Levison Wood: Training at Sandhurst, childhood dreams and trekking the Nile
PUBLISHED: 10:43 21 March 2016 | UPDATED: 10:43 21 March 2016
Tom McShane Photography
Even as a child Levison Wood always knew he wanted to be an explorer. He talks about training at Sandhurst and how his father and grandfather instilled in him a passion for the outdoors
I grew up in Forsbrook, Staffordshire. I was born in the local Royal Infirmary near to our village. I was the fifth Levison Wood, but that wasn’t a posh thing, it was just a family tradition.
Forsbrook is on the edge of the moorland and in close proximity to the Peak District. I didn’t know it at the time, but the wild hills of the Peak District would go a long way to influencing what I would do with my life.
My mum and dad were both teachers – my mum worked at a primary school, while my dad taught geology – so we were hardly rich, but we got by more than fine. We lived in a bungalow which my dad always seemed to be doing DIY in. I shared a room with my younger brother Peter. I remember that there were lots of maps on the walls of our bedroom – again, it probably influenced my career choices in later life.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to be an explorer. I always knew that was what I wanted to do. My primary school teacher in Caverswall would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would always instantly say an explorer. Unfortunately, schools don’t prepare kids for life as an explorer.
So it was up to me to pursue that interest myself. Well, along with help from my father, who taught me so much about the great outdoors and who definitely helped shape my future. Being a former member of the Territorial Army as well as a geology teacher, he was well versed in telling people what to do and with the wonders of the natural world – so really he was in his element.
My dad would take my brother and I out to the countryside and pass on all he knew about the basics of surviving outdoors. He’s take the three of us camping to the Peak District when I was very young – proper camping, too, in the middle of nowhere, not just on a site – and I was fascinated with everything about the great outdoors. I couldn’t get enough of it. I knew instinctively that it was the path for me.
It wasn’t just my father, but my grandfather too. He never really came camping with us, but he taught me so much with the stories he used to tell. I used to sit on his knee, expectantly and full of amazement, at the stories he’d regale to me about his time as a soldier in Burma. He was definitely the reason why I wanted to join the army. He was a wonderful man.
The influence of both my dad and grandfather made me obsessed. I was always a focused person, even as a kid, and I put all of my focus on to my interest. If I wasn’t outside, I would constantly think about being outside, read about it, look at it. I would gorge on the books of Rudyard Kipling, particularly The Man Who Would Be King and Kim. They seemed to capture the Indian sub-continent like nothing else I could read. I also took a lot from Sir Winston Churchill’s autobiography My Early Life. It showed that your dreams were achievable if you were focussed on what you want.
A big moment in my life happened when I went to a signing by the artist David Shepherd when I was 10. He would paint pictures of Africa, and loved them, particularly the ones of the African elephants. It seemed so exotic, and it made me not just want to travel to Africa to see it for myself, but also made me think about how amazing it would be to do what he did – make a living from travelling around the world and painting. And now I’m doing just that, minus the painting. I do take photographs though, which is nearly as good.
So having decided my path, I took a year out before starting at Nottingham University to go travelling. Like all my adventures, I hitch-hiked around parts of the world that I didn’t know too much about. In this case, I went around Southern Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. I fell in love with Africa there and then and have gone back at any opportunity since. I’ve done other things in the meantime – I joined the army when I left university, and I actually trained at Sandhurst at the same time as Prince Harry. He was a good guy.
During this period I drove the length of Africa following the Nile. I enjoyed it, but it went by too quick. So I had the idea of trekking along the world’s longest river instead, meeting the locals as I went along. It was the most incredible experience. The beauty of the Nile is that it passes through every kind of environment that Africa has to offer, everything from the mountains and rainforests of Rwanda to enormous swamps is South Sudan to the Sahara desert so it was very diverse.
I think it made me grateful for what I’ve got – across the Sahara desert you’re running out of water and you see death first hand and I think you come out of it with a bit more of a philosophical view on life, more of a fatalist view as well, that you sort of have to accept things for what they are. It’s made me a lot more tolerant perhaps.
It was an achievement that I’m very proud of, but I think anyone can do it. Anyone can learn skills like navigation or leadership. It’s all about being willing to learn, putting the hard work in and bettering yourself. If you go out into the wild thinking you can’t do it, then you won’t last very long.
That said, I don’t think I’d want to do it again. I’m not sure I want to go and walk another year across a continent. But I’ve definitely got some more adventures planned. I’m not convinced about TV – I’ve had offers but I don’t want to be the next Bear Grylls. All I know is the thought of getting a normal job terrifies me.
Walking the Nile, by Levison Wood is published by Simon and Schuster and available to buy in hardback.