Levison Wood, the first man to walk the entire length of the River Nile, says he plans to show Africa in a different light in his new series Walking the Nile (9pm, Sundays on Channel 4). “If you think of Africa you think Ebola, you think Bob Geldof and you think of starving kids, but there’s more to it than that,” explains the ex-soldier.
“We hope to smash a few preconceptions along the way and show people the reality of the Africa that I travel through,” Wood continues, “it’s not just about the adventure, and it’s not just about the challenge, It’s about the interaction with people along the way.”
Travelling through Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt, Wood contends with deadly creatures and physical ailments. “I got something called a jigger,” he says, “which is a sandfly that buried its eggs in my toes. I had to chop the end of my toe off.” Wood also came face to face with a crocodile, lost two stone on his trek and arrived in Sudan, just after local militia had overtaken a UN base and killed 60 people. “We got caught up in a gun battle,” explains Wood, “we had to sit and wait it out in a house while there was a battle going on all around, it was pretty hair-raising stuff.” The UN sent out a plane to rescue foreigners in the area, “unfortunately there wasn’t enough room for me so I had to hitchhike in the back of a lorry out of town,” reveals Wood.
Despite finding himself in a battlezone, the traveller has fond memories of his time in Sudan. “People think of the brutal dictatorship, but the reality is, some of the people in Sudan are the friendliest I’ve ever met. It says a lot about a country when every single house has an urn of water that’s just there for passing strangers to help themselves to. Some of these houses are 10 miles away from the river and they go out every day to fill up these water urns, it’s incredible.”
Wood met tribal leaders all over Africa, stayed with local farmers, fishermen and shepherds and got involved with strange rituals including a milk shower carried out by a local witch doctor. “I saw the whole spectrum of humanity living along one river,” he explains. “It restored my hope in humanity, everywhere I went I was looked after, people go out of their way to help”. Wood would rather not be portrayed as another Bear Grylls, but as an observer of humanity.
“People ask ‘do you want to be the next Bear Grylls?’ To be honest, not really,” says Wood. “The survival thing is just a small part of it. That’s not my focus or the focus of the show. For me, an expedition is so much more than putting one foot in front of the other. It’s about showing the world what the reality is. It’s about history, geography and the people along the way.”
He hopes to inspire a new generation of explorers, “We need to challenge ourselves on a daily basis, and you don’t need to walk across an entire continent to do that,” he says. “It’s about choosing a goal and sticking to it. If you’ve got something exciting you want to do, I would encourage people to go and do it, not put it off, just make it reality.”
Watch Walking the Nile at 9pm, Sundays on Channel 4.