When I was a little girl, I hated to walk. I would have little tantrums (honestly, my Mum’s idea of a tantrum is me stamping my feet in public) and simply refuse to move. My parents would ignore me and keep walking. Realising they were not going to turn back, I would soon follow.
Back in early April 2016, my friend Suzy and I were discussing travel-type shows – which are generally as close to reality TV as I can cope with – that we enjoyed. It began with me saying I had watched a BBC documentary narrated by actor Santiago Cabrera called Patagonia: Earth’s Secret Paradise, then morphed into my obsession with the first couple of series of Robson Green’s Extreme Fishing.
It was at this point that Suzy mentioned she had just “discovered” a British traveller by the name of Levison Wood who is all about walking through remote places. She went on to explain that whilst many have made comparisons between him and another adventurous Brit, Bear Grylls, they are not the same at all (other than that both were former soldiers in the British Army). I was thoroughly intrigued.
Suzy told me that Levison (yes, we were on first name basis like he was my best mate by this point in our conversation) had documented his two recent expeditions with the release of books and companion television series on the UK’s Channel 4 called Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas. Unlike the childhood me, clearly this man loves to walk. “This man must be insane,” I thought. I imagined some crazed Forrest Gump-type who just decided one day he was going to start walking and didn’t stop.
Surprisingly, when I saw photos of Levison, there was no crazed look in his eyes or anything that might hint at a man whose love of exploration goes back to his early childhood when he told his school counsellor, as a ten year-old, that he wanted to become an explorer. Instead, there was a look of determination and fascination, a keenness to broaden his own horizons and take us along for the journey. He was no typical pale-skinned Brit whose face never sees the London sun. If you had told me he was also a history professor I’d be the first to petition Steven Spielberg to cast him as the new Indiana Jones.
The very next day, I found myself at my local library and headed straight for the online catalogue. I was in luck! Both books were on the shelf. I grabbed them excitedly and mischievously as if daring anyone else to tear those books from my hands. (Don’t worry, publishers, I have since bought my very own copies of both books and the audiobook of Himalayas.)
This was how I described the opening chapter of Walking the Nile to Suzy: “Just read the first chapter and it reads like an action movie script!” You see, the book begins in Bor, South Sudan, somewhere around the middle of Levison’s 4000+ mile walk from the mouth of the great River Nile in Rwanda that took him nine gruelling months to complete. Fighting between the Dinkas and the Nuers had been on-going for several months and the city was overrun by armed “protestors”. Levison was awoken in the middle of the night by gunfire right outside his mostly-vacant hotel in an area that used to be a popular tourist destination. Even with his own training as a soldier, he was armed only with a camera and no way of protecting himself should the gunfight get any closer. And by the way, this part gets waaaay scarier when you watch the documentary.
For Levison Wood, this expedition which had taken him over two years to plan, was a combination of “The Nile was there, and I wanted to walk it” and, perhaps more significantly, an expedition to explore the people, most of whom we usually only get to read about on the news, and much of it not good. For armchair adventurers like me, we are given not only a guided tour of the sights and sounds of this amazing continent, but a lesson in history, geo-politics, and the resilience of the people he met.
Along the way, Levison saw, firsthand, a mass grave at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda where a quarter of a million Tutsi bodies are buried; a village in Uganda, reputedly where the AIDS virus first began to spread and seven out of ten people are infected; Mundari tribesmen eagerly douse their heads with cow urine (because it allegedly turns your hair red which is popular with the women); poachers’ illegal snares confiscated by park rangers at Murchison Fall National Park; and was “blessed” by Mama Fina in Kampala to ensure safe passage on his journey.
“Levison the Walker” garnered so much attention on his journey that he even had a song written about him called Levison Tembula. He was introduced to a local dish called haricot viande (“meat beans” – it is better not to know) and tasted honey straight from the comb like a scene straight out of The Jungle Book.
In addition to the nerve-wracking escapes from violent protests, arrests by suspicious government agents, running from dangerous rhinos and Nile crocodiles, Levison’s expedition was marred by great tragedy. On 10th March, 2014, a mere three days after what was supposed to be a week-long trip for American travel and adventure journalist, Matt Power, sent along by US magazine Men’s Journal to write about Levison’s expedition, died very suddenly and quickly from hyperthermia – extreme heatstroke. The expedition was suspended briefly as Levison and his team contemplated whether to continue in the aftermath.
The journey resumed a few days later onwards to South Sudan, Sudan and finally Egypt. Levison crossed the Sahara Desert with two of his best friends in temperatures up to 62 degrees Celsius when he was forced to take a detour from following the river, but in the process, saw the stunning Pyramids of Meroe. These are just some of my favourite highlights from his Nile expedition.
When Levison finally reached the Mediterranean Sea, I threw my arms in the air and cheered as if I was there with him. I was elated. When I watched the documentary with my best friend Lena (all four parts in one afternoon), we high-fived each other. And then I felt guilty – guilty for having speed-read the book in a matter of days which hardly seemed fair considering it took him nine months to complete the walk, and then time to write the book and make the documentary. But then, I can just re-read the book and relive the journey all over again.
And there’s always the next expedition as Levison goes Walking the Himalayas.
Walking the Nile (2015) written by Levison Wood, published by Simon & Schuster (UK), 2015. DVD is also available now.