The British adventurer, who has been travelling through the Middle East for his latest book, tells us that travelling played a big part in forming his outlook on life
Explorer Levison Wood: 'Travelling taught me about the kindness of strangers'
Levison Wood rarely takes the path of least resistance. From visiting war-torn Syria and South Sudan to climbing the craggy hills of Oman’s Dhofar region, the intrepid 35-year-old British travel author’s escapades have resulted in a series of immersive books, such as last year’s Eastern Horizons: Hitchhiking the Silk Road and Walking the Americas, providing insight into little-known or misunderstood communities and nations. More than the thrill of being on the road, Wood says it’s the human interaction that he savours the most. His next book, out in November, is about a 7,000-kilometre trek around the Arabian Peninsula, from Iraq to Lebanon.
How often do you travel, and do you often combine business trips with leisure?
I travel often – I have made it my job to travel as much as possible to remote and far-flung places – and I am away from the UK more than I am at home. I do usually end up combining work with leisure. I get offered a lot of press trips to great places, which are hard to turn down and are often great fun, and when I’m in cool places I can’t help but take photos, which is sort of work I guess.
Where is the last place you went for a holiday?
I spent a long weekend in Ibiza last summer, but I haven’t had a proper holiday in a while. This summer, I am planning to take a good chunk of time off for the first time and go to the US with some mates to raft the Colorado River.
What do you look for in a holiday?
Given that I spend so much of my time on the move and adventuring around the world, when I do have a holiday, I am often looking to really relax and unwind. The ideal scenario for this would be a boutique hotel with an epic view. And the thing I most appreciate in a hotel is the customer service; anywhere that focuses on attention to detail and also has thoughtful, attentive staff will do the trick. But basically anywhere with nice weather, good food and a bit of adventure, too.
Has travelling affected the way you see the world?
Travelling hasn’t just changed the way that I see the world, it was a big part in forming my outlook. I went on my first adventure when I was 18, travelling around the world on my own. I was instantly hooked, and though I went to university, I spent every opportunity I could during university holidays to go backpacking around the world. When I graduated, I set off on my first big overland journey, hitchhiking from England to India on a tiny budget of £750 [Dh3,787] over five months. It taught me about the kindness of strangers – I was given lifts and taken in by so many generous people, some of whom had very little to give. I learnt to be open-minded and also discovered that I wanted to make a career in travel, one way or another.
Where is home?
I grew up in Stoke-on-Trent and my parents still live in the area, so that’s “home-home”, but now I have a place in London, which is a great place to base myself.
Where are you going next?
I am actually planning to take some time off this summer and treat myself. I may end up in Kenya to run a half marathon in support of the Tusk Trust – a conservation charity that I support. Then I’ll be in the UK on a speaking tour in the autumn.
Which parts of the Middle East have you most enjoyed?
It was a great trip and that’s a bit of an impossible question, as I visited 10 Middle Eastern countries over five months and there is such diversity and richness of culture. The Dhofar region in Oman was a particular treat, as my mountain guides and the local Dhofaris I met were so friendly and hospitable. The views were spectacular and varied – from craggy hillsides to epic coastlines to forested areas – and it was very remote and unspoilt. Other highlights included the spooky abandoned city of Al Ula in Saudi Arabia, pearl diving in Bahrain and the mountainous wilds of Lebanon. And of course relaxing in some nice hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
What is the most challenging country or city you have written about and why?
I have just sat down to write my fifth book, which is provisionally titled Arabia: A Journey Through the Heart of the Middle East. It is going to be a challenging but fascinating task to write about my journey through 13 countries in and around the Arabian Peninsula. There’s a lot of complicated narratives and conflicts going on between the nations that I visited, and it will be important to tell an honest and accurate story, but I can’t hope to convey the complexities in just one book, so it’s a tricky task.
Do you have a favourite place?
On this trip, Damascus was such an amazing place. It was a truly inspiring city, resilient and brave amid half a decade of war. I find it incredible that, as one of the oldest cities in the world, it has been a hub of civilisation and learning for thousands of years. The place is littered with the ancient remnants of Roman temples next to beautiful mosques. When we were there, you could hear mortar shells and gunfire going off in the distance on the outskirts of the capital, but the bars and restaurants were still open. The people are just trying to get on with their lives.
Do you prefer luxury or simplicity?
It depends. On expeditions, I tend to live pretty simply, so I’m not averse to putting my feet up once in a while and splashing out on nice hotels.
What do you love about travelling?
The greatest reward of all of my travels is the kindness I’m treated to in all four corners of the globe. When I was walking the length of the Nile, the Sudanese Bedouin tribes were particularly hospitable and friendly. I was not sure what to expect from Sudan, given the recent violence and conflict, but I was greeted with enormously friendly people. By this stage on my journey, I was behind schedule, so I was trying to cover many kilometres a day. But every time we passed a village, the people would come rushing out and invite us in. They’d offer food and tea, and one man even threatened to divorce his wife if we didn’t come in for tea. After a while we had to adjust our route to avoid the villages, so that we could make some headway. One night, we’d stopped, made camp and lit the fire. The next thing I knew, a local man was walking towards us carrying a bed on his head, which he’d carried miles out into the desert so that we felt comfortable and looked after. He said that if we wouldn’t go to his home, his home would come to us.
What do you hate about travelling?
Nothing really. Though I suppose it can be very sad to see places where war has decimated communities and cultures – like Palmyra. Often just as bad is when there has been a big influx of tourists and special historic sites have been damaged or there is litter everywhere. It’s important that governments devote time, energy and money to setting up the appropriate infrastructure to look after these places for future generations.