Photo Credit: Levison Wood
Edited with Permission by Frontier
From the Nile to the Himalayas, Levison Wood is no stranger to an adventure. His next mission in new book Arabia: A Journey through the Heart of the Middle East - depicts the stories he found exploring the misconceptions and dangers of a 5000-mile discovery through the Arabian Peninsula. In Into the Wild Meets this week, Levison spoke to us about all things travel, why the Middle East is important to him and where he's going to take his next steps.
What is it about the area of the Middle East that inspired you to explore that area of land?
I've always been fascinated with the Middle East. Ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out on TV in 1989 it cemented in me my childhood dream to travel to see this wondrous part of the world with my own eyes. As a kid I became absorbed by tales of adventure and exploration, especially of those who travelled through 'Arabia', like Freya Stark, T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger. They went out on their quests and I knew from the age of 8 I wanted to one day go out on mine. All the other trips I've done - hitchhiking the Silk Road, walking the Nile, the Americas, the Himalayas and the Caucasus - they've all been part of the practice and anticipation of this last trip I did, circumnavigating the Arabian Peninsula. I still believe it's an area of the world that is so unknown and misinterpreted. All we hear about it are the negative media and newspaper headlines, so I wanted to go there myself, visit the countries that no one goes to any longer, meet the people who live there and hear the real stories of struggle and survival, but also to my gratification yet surprise, of hope.
What was the hardest difficulty you faced on your trip?
Of the thirteen Middle Eastern countries I intended to, or at least ended up passing through, 10 of them are on the list that the FCO advises British citizens not to visit. And despite my view that this part of the world is misportrayed, there's certainly no smoke without fire. Before I left, the biggest difficulty was convincing people that it was the right thing to do, that despite the dangers there was a story that needed to be told. My close friends and crew were on board from the word go, and my family are used to my disappearing off to far-flung corners of the world for my work, but despite the success of my previous series and my experience in high-risk locations, I was unable to get commissioning, so I set up my production company, Blackmane Media with two mates to film the whole thing ourselves. I think that goes to show how important I think this journey was to make, and how valuable it will be when shown on TV.
You have said that Arabia is “the tale of a region often misunderstood”. Did you have a big realisation on your journey?
I went to the Middle East to try to define the region "Arabia" and to uncover what it means to be a modern-day Arab. Even after almost six months, having passed through thirteen countries, I was no closer to clarifying either of these intentions. The biggest realisations were in fact personal. By travelling through Arabia I'd come to understand the irrelevance of stereotypes and the beauty of hope. In a region that from the outside is considered to be one large desert consumed by corruption, conflict and fear, I'd witnessed and been subject to the most immense kindness and generosity... and it's not all desert, I was knee-deep in snow in Lebanon!
Photo Credit: Levison Wood
Are you more of an adrenaline junkie or a nature explorer? Why?
I wouldn't consider myself an adrenaline junkie. I don't go to these dangerous places because of the danger; I go to meet the people and tell an untold story, so for that reason I am probably more of a nature explorer.
Where did your passion and love for exploring come from; did you always know you were going to travel?
As a kid, I read all the stories of the great explorers from the Golden Age - Shackleton, Scott, David Livingstone, Stanley - and since have been influenced by modern-day explorers too - the likes of Ran Fiennes and John Blashford-Snell. My love for history continued, I studied it at university, and I think this was continuously fuelling my thirst to see more of the world. Yes, I always knew I was going to travel, but I wouldn't change a thing about my life before I made travelling my career. The years I spent with the British Army at Sandhurst and in the Parachute Regiment were crucial to the travelling and exploring I've done over the past five years, not only in terms of physical ability but also mental. As great on the outside as my job looks, it isn't always easy. There have been moments on my journeys where I've questioned what on earth I'm doing and whether it's really worth continuing, and I think it's life experience that helps me go that extra mile each and every time.
Obviously a part of travelling has a distance from home, and you’ve spoken out about the difficulties of being in a relationship. Do you ever think about giving up the travelling for a steadier life?
It's true, being away for 6, 7, sometimes 9 months at a time doesn't exactly bode well for a stable relationship... but I knew that when I signed up for this way of life. It's a selfish one, but it's the one I chose, and I feel very lucky to have been able to build a career out of something I love: travelling. That said, I do want to settle down at some point, and I know that will involve a change in lifestyle on my part. But travelling is my job, it's how I earn a living, and I need to do that to support the family I might have one day. I'm sure there's someone out there I can share my travels with.
Over the whole expedition, were there any particular stories that stuck with you? Tell us about them.
Oh goodness, too many to recount! You'll have to read my book, Arabia: A Journey Through the Heart of the Middle East, they're all in there. I think what stuck with me overall was the warmth and kindness of the people I met throughout. In a region of the world that is so unstable, where war and famine haunt so many of its people, the hospitality these strangers showed me was overwhelming and really quite humbling.
Photo Credit: Levison Wood
You have a lot of things going on - from documentaries and a speaking tour and obviously your book release of ‘Arabia: A Journey Through the Middle East’. Do you ever get overwhelmed with what you’re doing?
There always seems to be a lot going on, I think it's the nature of my job. These last few months have been nonstop, with the book and speaking tour, and planning for 2019! But I do it all because I have to. The promotional work I do is necessary to get my name out there, to get people watching my documentaries and reading my books, and of course this means travelling all over the country and abroad... I've just got back from a week in the States. I enjoy being busy though, it's exciting to see everything I work so hard on unravel, and also to discuss and plan what projects I could be working on next. As long as I'm on top of my diary then I just about manage!
You’ve been all over the world, but where’s your next destination?
Somewhere there's a beach! There's a lot of exciting things in the pipeline for 2019. But before I go off on another big trip, I want to spend a month or so reclined on a deckchair in the sunshine.
What’s something you do that people might not expect of you?
As you know I'm a keen photographer, but what people might not know is that I also do a bit of art on the side. I like to draw when I find the time.
If you could give one piece of advice to the new explorer, what would it be?
Follow your dream. Exploring in this day and age is very personal. What you consider an adventure might not be for the next person, but don't let that stop you from embarking on it. I truly believe it's never been easier to travel than now, so what are you waiting for?!
Want to keep up with Levison Wood and all his adventures? Head to his website or follow him on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Make sure to pick up his new book Arabia: A Journey Through the Middle East to find out more about his travels through the Middle East - out now.