Explorer Levison Wood is living the dream. The 34-year-old former army officer has made a name for himself walking through some of the world’s most challenging terrain
In 2014 he walked the length of the Nile, and the following year trekked from Afghanistan to Bhutan across the Himalayas. He’s just returned from his latest expedition, a four month walk through Central America from Mexico to Colombia, passing through the notorious Darien Gap.
“I’m pretty lucky because I’ve kind of got everything that I could ever have dreamed of in terms of my career,” says Wood during a break between recording voice overs for his new series Walking the Americas.
Accompanied by his friend Alberto Caceres, a Mexican fashion photographer he met on a previous trip, Wood set out to explore an area relatively unknown to the British.
“I think with the Nile and the Himalayas there's a connection there, certainly from a UK perspective, with a colonial legacy and the language. There isn’t really that in Central America.” He hoped his journey would challenge the stereotypical view that the region is “just one big jungle and full of gangsters.”
“I came across plenty of gangsters,” he admits, “It turns out there’s no smoke without fire, but there were lots of surprises in there too.”
— Levison Wood (@Levisonwood) October 17, 2016
Among these were the swathe of migrants travelling through Central America on a journey to the USA and Canada. “I encountered refugee camps full of thousands of Congolese migrants, for instance, in the middle of nowhere. [It’s] incredible that Africans are making this journey through Central America to try and get to the States.”
Wood’s perambulations are a far cry from the travel shows of the past, which extolled the virtues of package holidays in the sun. The British audience’s appetite for his shows is a reflection of a changing taste in the way we like to travel, Wood believes. “People don’t want to just go and sit on a beach and do nothing. People want to be more responsible, more sustainable, want to have those life-changing experiential types of journeys.”
Part of the appeal of Wood’s programmes comes from the fact that he is very much an explorer first, television presenter second. Inspired by legendary explorers including Wilfred Thesiger, Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, Wood realised that joining the army would allow him to follow in the footsteps of his heroes.
Today he is evangelical about the opportunities the military offers: “I spent five years in the regular army, not to mention another six years in the Reserves, getting to where I am now, and that was just years of hard work gaining the experience, the contacts and the credibility to do what I do now.”
“People assume that you just turn up and knock on a broadcaster’s door and say ‘Here I am, God’s gift to television!’ It doesn’t work like that.”
— Levison Wood (@Levisonwood) December 9, 2016
After leaving the army, he used his experience and thirst for adventure to set up Secret Compass, a company helping film crews and journalists with security and logistics in locations ranging from Iraq to Sudan, picking up vital information about how the industry worked along the way. “It meant that I kind of knew what directors wanted a little bit more than just having a tantrum and saying ‘I’m not doing that.’”
Having returned from Colombia shortly before Christmas, Wood has been busy writing the accompanying book, due out on 23 February, as well as putting the final touches to his four-part series for Channel 4. He’s then off on a 21-date speaking tour around the UK.
He’s currently shortlisting options for his next expedition, but says we can expect a change of pace. “I’m done with walking. There might be bits… but I don’t want to just do walking.”
Before he hangs up his boots, how many pairs did he get through during his 1700 mile journey through eight Central American countries? “Just one. Buy cheap, buy twice I say, so you’ve got to get the good ones.”
Walking the Americas is on Channel 4 on Sundays at 8pm