September 21, 2020

FTV: Walking with Levison Wood


     Where to begin?  On the back cover of his 2015 book Walking the Nile (Grove Press) Levison Wood is described as a “writer, photographer, and explorer.  He served in Afghanistan as an officer in the British Army Parachute Regiment.”  His resume is expanded some on the back of Walking the Americans (2017, also printed by Grove Press) to include, “His work has taken him around the world leading expeditions on five continents, and he is an elected fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club.”  I can’t say exactly what it says on the back of his book Walking the Himalayas as I haven’t read it yet.  I am sure that you have now caught the connecting thread in Wood’s books:  Walking.  That he writes books (and films documentaries) about his expeditions hits you right between the eyes in the titles.  That he makes the acquaintance of a fair number of ‘characters’ on his travels only comes out as one digs deeper into his adventures.  Wood does more than just tell readers about walking from point A to point B.  He goes the extra mile (pun intended) to dig into the history of the places he visits.

     I was able to pick up a copy of Walking the Americas from the Menominee County Library via the Ontonagon Township Library’s interlibrary loan program.  It was totally coincidental that I read through the first seven chapters during several days of brutal heat and humidity that enveloped the south shore of Lake Superior in late July 2020.  Levison details the even more brutal conditions he faced when he began his Americas walk after hopping off a fishing boat near Sisal, Mexico on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.  I am not a big fan of this type of climate.  In light of the hot and humid streak we were experiencing in Upper Michigan, it wasn’t hard to relate to the conditions he faced stepping off the boat to begin his latest trek.  Prior to serving his hitch in Afghanistan, Wood had spent some time doing jungle training in Belize under similarly hot and humid conditions. The jungle training probably did not help him much serving in the notoriously jungle free Afghanistan, but it did give him another opportunity to visit Merida in the Yucatan.  

     Wood had previously been in Merida while on R & R from the Army.  He had met a Mexican girl named Ceci there and made it a point to visit her whenever he could.  It was Ceci who convinced him to return after he left the army and try his hand at photography.  In 2010 he found himself back in Merida with nary a clue how to make a living as a photographer.  Ceci finally pushed him to explore and photograph the Yucatan and the Mayan people rather than spend all his time and money hanging around Merida.  On the way back from his first photographic tour, a local crook boarded the same bus and plunked himself down in the seat next to Wood.  Though he claims that he can never sleep on a bus, Wood woke up at his destination without his kit bag.  Levison finally figured out that the low-life had spiked his water and then made off with the bag containing all of Wood’s equipment, picture disks, and cash.  Ceci came to the rescue when she introduced Levison to photographer Alberto Caceres.  Caceres loaned him a replacement camera, taught him the finer points of being a photographer, and said those important words, “Now, let’s go explore.”  It seems Levison took the phrase to heart.

     When he finally left Mexico, Wood planned to help a friend obtain an ambulance for a hospital in Malawi, Africa.  Levison suggested his friend could save the shipping costs by letting Wood drive the ambulance 10,000 miles from the U.K. to Malawi.  Levison had explained the whole adventure to Alberto who claimed it sounded interesting even though he didn’t know where Malawi was.  Five months later, Lev was 4,000 miles into the trip when Alberto tracked him down in a cafe in Damascus.  Alberto joined the grand adventure and it was during this trip that he planted the idea of a journey through Central America:  “Imagine it, Lev, a road trip – we’d start in Merida at my house and go all the way to South America.  Jungles, beaches, parrots, pyramids, and hot girls,” Alberto winked.  “It’s my dream trip.  Don’t forget about it, Lev.”

     Another six years would pass before Lev called Alberto to ask if he still wanted to make his dream trip.  In between his Malawi adventures and then, Wood had hiked the wild foothills of the Himalayas over a six month period followed by a nine month trek the length of the Nile River.  Having heard that Alberto had recently been married, Levison wasn’t sure if his Mexican friend would still be interested in the trip.  Things didn’t sound promising as Alberto explained how the Malawi trip had bankrupted him and cost him his photography business.  When Wood called him, Alberto was working as a hired gun on fashion shoots (or as Albert put it, he had been forced to get a real job).  Levison listened to his friend’s tale, all but convinced that he would be going  solo on this hike.  “Three days ago,” continued Alberto, “I was on a beach in Tulum with some English girls.  They were clients actually.  We were doing a photo shoot for some fashion magazine.  One of the girls was sad because she had lost the book she was reading.  She said, ‘It was about a guy traveling and stuff and he had been to Africa as well, travelling all the way to Malawi.’  She finally found the book.  She showed me and it was Walking the Nile by Levison Wood.  It’s true.  That three days ago I had no idea what you’ve been doing the last few years, but now I can see.  So now you ring me up, asking to come and drive the length of Central America, What choice do I have?”  Of course, Levison had to tell him that the plan was to walk, not drive, but none-the-less, Alberto was all in for some diversion.  He and his new wife had parted after being married for all of a year and Alberto had been feeling down about it.  Six weeks later, Wood made his way from Sisal to Merida and he appeared at Caceres’s door.  As I said, Wood has a habit of collecting ‘characters’ as well as stories.  In the nine month trek the length of the Nile River, he was accompanied by several different locals he picked up along the route.  Each brought something different to the expedition and as Wood would find, Alberto did the same for the Central America trek.

     Wood explained that he would not be setting foot in North America at all and the trip would end shortly after they entered South America.  His Walking the Americas title seems a little misleading but he recalled that this was ‘America’ when explorers (and later conquistadors) arrived during the age of discovery.    Call the title poetic license, but the subtitle tells the rest of the tale:  1,800 miles, eight countries, and one incredible journey from Mexico to Colombia.  Coming on the heels of his six and nine month jaunts in Asia and Africa, Lev figured the Central American hike would be a less complicated affair spanning only four months.  Unlike Africa, Central America’s only real predator is the jaguar, however, I was a little dubious about the ‘less complicated’ comment after he described some of the obstacles they would face during the Americas walk.

     Here is a condensed list of ‘other’ concerns Wood would face in the jungles of Central America:  “[like Africa, there are many of the same risks in Central America like] Amoebic and bacillary dysenteries to deal with, yellow and blackwater and dengue fevers, malaria – of course – and cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, tuberculosis, and rabies.  Then there’s some very special extras.  Bot fly, for instance, whose larvae bore into your scalp, eat your flesh from the inside, and then, forty days later emerge as inch-long maggots.”  I won’t bother with the gruesome blow by blow description Wood gives about Chagas disease other than the final outcome:  “When you scratch the resulting itch [from the bug bite] . . . a cargo of protozoa is released into your bloodstream and then between one and twenty years later, you die from incurable brain damage.”  By comparison, the bandits, highway robbers, gangs, and revolutionaries that inhabit some of the more lawless bywaters they would be passing through sounded less dangerous.  With that said,  more than one expedition through the same region have mysteriously disappeared with no trace, so ‘less dangerous’ is probably my too optimistic armchair observation.  

     Why would someone subject themselves to these dangers in the first place?  Why did George Mallory (and later Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay) want to climb Mount Everest?  As a student of history, Wood has always been fascinated by the European explorers who first entered these remote areas.  In Africa, he was following in the footsteps of Victorian explorers like David Livingstone, John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley, Samuel Baker, and a host of others.  Even Alexander the Great’s expeditions failed to locate the source of the Nile River.  Wood’s first companion-guide in Rwanda, Ndoole Boston, began the Nile River trek with him beside an insignificant spring of water in the Nyungwe National Forest.  The spring marks the furthest tributary of the Nile (many mistakenly think the river originates in Uganda at Lake Victoria).  

     Along the way, Wood fills readers in about the horrible genocide that took place in Rwanda twenty years before he walked the Nile.  While traveling through Uganda, Tanzania, and South Sudan, he contrasts their colonial past and turbulent modern history.  This was a far  more detailed version of recent African history than I had followed from afar via the news dispatches.  Levison Wood opens Walking the Nile by describing a frightening night in Bor, South Sudan when the sound of rebel gun fire filled the air.  After this attention grabbing introduction, Wood backtracks to the beginning of his trek in Rwanda.  The Nile walk was complicated by the death of outdoor writer Matt Power joined Wood for part of the journey.  Even though he was a seasoned trekker, the brutal conditions in Uganda broke Power down and he died before medical help could be summoned to their remote location.  Levison had to travel cautiously through the civil war that was raging in South Sudan.  Wood had been in the midst of similar conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kurdistan, Burma, and the Caucasus, but the war in South Sudan was by far the worst he had seen.  It took an unpleasant detainment by the South Sudan Army to force Wood to send Boston back home for fear of losing another hiking partner.  

     The war also forced Wood to fly south to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.  This meant he had to skip a 450 mile leg of the Nile journey, but he had wisely concluded that courting death in the civil war ravaged South Sudan was not a good idea.  From Sudan, Wood was able to navigate the Sudanese desert leg of the Nile.  Assisting Lev on this section of the trek was Moez Mahir.  Mahir hired two Bedouin Hawawir tribe members to tend the camels employed to haul the expedition’s gear.  Even though they were all seasoned desert travelers, Lev became concerned when he discovered they were trying to navigate across a parched landscape without sufficient water and outdated maps.  Discovery of an unmarked oasis in the eleventh hour allowed them to survive and the expedition to continue on to Egypt.

     Egypt was also a country in turmoil at the time Wood crossed the border heading north.  With the aide of Mahmoud “Turbo” Ezzeldin, Lev gained permission to walk from the border along the shore of Lake Nassar, the backwater created when the Aswan High Dam was built in 1964.  Having been refused permission to hike from Sudan into Egypt, Wood took the Wadi Halfa ferry down the lake to Aswan.  Turbo then drove him south to the border so Wood could resume his northward walk from there.  Egypt’s own revolution meant having to dodge smugglers, police, and government officials in order for Wood to complete the final leg of his nine month journey.  In the end, he accomplished his goal, but wondered inwardly if he had been crazy to attempt the hike to begin with.  Such pondering did not keep him from dialing Alberto and arranging the Central America walk.

     Now that I am hooked, I will need to find some of Levison Wood’s other works, among them Walking the Hinalyas, The Last Giants, An Arabian Journey, and Arabia.  To underscore the continued dangers Wood and Alberto faced, we need to return to the early part of the Americas walk.  As they prepared to leave Belize, Wood asked Aron Tzib, the soldier who conducted jungle survival training with Lev’s troops years earlier, to provide a quick refresher course in jungle survival before they entered Guatemala.  When Alberto inquired, “What is the biggest danger in the jungle?” Aron summarized how to survive there:  “Like I say, you’ve got deadfall from the trees (he had previously told them about a friend who was seriously injured by a falling branch), and then the risk of flash flooding.  Don’t put the camp too close to a river.  And then there’s the animals.  Don’t worry about the big ones – you won’t even see a jaguar unless you’re very lucky.  Spiders won’t hurt you too much.  It’s the snakes you’ve got to worry about.”  What he didn’t mention were the bandits, drug lords, and rebels they might encounter as they proceeded farther south.  

     Wood wrote detailed descriptions in both the Walking books I read about the plight of the refugees in both Africa and Central America.  He took time to detail the harsh conditions, famine, poverty, war, gang violence and the like, that displaced the thousands of people he encountered living in makeshift camps on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  These conditions are still affecting hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.  It is no coincidence that agencies of world relief  plead for more support (even more so now with the COVID-19 pandemic raging).  Wood’s books should be required reading for those who choose to demonize these unfortunate immigrants, many who see the United States as their one hope for survival and a chance for a better life.  

     At the conclusion of the Americas adventure, Levison and Alberto celebrated entering the gateway to South America by jumping into the emerald green ocean at the bay of Sapzurro, Columbia.  “So, are we going to carry on walking to the bottom of South America?” Alberto joked.  “Not right now,” replied Levison.  “Maybe that’s an adventure for another time.”

     Since penning the first draft of this article, I was able to get a hold of his 2018 book An Arabian Journey (also from the Menominee County Library system – someone there must like Wood’s travels).  The Arabian Journey follows a similar template as the Nile and America treks, replete with more interesting characters, war zones, and refugees.  Near the end of his trip around Arabia, even Alberto makes an appearance when Levison meets up with some friends and family in the Holy Land for Christmas.  In his other books,  Wood talks about things he misses ‘back home’ when he is making these treks.  Near the end of Arbian Journey, he mulls the thrill of adventure and ponders what he might do next.  Perhaps it is time for him to settle down and enjoy life closer to home?  After a decade of adventure travel, only time will tell how long Levison Wood will be able to tolerate setting down roots.

Top Piece Video:  Joe South wrote it and sings it better than ayone…Walk A Mile in My Shoes