Interview by RSGS Writer-in-Residence Jo Woolf ahead of Levison's talk to RSGS on Monday 3rd February at Perth Concert Hall. This interview first appeared in The Geographer magazine, Winter 2019. 

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Levison Wood is one of those explorers for whom the word ‘intrepid’ seems utterly inadequate. He has walked the length of the Nile; he has crossed from Mexico to Colombia via the notorious Darien Gap; he has walked the length of the Himalayas; and he has just completed a 5,000-mile circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula. His journeys, usually conducted solo or with a local guide, regularly take him into all kinds of danger. A talented writer and photographer, he shares his experiences via books and TV documentaries, and his images have been the subject of several major exhibitions. As an Officer in the British Parachute Regiment, Levison served in Afghanistan, and he is still a British Army reservist.

As you were growing up, did you dream of being an explorer?

Yes, I did! I read all the stories about Livingstone, Shackleton, Scott, and the other great explorers. I thought, if they can do it, why can’t I? I started very humbly at the age of 18, backpacking in my gap year. I always tried to visit places I’d read about and was interested in. At university, my history thesis was about great overland journeys – the Grand Tour and Marco Polo and the great pilgrimages – so it all fitted neatly together. I love travelling with friends, but at that age I think it’s far more important and useful to go off on your own, because you’re forced to interact and develop your communication skills. If anyone asks me how to become an explorer, I just say, go travelling on your own – solo backpacking.

As you were walking the Nile, what did it feel like to walk in the footsteps of Speke and Burton, Livingstone and Stanley?

Having been fascinated by those stories for a long time, it was quite something to walk in their footsteps, and to see with my own eyes how things have changed, but also how things haven’t really changed. I remember sitting beneath an enormous mango tree on the banks of the Nile, being inducted into a tribal ceremony, and realising that things probably haven’t changed all that much since Livingstone was there!

Many of the regions you visit are extremely dangerous for visitors. How much do you rely on your military training?

The military does give you a certain understanding about risk. If you adopt the right demeanour and treat people in the way they expect to be treated, then generally speaking you can charm your way out of most situations. It’s about having respect for people and being non-judgmental. If I’m going to a war zone I’ll make sure I’m with people who have the right experience and training. By travelling unarmed, either alone or in a small group, you attract less attention because you’re not posing a threat. I go to these places with a camera, quite openly, and people are usually happy to open up and tell their story.

You’ve always been drawn to meeting indigenous people, and some have become your guides. Tell us about some of the friendships you’ve made.

I’ve met people from all walks of life, from illiterate shepherds in Jordan to a guy who was born in a cave – a Bedouin nomad who came with me, and he was fantastic. We’re still in touch now. He can’t write a word of English but he’s on Facebook, so we just communicate with emojis! One of my favourite guides was Alberto, who came with me through Central America. He’s hilarious; he’d never walked anywhere and had no experience in the jungle, but his attitude was spot on and he had the right outlook on life. He was great fun to be around. That’s just as important as knowing how to rub sticks together, probably more so, because those are skills you can learn.

Do you feel that the ways of life of indigenous people are being put at risk by the encroachment of western ‘civilisation’, and if so, what can we do to prevent this?

It depends how you look at it. Globalisation does have an impact on traditional ways of life, but at the same time you can’t and probably shouldn’t want to stop development. Because who are we to say that people in tribal communities shouldn’t have mobile phones or electricity? It’s a tricky one, because inevitably if there’s a benefit in development they’re going to take it. It’s hard to pass judgment on that. I’ve seen change happen, and whilst it’s sad as a photographer – especially if you’re trying to take a photograph of somebody in their indigenous costume and they can’t get off their phone – that’s just the way it is. Some countries have achieved a good balance. In Bhutan, for instance, everyone lives in traditional-style houses and you see traditional dress everywhere, yet in many ways it’s a very advanced country: education is good and literacy is great.

In Walking the Nile, you describe how a vast area of Ugandan rainforest has been cleared to make way for a sugar plantation, but the work is supporting the livelihoods of people who live there. It’s such a complex problem; will we find a solution?

We definitely need to find a solution. Ultimately, all these big problems come down to one thing: the burgeoning human population. We’ve got to focus on encouraging people to have fewer kids! As ruthless as that might sound, it’s the only hope for the human race and our planet. Given the rate of growth in the world’s population – we’re currently at 7.7 billion, and by the end of the century we’ll be heading towards 11 billion – what chance does any wildlife have? In particularly poor areas, where there’s no healthcare, no jobs, and a high infant mortality rate, people will turn to subsistence living, which necessitates having lots of children to work on the land. The only solution is education. Female education is particularly important, and if a girl stays in school beyond the age of 14, she is less likely to start having children at an early age. Going back to the question about disparity of cultures: if it takes a mobile phone to enable someone to trade their crops, or if it takes a new road to enable infrastructure and vehicles to buy people’s products, which in turn enables them to grow out of subsistence living and have a better life, they will inevitably have fewer children.

What inspires your photography?

Photography has always been a passion. It’s something I’ve taught myself and learned along the way. For me, it’s an alternative way of telling a story: it’s about people and places, and it’s about how people interact with their environment and with each other. I’m looking for a compelling narrative; it’s all about the story conveyed by that photograph.

Tell us about some of the charities you support.

I’m an ambassador for 15 charities, and on my journeys I always try to visit their projects on the ground. Last week I was in the Congo, visiting a UNICEF project to rehabilitate child soldiers, which was quite an intense emotional experience. I’m involved with The Tusk Trust, which raises awareness about conservation in Africa, particularly of elephants; and with youth charities – The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and The Ulysses Trust which is for Army cadets, raising money for expeditions. Also veterans’ charities, including Walking with the Wounded, The Endeavour Fund, and ABF The Soldiers’ Charity… and anything that promotes education, particularly for young people. It’s a spread of all my passions.

Exploration has come a long way since the days when there were blank spaces on the map. In the 21st century, what can exploration teach us?

Exploration is a funny term, because everyone thinks of pith helmets and big beards and khaki! I think these days it’s about documenting places as they’re changing or before they change. We’re saturated with news telling us how terrible and dangerous the world is. I want to bring some balance and show the other side of the story. For me, that’s what my job is about: reporting the truth without any agenda or news angle. It’s about showing what a region is really like through the eyes of the people who live there. And if, in the process, you uncover a new pyramid in Mexico, as we did, or if you find some ancient ruins, that’s great too!

“It’s about showing what a region is really like through the eyes of the people who live there.”

If you could be present at any momentous event in the history of exploration, what would it be?

There are so many! For me, it would be the moment when Burton and Speke had their big falling-out at the Royal Geographical Society meeting in Bath in 1864. They are such incredibly interesting characters. Or maybe when Livingstone met Stanley, to see whether the line “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” was actually used! That would be entertaining, wouldn’t it?

We look forward to welcoming Levison Wood at Perth Concert Hall on 3rd February 2020, when he will give a talk entitled Travels in Remote Places. 2020 will see the publication of a new book featuring 200 of Levison’s photographs, chosen from his journeys over the last 15 years. See for more information

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