Mr Levison Wood
A chance encounter with the modern-day explorer who makes Mr Bear Grylls look like a teddy bear
Phaplu is a one-road town in the Solukhumbu region of Eastern Nepal. The Himalayas rise steeply on either side, throwing the deep cut of the valley into shadow. Sherpa houses cling to terraced ground winding up towards Chiwong Monastery. The houses are Tibetan: painted window frames, thick stone walls, heavy lintels. There aren’t any tourists, although prior to the April 2015 earthquake, which devastated Nepal, a few trekkers occasionally passed through Phaplu en route to Everest Base Camp. Phaplu is linked closely to this fearsome Himalayan peak; it is where Sir Edmund Hillary rested after his record-breaking ascent. Now, however, Phaplu’s fame has fallen to the wayside, making my serendipitous meeting here with British explorer Mr Levison Wood, on the morning of Monday 26 October last year, all the more unlikely.
I was flying in from Kathmandu on a small plane to the 1,000m-long airstrip when I noticed the helicopter. Beside it stood Mr Wood dressed in his familiar garb: khaki Belstaff jacket, backpack and satchel. I was dumbfounded. I knew the author, photographer and film maker was walking the Himalayas, on a 1,700-mile, six-month-long journey, for his recent book and TV series: Walking The Himalayas. We had met in London briefly before: “The one thing you need to understand about the way I travel,” he told me then, “is I’m not trying to be the hard man. I’m not interested in conquering poles, or making solo expeditions across deserts. I’m interested in walking in the company of people. Sometimes I walk with friends. I always walk with the desire to get embedded in the culture, which is why my two heroes are British explorers, Sir Richard Burton and TE Lawrence. They got stuck in. They learnt the language. They travelled in disguise.”
Now I saw Mr Wood standing on that runway, however, I didn’t believe him. He was meant to be traversing this mighty mountain chain by foot, not flitting through on a chopper. I no longer cared how handsome he was — tousled black hair, unshaven — nor how disarming his accent, with that hint of the boy-next-door (he was born on Stoke-on-Trent) undercutting the posh adventurers who have come before him in the annals of British exploration. It seemed to me that the man celebrated by everyone from the Royal Geographical Society to The Explorers Club was, in fact, just a talented fraud.
An hour later, Mr Wood and his two companions — Mr Binod Pariyar, and an army colleague, Dr William Charlton, who had joined him for two weeks — were settling in for lunch at a little house in Phaplu. Late into the evening, we drank vodka under a hand-painted Himalayan roof in the same room where Sir Hillary had once sat waiting for his wife to arrive from Kathmandu (in a tragic twist of fate, both Sir Hillary’s wife and daughter were killed on the flight to Phaplu in 1975).
At first, Mr Wood let his friends do the talking, content to kick back and listen rather than dominate the conversation. He’s not shy, but he has a certain reserve that belies his 33 years – “slightly distant, in that indefinable ex-army way — as if five per cent of his brain is detached, on standby in case a grenade hits,” wrote one female journalist who had fallen hard for his charms.
Slowly, Mr Wood began to let slip his stories. “I always wanted to travel like this, ever since the age of 10,” he said. “When I was 18, I travelled like a hippy before joining the army. At university, I hitchhiked from Cairo to London via Baghdad. I didn’t intend to go to Iraq. But when I got to Israel, a bomb went off. The borders were closed, to all but Jordan. Then in Jordan, I couldn’t afford to fly out. The only other border that we could cross was into Iraq.”
He spoke briefly of the harrowing car crash that had disrupted his Himalayan journey for five weeks, when he was evacuated to England from Western Nepal after falling 150 metres into a jungle ravine. He spoke of Walking The Nile – his television break in 2015. For three days during this nine-month expedition, he was joined by journalist Mr Matthew Power, who was sent out to cover the story for the American magazine, Men’s Journal. The writer succumbed to heatstroke and died. Mr Wood might be military trained — for 12 years, he was in the British Army, serving in Afghanistan against Taliban insurgents in Helmand, Kandahar and Kabul — but it seemed he wasn’t interested in passing himself off as tough-for-tough’s sake. Mr Power’s death cast a cloud over the walk — a 4,250-mile journey from the source of the Nile in Rwanda through six African countries to the Delta in Egypt.
But then none of the places he has ever gone are easy. The Nile journey took him through Sudan, through the land of the Nuer and the Dinka. He shows places we fear to travel in a different light. “When you think of Afghanistan, people have this image of bearded mullahs and turbaned Taliban, but where I was travelling in the Wakhan Corridor, women don’t wear veils, and the men are horsemen, not religious fundamentalists. It is a rich and open culture,” he said. Sudan was tricky, he admits. When he entered South Sudan, brutal civil war forced him to skip the Sudd marshes. “It’s considered a pariah state. Genocide, dictatorships, refugee camps. But the Sudanese are also the friendliest people I have ever met. It’s why I like to walk. I like to put myself on the same vulnerable level as others. To be looked at not as a tourist, but as a fellow human being.”
Still, it was bothering me, that when I bumped into him in Nepal, he was “walking with helicopters”. Mr Wood laughed, but only just. “I chartered that helicopter because I was frustrated that the route I was walking through the Himalayas didn’t go anywhere near the highest mountain in the world,” he said. Over an “Everest beer” in the backstreets of Kathmandu the week before, Mr Wood and his companion, Mr Pariyar, had discussed the possibility of a side-trip. Only when they got closer to the iconic peak at Charikot, where they could almost see Everest, did Mr Wood eventually surrender.
“‘Sod it. Let’s fly,’ I said to Binod, unable to resist the temptation any longer,” wrote Mr Wood in his book. “We’d come this far and I knew the call of Chimolungma — mother of the world, as the Tibetans call her — could not simply be ignored. Even if we couldn’t walk there, we simply had to go and pay our respects.”
The next day, Mr Wood set off to continue on his walk. As I watched him disappear among the trees, I was once again seduced — the man who makes world-class documentaries with a hand-held camera, who doesn’t boast to make himself heard, but listens before he speaks, who seems to find a story in everyone, be he soldier or shepherd or journalist who has held him hostage in a small village in the Himalayas. With a red-and-white Arab scarf wrapped around his neck, I thought of Mr TE Lawrence and wondered if he too carried a lucky talisman: a broken army Silva compass with the dial pointing the wrong way.