean it was kind of a necessary part of it, but actually, you know, part of why I wanted to this was to be able to share the experience with other people as well. So, it was important for that. And having the TV there gave me unique access to do stuff that I couldn’t have done otherwise. So, that side of it was brilliant.
Alastair: I found when I was cycling through Africa, that the poorer and the simpler I could make my journey appear, the less hassle I got.
Lev: Absolutely, the moment you’ve got cameras and fancy equipment, then it makes it a lot more difficult and you’re more of a target for people that think they can make a bit of cash. So yeah, it’s about making yourself look as rugged and scruffy as possible, really. People just think you’re a bit of a hippie and don’t have any money, which is ideal.
Alastair: Did people find it weird that here’s this white guy – therefore a rich guy – who is walking rather than taking a bus or driving in a U.N. Land Cruiser?
Lev: Yeah, completely. Most people didn’t believe me. If you try and explain to a villager that you’re walking the Nile, they just look at you blankly. Whereas if you tell them you’re walking to the next village, which is three miles away, they’ll almost faint, “No, you can’t do that!”
Alastair: Yes. That’s so true!
Lev: So, that was always funny. And you get offered a lift the whole time. They just presumed that your car had broken down or something.
Alastair: Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it? I spoke to Ed Stafford about the T.V. side of it. He considered just rocking up in the Amazon with his machete and buying a bag of rice and heading off, rather than having the complications of sponsorship. But he acknowledged that he really wanted to be on the telly and to do the creative thing and make it his career.
It’s quite interesting, the options.
Lev: I met quite a few other travellers along the way, people cycling, people hitchhiking, you know, doing their own thing. My hat’s off to everyone that wants to go and do whatever they want to do. For me, I just wanted to take it to the next level and to do that, I thought the best way to do it was to share the journey. And I’m really overwhelmed by the following that I’ve managed to get along the way and it’s brilliant to have generated some really awesome support.
And I get some incredible messages from people around the world. Offering their support and saying that it’s helped them, people that have had illnesses or been incapacitated then sending me messages saying “You’ve really inspired me to do this or that.” Which is awesome, isn’t it?
I just wanted to take it to the next level and to do that, I thought the best way to do it was to share the journey.
Alastair: You started Secret Compass after leaving the Army. It seems to me the more logical way around would have been to leave the Army, go and do a big trip that you wanted to do for the hell of it and then set up a business.
Lev: Yeah, that would have been more logical! Myself and another guy from the Paras who had also just left, we asked “What do we enjoy first and foremost?” and we basically said, “Travel”. How do we make a living from it? So we thought well we’ll give it a crack, we’ll set up a travel company that specialises in going to places that nobody else goes to, and see if it works. So we thought “where’s the ballsiest place that we could take people?” and we thought of Afghanistan. We had just been there with the Army. It’s not all war, fighting out there, there’s actually some really beautiful places. So we ended up taking 12 people to the Hindu Kush Mountains to do some trekking and horse riding, and it was a huge success. And we got people begging us to run another another one.
Alastair: I’m wondering why do people come to you. Why don’t they just do it themselves?
Lev: I’m a big advocate of people doing things for themselves, to be honest. I’ve always done my adventures and so on but in the reality of the modern world, most of the people that come and join us as team members have only got two weeks off or three weeks off for the year, but they still need to scratch that itch and still want a big adventure, but unfortunately don’t have the time or the resources to organise it themselves.
Alastair: So, time is the major limiting factor?
Lev: I’d say so.
Alastair: In life you never have lots of time, lots of money, and your full physical health, all at the same time. Therefore, you need to work out which of those things is stopping you and find some sort of way around it. In your case, for your customers it’s pay their money – they can afford it – and go do something. For other people it might be save up, you’ve got plenty of time, so just get saving, and get going to do it yourself. But I think another massive thing that stops people having adventures is fear and inertia and the difficulty of getting going. Is that fair?
Lev: I would say so. If you’ve got the time, and you can find the money, then you’ve just got to take the first step and it’s taking that first step is the most difficult part.
Alastair: What would your advice be then to someone who loves the idea of adventure but perhaps hasn’t done it yet? Someone who’s dreaming of, for example, walking the Nile?
Lev: I guess, to paraphrase Mark Twain, 20 years from now, what are you going to regret? You’re not going to regret the things that you have done. It those that you haven’t done. So don’t put things off, go and take those risks, because some risks are worth taking. And by doing so, you’re going to come away with some amazing memories and experiences.
Alastair: Have you scratched your itch now?
Lev: For now, for now…
Alastair: I guess you’ve only been home a few weeks. I should ask you again in six months.
Lev: Unfortunately, I had to skip out a small section of the Nile because two weeks after I started walking, civil war kicked off in South Sudan. And as a result, the place was simply out of bounds. Probably, if it was just me, I’d have just gone for it. However, you’ve got to think about the people you’re with. I had a guide, should I be putting his life in danger? Not to mention the fact that police and the army in South Sudan had said that you’re not allowed any further and if you do, we won’t accept any responsibility.
So, that was a difficult decision to make. Because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to come back and claim that I’d walked the entire length of the Nile. But at the end of the day, it’s not life or death for me, it’s an expedition and I was still having a brilliant adventure. It’s the people who live there that I felt for, because they’re having to live this everyday. And there’s some terrible things going on.
Alastair: The people whose opinion matters won’t respect you less for missing that bit. Yet equally, I know I would feel the same, the annoyance that I hadn’t completed it and maybe I should have done. But it’s a good thing to remember those people who are living there and that really you and I are just playing a bit of a game.
Lev: Exactly. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to go back and finish it, which I’d like to do.
Alastair: My last question to you Lev, because you’ve got a book to go and write. If I was to give you £1,000 for an adventure what would you do?
Lev: When I hitchhiked from England to India back in 2004, it cost me 750 quid for four and a half months. And that was including the plane ticket home. And okay, I was sleeping in ditches and eating leftovers from restaurants. You know it was awesome. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be done. Nowadays, I don’t think I’d do that again. If you gave me a £1,000, I’d probably go away for a couple of weeks, I’d probably go somewhere a bit closer to home, somewhere in Europe and do something that I wouldn’t normally do. I’m somebody who spends my entire life doing unusual things. But I’d probably do something a bit more normal. I think it would be an adventure for me, because it’s more normal. I’d probably go to somewhere like Scandinavia or Central Europe, somewhere that’s beautiful and try something like para-motoring. I’d love to just jump off some hills somewhere.
Find out more about Lev and Walking the Nile here.
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