In the macho, adrenaline-fuelled arena of TV adventurers, Levison Wood is that rare beast: the real deal. In 2014, the 33-year-old former paratrooper braved gunfire, a charging hippo and 56-degree temperatures to become the first person to walk the length of the Nile. But nothing saw him come as close to meeting his maker as he does on his latest adventure.
Walking 1,700 miles from the snowy peaks of Afghanistan to Bhutan is an epic task, especially when you’re doing it for the most part on your own with little more than a hand-held camera and a local guide.
“I’m taking on an even tougher journey,” he declares in the opening credits – and doesn’t disappoint. In the first episode alone, we saw him gasping and slow as he battled altitude sickness, desperately trying to outpace the threat of an avalanche and hotfooting it out of Taliban territory.
But his closest call came when he was forced to hail a taxi. In western Nepal, he was caught up in violent anti-government strikes and retreated into the mountains in the hope of finding safe accommodation. When night fell, he was still in the middle of nowhere and a lone taxi driver daring to work under cover of darkness agreed to take him to the nearest guesthouse. Halfway there, the brakes failed and the car plunged over a cliff.
“I just thought, ‘This is it,’” he remembers. “It was like being in a film: a sheer drop really high up, although it was pitch black so I didn’t know how high we were at the time. We bounced and rolled about ten times.”
Viewers won’t see it but they will hear it – a heavily abridged version of events in which a man shouts for help. Wood doesn’t know if it’s him. “I’d turned my camera off and put it in my bag. And bizarrely – incredibly – at some point bouncing down the cliff, it must have got knocked on in my bag. We didn’t find out until I handed over all the footage to the guys back in the UK.”
Fortunately, nearby villagers heard their shouts and came to the rescue, carrying them across a river on stretchers to the nearest medical centre. “It was very, very basic. Lots of chickens running round. But they were brilliant and looked after us.”
Wood feared he’d lost an arm because he couldn’t feel it. Later the pain kicked in with a vengeance – the arm was still there but the bone had snapped clean in two. He got off lightly; the driver had been thrown out of the car during its descent.
“He broke pretty much every bone in his body. When they carried us out, they put a blanket over him and told me he was dead. But they managed to resuscitate him. They put him in the back of a jeep and ended up having to drive him to India, which took two days.”
When the weather cleared, Wood was helicoptered to Kathmandu, but had to fly back to the UK to have his arm pinned back together. Five weeks later, he shouldered his camera again and finished his journey. Did his family try to dissuade him?
“They were all quite shocked, of course, but they know I finish what I’ve started. I don’t go out looking for trouble. But ultimately, I’m in this game and it is risky.”
Does he think it’s worth it? “For me the most important thing is showing the other side of places that we see on the news all the time, like Afghanistan, Pakistan – places that have got bad reputations,” he says. “Showing that the people there are very nice and look after you. Challenging perceptions.”