Explorer encounters danger along the world’s most iconic river in the Animal Planet special.
Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So does a journey four times as long and a hell of a lot more dangerous. For intrepid explorer Levison Wood, the first of 7 million steps began high in the jungles of Rwanda, the source of the River Nile, and ended nine months and 4,200 miles later at the Mediterranean Sea. In November 2013, Wood set out to do something no man had done before: walk the length of the world’s longest river. His trek through six East African countries — dodging bullets, minefields and deadly animals, weathering heat, thirst and blistered feet along the way — is the subject of the Animal Planet three-hour special “Walking the Nile,” which premieres on March 18.
A photographer and journalist, Wood chronicled his experiences in images and words, both for the documentary and a companion book of the same name. Formerly a captain with the British Parachute Regiment who fought Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, Wood found himself back in hostile territory as his route took him through the war zone of South Sudan and areas where robbers, poachers and armed rebels threatened his safety. There was tragedy when a companion died of heat stroke and he was powerless to help. But there were also unforgettable moments like flying in a hot air balloon over the Valley of the Kings or spending time with the gracious Mundari tribe and learning their customs. Wood shared his thoughts on these moments and more in this wide-ranging Q&A.
You say it was your lifetime dream to walk the Nile. Why?
Levison Wood: I’ve always been fascinated by East Africa. I’m a student of history and I have traveled there a lot as a writer and a photographer. This was the culmination of 15 years’ work for me. One of the other reasons I wanted to do this was to raise awareness about issues in Africa, the main one being conservation. I wanted to show people that Africa is changing very quickly, and unless something is done about it a lot of the wildlife will be extinct very soon. Elephants, for instance, will be completely extinct in Africa from poaching if something is not done about the ivory trade. That’s not in the documentary — unfortunately, there are only so many stories you can tell. But for me, it was very important, and it’s covered in my book.
How do you prepare for a nine-month walk?
It took two and a half years of preparation, not necessarily physical. It’s more doing your homework: learning about the political and cultural situation. I went to Africa to learn about wildlife behavior, like figuring out what to do when a lion gets close. That’s more important than the physical training
What did you pack for a trip like this?
I could only take with me what I could carry because I was on foot. I only took the essentials. Most of the stuff you could really get along the way — food and things like that. It was only the technical gear, like satellite phones, that I had to take. I thought it would be a good idea to take a laptop but it was too much weight, so I ditched that and used my iPhone.
You went to danger zones—did you think about bringing a weapon?
I didn’t think about bringing a weapon because if you’re armed you’re asking for trouble. There were times I had to employ local rangers, militia or police to help me out and keep me safe.
What sparked your interest in exploration?
At 21, when I finished University — I studied history at Nottingham — I hitchhiked from England to India and all the way through Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I ended up carrying with it as my profession. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job. I made my own career as a freelance photographer and writer. When I left the military full time, I set up a company that specializes in taking journalists to places, “fixing” things for them.
Did your military experience prepare you for this trip?
I couldn’t have done this without the military experience. I spent five years with the regulars, and a stint before and after in the reserves. The military gives you a certain mindset. It trains you to push yourself to the limit and beyond. You can achieve anything really. You learn about survival, learn about understanding risk — what’s dangerous and what isn’t, and not to be scared just because somebody’s got a gun. It gave me a better understanding of what the dangers were.
Even so, were you nervous as you set out?
Yes. I was planning and thinking about this for so long, dreaming about walking the route. My biggest fear was crocodiles. They jumped out of the water a couple times right next to me.
Were there other close encounters with animals?
Crocs, hippos…In Sudan, I was sweating and took my shirt off to dry it in the sun; and put it back on and right there on the collar was an enormous scorpion. There were snakes as well. When you sleep on the ground in the desert, you’ve got to be careful.
We don’t see this in the documentary.
You’re walking along and suddenly a water buffalo chases you, there’s no time to turn the camera on. If it’s not on film, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The film crew only came out a few times on the way. Most of the time it was just me and the local guide. I tried to film when and where I could. We got a lot of footage and there’s only so much you can fit into three hours.
Did you plan to film it from the start?
No, it wasn’t initially intended for TV or as a documentary. The idea was to write a book. I always wanted to write a book, and I did. I happened to get the offer to have it filmed.
Levison Wood (center) and his guide in a canoe in Rwanda Shared it on Self Drive Rwanda Facebook.
What were the most memorable parts of the journey?
The encounters with people I met along the way. In South Sudan, although it’s a war zone, you find these pockets of peace and serenity. The Mundari tribe is really spectacular. They’re very hospitable. They pride themselves on looking after guests. Because I love history, it was great to go to ancient places, Egypt and especially in Sudan. Everyone’s heard about the pyramids in Egypt but there are many more in Sudan.
What did you find the most challenging aspect? Anything you were unprepared for?
I didn’t prepare for the boredom, the difficulty of trying to keep yourself mentally stimulated every day for nine months, and waking up every day and the horizon is the same. That was probably the toughest thing.
Were you ever sick? Injured?
I was very lucky. I didn’t get too sick. I got chiggers and got an infection but cut that out with a razor blade.
Your feet were a mess. Have you recovered?
They’re okay now. I got some really bad blisters. I couldn’t even walk to get breakfast. I had to flick a switch in brain to go on.
What were the scariest moments? The minefield?
The war zone in South Sudan was [the] most scary. I was walking through town and a guy ran out with a gun pointed at me saying he was going to kill me because he thought I was with the United Nations. I’ve been in minefields before, so I made sure the guide went first.
Why did you decide to go in summer, when the Sahara heat is highest?
It wasn’t really a choice. When we planned the trip, we picked the lesser of two evils by going with the summer heat; it would have been worse to arrive in Uganda in the rainy season. The whole place becomes completely impassable. So you prepare yourself for it, plan ahead, make sure you have enough water. You do gain a new respect for Mother Nature — you realize how ruthless the environment is.
Your traveling companion in Uganda, Matt Power, died of heat stroke, Did he have an underlying condition?
Heat exhaustion is very unpredictable. We get taught about it in the military, and I’ve seen it first hand in Afghanistan before, so you kind of know what to look for, but with some people there are no warning signs and it comes so quickly. You can’t do anything about it unless you get them out of there and taken care of. We tried to get a helicopter for Matt but it wasn’t possible because of the remoteness of the area, it was a huge tragedy.
Did you consider giving up then?
Of course, I thought about giving up right then; something like this reminded me just how dangerous the journey is. But after a few days I decided to carry on and complete it in Matt’s memory, or it would have been all for naught.
How often did you get to sleep in a bed? Shower?
Not often. Most of the time it was camping or sleeping in villages. If we found a city, we’d stay in a guesthouse, maybe, and shower. It was risk the crocodiles in the river, or not at all. I was pretty stinky!
How did you feel when you ran into the Mediterranean at the end?
Relief, elation, joy and a little bit of sadness. When you commit yourself to something like this and do it every day and then it’s over and done with, it’s hard. It was a bit anticlimactic because it wasn’t the beautiful palm-fronded beach — it was a de-militarized zone with lots of litter, pretty dirty, But I was just glad to have it done.
Was it worth it?
Definitely worth it. It was a life-changing experience. I learned about myself and about Africa.
What did you learn about yourself?
You realize what your limits are, physically and mentally. You have a lot of time to think. At times I really wanted to give up. What kept me going was the people I met. No matter how tough your day is, there are people who are living in complete poverty, have nothing at all, and they’ll still go out of their way to make you feel comfortable, give you their last drop of water or food even though they’ve got nothing. It really humbles you and makes you want to carry on.
Levison Wood springs to the end of the Nile River at the Mediterranean Sea.
What did you do first when you got home?
Have a shower. When I got back, all I wanted was a cup of tea — very English, I know.
Do you stay in touch with any of your traveling companions?
Yes, I stay in touch with the local guides. Boston [Levison’s guide in Rwanda] came to London. He’d never been out of East Africa before, and I was his guide for a week.
In retrospect would you do it again, and would you change anything?
I think once was quite enough! There are things in hindsight that I would change. I’d probably take it more slowly because I was so focused on getting there and finishing. By going so fast and pushing it so hard you don’t have time to enjoy it on the way. But mentally, you need that motivation.
What do you hope viewers take away?
I want them to see Africa differently. There’s more to Africa than death, poverty and destruction. It’s an interesting place and hopefully I can really show what life is really like, for better or worse.
Are you planning another expedition? Where?
I’m always planning something else. I can’t seem to sit still. I have a big plan for this summer, but I can’t give much away, but it’s not in Africa. It will be just as interesting, exciting and dangerous.