Levison Wood was sure his forearm had been ripped off when the car he was travelling in shot off the cliff.
The former paratrooper, television personality and travel author, who was on a 2,700km trek across the Himalayas from Afghanistan to Bhutan, had hailed a taxi while in Nepal ‘to be safe during the Maoist strikes’. With his brother Pete and a guide, the trio had piled into an SUV that had seen better days and had set off late at night from a village near Kathmandu, little knowing what was in store. As the vehicle hastened down the narrow, slippery mountain road, considered one of the most dangerous in the world, something totally unexpected occurred.
‘As we went round a corner of the road, the brakes failed and the driver lost control of the steering wheel,’ recalls the 35-year-old Levison. ‘We tore off the road and went over the edge of a cliff.’
The car plummeted 150metres down the mountainside.
The intrepid British explorer recalls the next few terrifying moments in his book Walking the Himalayas: ‘As we flew off the edge, I felt my body fill with adrenalin. That’s what happens when your subconscious knows you are about to die. Then came the first bounce. Then another. It felt like I was inside a tumble dryer, each crash more horrific than the last.’
Two years after the incident, in an exclusive interview to Friday, Levison reckons ‘we did about 10 rolls, bouncing off the hillside’.
When the car finally came to rest and he could crawl out of the wreckage, Levison tried to feel his right arm that was throbbing with pain. But, shockingly, he could feel nothing below his elbow. It took the ex-serviceman a few seconds to realise that, in the impact, his arm had broken and bent backwards, and the snapped bone was tearing his muscle.
‘We were lucky to be alive and we owe huge thanks to nearby villagers who heard our screams and came out to look for us,’ he says. ‘It was the scariest moment ever in my travels.’
Although the accident almost cost him his limb if not his life, less than two months later, the adventurer, a scar running from shoulder to elbow following surgery in London, was back on the same road, keen to pick up from where he had tumbled off.
‘I returned to visit the crash site with my guide, who had also been in the accident, and we climbed down to the valley,’ he says.
The British national went on to complete the journey that was televised on UK’s Channel 4 as a five-part documentary series. The book that came out of his trip was voted Adventure Travel Book of the Year at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards.
It was not the first time that Levison’s adventures had earned him laurels. The year before his scary mishap, in 2014, he walked the length of the river Nile – 6,839km – over nine months documenting his walk for Channel 4. The book, Walking the Nile, was a bestseller.
A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Levison has done more than just walking across nations. He has lead expeditions on five continents, eyeballed tigers and crocodiles, even a cannibal, walked in sub-zero temperatures and endured frostbite. Why does he do all of this?
‘I’ve always had a thirst for adventure,’ says the thrill-seeker who will be a speaker at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, who grew up in Forsbrook, a village in Staffordshire.
His thirst for adventure was matched by a passion for reading tales of human courage in the wilderness.
‘I loved reading history books by the great explorers and hearing their intrepid stories,’ says the explorer who credits Capt Scott, Richard Burton and David Livingstone for inspiring him to push the boundaries of adventure.
‘I loved walking when I was young and was definitely inspired by growing up near the moorlands. I would go on long walks, and we had the Peak District nearby, which gave me a taste of the great outdoors.’
While in school he would set off on adventure trips regularly. ‘But the one that was particularly formative was during a summer when I was at university and a friend and I decided to hitchhike across Egypt, Jordan and Iraq,’ he says. Although barely 18 at the time, the trip was clearly an insightful one. ‘It showed me that there is so much more to the region than what people think.’
Four years later, as a 22-year-old, he went backpacking along the fabled Silk Route. Slipping on his walking boots in England, he hitchhiked through Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on to China on a shoestring budget of pounds 750. It resulted in a book, Eastern Horizons, which was also well received by his readers and critics.
The thirst for adventure unabated, last year the adrenaline junkie decided to retrace part of the Silk Route journeying 2,600miles from Russia to Iran and was pleasantly surprised that little had changed.
‘There were a lot of similarities and some places hadn’t changed all that much,’ he says. ‘There was just a little addition of technology here and there, but then places such as Sochi in Russia, which has grown rapidly, were unrecognisable. It was great to reconnect with old friends I’d made in places like Georgia.’ One such friend was so hospitable that he insisted Levison stay back a night and wash down three bottles of a beverage hugely popular in Russia.
‘There are countless [such] memorable moments of hospitality all over the world,’ he says. ‘For instance, I was looked after by amazing Bedouins in Jordan who took me in. Also, in Sudan, which was a real hub of hospitality, every house we passed, people were coming out to offer us tea and snacks.’
While meeting and interacting with people is a huge bonus, an overriding reason Levison goes on extended walks is to ‘share and document adventures in places that tend to be in the news for the wrong reasons’, he says. ‘For instance, there is more to Afghanistan and Pakistan than bombs and bullets.
‘The Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan, is an example. It’s hardly been touched by war. It’s such a remote, high plateau that warring factions have avoided it altogether; there are still nomadic communities who live up there. They live off the land and their animals; they’d have to walk for days if they need hospitals. It’s not what people expect.’
What tourists would also not expect are the kinds of foods you get here. There’s a portion in an episode of his travels when Levison’s Afghan hosts offer him goats’ eyes and brains insisting that they are delicacies. Not wanting to hurt their feelings – after all, they had slaughtered the animal in his honour - Levison accepts the platter but, tongue firmly in cheek, he says: ‘they kept they best bits’.
Brains and visual organs, though, are not the only unusual foods he has had the opportunity to taste during his trips.
‘I’ve had all sorts of unusual and sometimes slightly unpleasant things,’ says Levison, who served in Afghanistan and quit the army in 2010 to pursue a career in writing. ‘I’ve tried rat in Uganda, python in South Sudan…’
Food aside, the author says that what truly captivated him during his walks were the sights and the people.
‘Bhutan was a fascinating place to visit [during my Himalayan walk]; I’d never been there before. It’s a very magical and storied kingdom, which has only recently opened up and doesn’t allow many visitors. There are remote villages and monasteries perched on the side of the mountains and complete mountain wildernesses.
‘But the most enjoyable thing of my walks has to be the amazing people I’ve met and guides I’ve befriended,’ he says.
The people Levison met are from truly varied backgrounds – shepherds in Afghanistan, farmers in the Caucasus, gun-wielding soldiers in Sudan. He once even met the Dalai Lama in India.
‘I’d actually first tried to meet the Dalai Lama when I was 22, and was hitchhiking through India. But he was out of office,’ says Levison. ‘Instead I got to meet him 12 years later when I was in the Himalayas again.
‘I was hoping to get some deep and meaningful wisdom from the great oracle and guru, but actually he just gave me some very useful visa advice on how to get into China.’
Levison, of course, has gleaned more than just travel advice during his tours.
‘As well as realising I can push myself to my physical and mental limits, I’ve learnt more mundane, everyday skills, like having a great deal of patience, particularly when dealing with bureaucracy. It’s also important in what I do to understand risk and what it really means in any given situation,’ he says.
Having traversed some 90-plus nations at last count, there must have been places that threw him some unpleasant surprises?
‘South Sudan has to be the most surprising of all of them,’ he says. ‘It’s very beautiful with fascinating tribes and traditions, but it is riven by civil war and tribalism.’
What kind of preparation goes into the various trips?
‘The preparation is less physical – a bit of yoga to stretch out – and more about mental readiness,’ he says. ‘There is so much behind-the-scenes preparation that people aren’t really aware of – logistical arrangements, writing letters to embassies and ministries and asking them to grant you permits, visa applications that can take months, planning for the trip.’
As for packing, that’s relatively easy, he adds.
‘Apart from the usual stuff, I pack a white linen shirt as well, just in case there are any impromptu meetings or smart occasions when I am travelling,’ he says.
However, his one must-carry-along item is ‘My Oliver Sweeney espadrilles which are always in my backpack. They are waterproof and super light, and a welcome respite from walking boots at the end of the day. And even though I always travel really light, with just a day sack, I always make space for my Leica SL camera.’
As some of his trips may take him months, he misses ‘being away from home often for more weeks of the year than I’m at home. It means I’ve missed a lot of birthdays and weddings… and bills’.
Is there one place he would like to visit?
‘On my current journey I’m getting to visit a lot of places in the Middle East that I’d never been to and always wanted to, such as the Empty Quarter in Oman, which I had read about since I was a boy.’
His toughest mission so far, Levison is attempting to circumnavigate the Arabian peninsula from Mosul in Iraq to Beirut in Lebanon and to the shores of the Mediterranean. He will be travelling by foot, on camel and donkey or even hitch-hiking.
What advice does he have for travellers in search of adventure? What are the dangerous things to look out for?
‘Usually people with guns,’ says Levison. ‘Or dodgy brakes in taxis that are going fast downhill.’
Eastern Horizons: Hitchhiking The Silk Road by Levison Wood is available now