RISING When you travel, how are you trying to connect with a place, rather than imposing yourself upon it?
LEVISON WOOD ‘For me the sense of place is really important because I think it's important to go to somewhere as an objective observer. I don't really consider myself a journalist as such; my background is as a photographer. Seeing that life through a lens had a big influence on my writing and going there trying to draw out the stories from other people and people that live there. For me, that's what it's all about, it's finding their stories and finding what makes them tick, and what the place means to people who live there.’
RISING You’ve walked the length of the Nile – does your approach affect how you choose what journeys to take?
LW ‘My journeys have been taking the construct of a linear journey along a geographical feature, whether that's a river or a mountain range, or a stretch of land separating continents. Whether it's a mountain range or a river or whatever, and seeing what that sense of place means to the people, what brings people together, what separates people. Ultimately it's been interesting seeing that there's a lot more that unites people than separates them.’
RISING What was the reaction of the people whose villages you were walking through?
LW ‘Walking along a big river like the Nile you meet these tribes of people in different parts of Africa. They ask you what you're doing and you say, “I'm walking the Nile,” and they'll look at you as if, like completely nonplussed by it, like, “Oh, that's nice,” they're going to say, “Oh, that will probably take you a long time.” I remember one guy, and I was like, “How long do you think it will take?” and he said, “I don't know, it's quite a long way, it will probably take you a week.” He had no idea, no concept of how long this river was, or concept of distance or geography. It's only when you make things relative to the people that live there, for instance, telling the people that I was going to walk to the next village; they were far more shocked and surprised, “You can't do that, that's too far,” even though that's only 20 miles away. That, for them, was a far greater achievement than telling them you're walking the entire length of the river.’
RISING So, you have to tune in to a different world-view when talking to locals?
LW ‘If they're a farmer or a fisherman they don't care where Russia is, they don't care where England is, they don't care where America is. You've got to approach people and find out what makes them tick, and for them it's whether or not they're going to catch a fish that morning. They don't care about you or your expedition or anything like that. I find that fascinating, just relating to different people around the world and trying to understand what's important to them.’
RISING What’s been the most surprising encounter you’ve had with people?
LW ‘There are thousands but probably Sudan, the people were so incredible and hospitable. The hospitality was almost overwhelming, when every single village you get to people run out of their homes, offering you a glass of water or some food. They want you to stay and teach their kids English. One guy offered to build me a house if I stayed. It got so much we had to kind of hide from the villagers because we were getting slowed down on the journey. We camped out on the sand dunes a mile away, and I remember one night we made a little fire. The villagers were curious as to who these people were, hiding from the village, and we got surrounded. They were really upset that we weren't accepting the hospitality. One guy stormed off, came back an hour later – he’d carried his bed on his head from his village and said, “If you're not coming into my home, my home is coming to you.”
RISING Do you think that the unwritten rule of hospitality becomes important in remote places where people end up relying on each other a bit more?
LW ‘I think so. It also goes to show that the world's not actually as bad a place as the media likes to make out. I feel that's my job at times, to show to people that ground truth and actually highlight some of the positive human stories, rather than the constant narrative of negativity that we get from most parts.’
‘Talk to normal people, not just the bloke selling you trinkets on the beach or the barman’
RISING The style of your expeditions is to just embark and rely on local knowledge to get you through – what’s that like?
LW ‘You're entirely reliant on the hospitality of the local people, who are going to guide you along the way and feed you and put you up for the night. And that's what I enjoy, every day’s challenges – I’ve got no idea where I'm going to sleep for the night. That's quite fun. The unknown is the surprise, the daily surprise. It keeps things exciting.’
RISING Is there anywhere you didn’t feel that level of hospitality?
LW ‘Probably one of the least welcoming places I've ever been to is Egypt. Along the Nile was the most touristic place, but I think it's because they get so many tourists – they’ve become immune to that hospitality over the years. Actually that was the only place I got any real aggro. People throwing stones, kids getting the catapults out and whacking you as you're going past. I think that's just a result of it being a country that's had tourists for three thousand years.’
RISING It’s quite hard these days to travel and not be a tourist, just bagging Instagram pictures all the time – how can we get a more genuine experience?
LW ‘Just talk to normal people, not just the people that are involved in the tourist industry, not just the bloke selling you trinkets on the beach or the barman. Just go and have a chat with a normal person doing whatever they're doing, or ask directions. People sometimes are a bit hard to open up a bit, but if you can explain that you just want to know a bit more about them, people are generally quite welcoming and happy to talk about it.’
RISING You’re a photographer – got any tips on how to take a great travel photo?
LW ‘You kind of want to build a style. It's trying to find what your style is and creating a number of images that can work together. Whether that's on Instagram, or doing an exhibition. If you find something that you like, then that's very personal, you can try and replicate that in different environments, with different people and different portraits. It's just choosing a style and being consistent.’
RISING Have you ever bitten off more than you could chew on an expedition?
LW ‘I always bite off more than I can chew on an expedition! I think physically and emotionally the Nile was definitely the biggest journey, just because it was so long and I had no idea how long it was going to take. Since then I’ve got a benchmark and I know how many miles I can walk in a day – anywhere between 15 and 25 miles a day consistently over months and months.’
‘I always take my compass everywhere I go, a nice clean white linen shirt and my camera’
RISING How do you maintain that consistency? That’s the thing that most people wouldn't normally be able to understand…
LW ‘Yes, it's not overdoing it – it’s knowing when to stop and actually not doing an extra ten miles. Actually if you do that, you're going to injure yourself. Better to just be consistent and say, “Right, I'm not doing more than 20 miles, that's it.”
RISING You’re obviously well practised in travelling light – what do you cut out and what do you never leave the house without?
LW ‘You cut away all luxuries, you only take what you need and that's it. Then I always take my compass everywhere I go. A nice clean white linen shirt, you never know who you're going to bump into – you can't always be in your jungle rags – and my camera.’
RISING Lastly, as a Brit you should be obsessed with following the weather but that’s hard when travelling unsupported and solo?
LW ‘Well, my skin is waterproof.’
WHAT NEXT? Levison Wood leads the 2017 San Miguel Rich List. Returning for its second year, the Rich List looks to unearth individuals and groups who have devoted their lives to pursuing all things ‘experience’. For more information visit the website here.