Back in October 2003, my friend Marcela and I were sitting in a restaurant having lunch ahead of our graduation ceremony to receive our MBAs. After a tough couple of years of part-time studies with full-time jobs, we suddenly found ourselves with spare time on our hands. Somehow, discussions turned to hiking. Not just any old hike, but we decided we were going to start at Charlotte’s Pass, cross the Snowy River, then climb Mt. Kosciuszko, the highest mountain in Australia. If you’ve read Part 1 of “Exploring the World With Levison Wood” you will remember I mentioned that I hated walking as a child. Perhaps it was the excitement of graduating, or maybe Marcela spiked my drink at lunch, but the idea seemed like a great thrill. Over the next few weeks, we agreed on doing the climb the following April.
When the day came, we were excited. We had packed a first aid kit, water, food, hat, sunscreen – the bare essentials for a day hike. What I hadn’t counted on, and this was the worst rookie mistake, was that I had worn old hiking boots that I had assumed were the most suitable for the kind of terrain we would be walking on. After all, these were the same boots that I had hiked the Grand Canyon in, so surely they would be perfect for another hike?
Within the first half hour, I had blisters on the backs of both heels and not long after that, they had burst. By that stage, there was no turning back. I was in so much pain that I had to stop regularly which, of course, meant the return trip took the better part of eight hours, much longer than it should have. I was groaning in pain all the way back to the car. My blistered feet lasted a few days and I have not been on another hike like that again since.
After completing a nine-month walk along the River Nile, British explorer Levison Wood’s feet were, well, not too pretty. I absolutely empathised with his feeling upon settling back into his London life that he could happily never do another long walk again. In the opening chapters of Walking the Himalayas, Levison described how he was settling into a new flat, unpacking his priceless treasures collected from years of travelling and even considering getting a dog.
“Levison Tembula” (Levison the Walker) getting a dog? Buying a house with “outside space”? Even his close friend, travel writer, Ash Bhardwaj, who had gone on many journeys with Levison, was incredulous. “Outside space?…I hear the North Pole has some.” I have to admit, that entire chapter and conversation during which Ash convinced Levison to go on another walk had me laughing. It was a conversation between two friends who knew what buttons to push to get the other one off their backsides – and we all need at least one friend like that.
And thus began Levison’s plan to walk the Himalayas, a region that he was familiar with and had travelled through several times since he was in his late teens, firstly in his gap year and in the intervening years, as a paratrooper Captain in the British Army during the war in Afghanistan.
Much like his walk along the River Nile, there was no shortage of adventure and risk-taking, shared with his guides and friends. His crossing of the Astore river in a basket that hung precariously on a pulley reminded me of a stunt in The Musketeers but without a safety harness. It was hard to believe the locals use that little basket as their way of commuting from one side of the river to the other everyday! And if you, like me, were wondering “Why don’t they just build a bridge?” Levison crossed one of those as well – and I’m not sure falling into the Hunza from the hanging bridge in Passu that looked like it was built on a wing and a prayer would have been a much better option. And of course, an expedition with Levison would not be complete without having to run from dangerous wildlife either.
Walking the Himalayas presented fascinating tales of the history and politics of the countries he traversed and the resilient people who live there. Levison encountered colourful characters and others who steadfastly held on to their faith against all the tragedy and territorial conflicts. Their ability to make do with the simplest of things, survive earthquakes, and still smile amidst a routine of constant strikes was something we can all learn from.
After Levison’s Nile expedition, he was asked in various interviews just what an explorer would pack in his rucksack. There were the usual items that you would expect to find such as a first aid kit, an old Army Survival Guide, maps, satellite phone and camera gear. Interestingly, Levison added that he always had a nice shirt in case he was invited to meet government officials and other important community leaders. In Dharamsala, Levison got to meet the Dalai Lama and received some helpful travel advice from His Holiness.
Despite careful planning, expeditions such as this would always involve an element of risk that no-one could foresee (unless you are a cannibal Aghori monk – if you believe that sort of thing). In Bardia, Levison’s younger brother, Peter, decided to surprise him by joining him for what should have been a few days of walking. Their reunion was short-lived as the local taxi they were travelling in – which they had to take to seek food and shelter for the night in Musikot – ran off the road and 150m down a cliff due to brake failure. The harrowing account of the accident was enough to make me shudder at the thought. (Note: Levison later found his camera which had been at the bottom of his bag had switched itself on and recorded – audio only – the ordeal).
It was a miracle that all passengers had survived the crash, thanks to the villagers in Rukum – a small village down the hill from where their car eventually came to a stop – who trod through dense bushes, rain and darkness to carry the injured men down to their village clinic. Levison’s broken arm and shoulder required surgery and he was Medevac’d back to London. If this was any other man, you would expect the expedition to end there, but Levison was back in Nepal, resuming his journey, a mere five weeks later.
When Levison rejoined his guide and friend, Binod Pariyar – who had given Levison shelter and looked after him for a week in 2001 when the young backpacker was caught up in the Maoist riots in Pokhara – they returned to Rukum to thank the villagers and clinic staff who had saved their lives. The meeting in Sarangkot with Binod’s family moved me to tears. Whilst Levison worried Binod’s wife would be angry at him for putting her husband’s life at risk (as I am sure I would have been in her place), he was instead greeted with the kind of love and affection that I believe only people of faith can provide. Her tears of joy and gratitude that Levison had sent her husband back to her safely was sincere and heartwarming. Her children were similarly proud that their father was able to join his “English brother” on the expedition.
It seemed fitting after such a long journey, that Levison’s expedition should end in Bhutan, renowned for being the happiest country on earth. According to his Bhutanese guide, “good governance” was key to happiness – having too many choices, worrying about our past or our future could only lead to unhappiness. Maybe dressing uniformly also helped.
Live in the present.
Having walked for five months with his friends, Levison completed the final part alone – he was the first to climb Snow Leopard Mountain, which he had the honour of naming. Ultimately, a journey like this was as much about exploring the countries and terrain as it was about exploring the people, and Levison Wood took us along for both. Although he opted to celebrate such an achievement with quiet reflection and appreciation for the people he had met and obstacles he had overcome, I sighed with relief that his parents were able to see both sons safely home.
And now, we eagerly await Levison’s next big adventure.
You can follow Levison for updates on his next adventure on Twitter @LevisonWood.
Walking the Himalayas (2016) written by Levison Wood, published by Hodder & Staughton (UK) and Little Brown (US)