Explorer Levison Wood shares tales from his dangerous travels in the Arabian Peninsula in a new UK tour coming to Yorkshire. James Rampton reports.
The British explorer, writer and photographer Levison Wood has led the kind of exciting life that most of us can only dream of.
His extraordinary expeditions have seen him take a 1800-mile trip along Central America from Mexico to Colombia, walk the length of the Himalayas, cross Madagascar on foot and trace the route of the Nile from Rwanda to Egypt.
A rare and dangerous circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula is the latest riveting adventure Levison, a former captain in the Parachute Regument who served in Afghanistan, has added to his name.
And it is his account of this trip that will be at the heart of his new live theatre show Journeys Through the Badlands and Beyond, which gets underway in Yorkshire next week.
Levison will reveal behind-the-scenes incidents from his five-month journey, which he has also filmed for a forthcoming documentary series, and share stories of those he met along the way.
His boldest expedition yet, also the subject of his new book Arabia to be published on November 1, covered a 5,000 mile route from Iraq to Lebanon and involved encounters with Palestinian fighters, Iraqi snipers, refugees and Bedouin nomads.
Levison will talk about such adventures as navigating pirate-infested waters in a rickety wood dhow and taking tea with the Hezbollah, before taking part in a Q&A.
“It’s one of the most controversial regions in the world and one of the most difficult to travel in, especially if, like me, you’re trying to maintain an objective standpoint. Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are all hotspots which are in the news for the wrong reasons. I’m trying to explore them from a different perspective. I’m not going there looking for trouble. It’s about meeting fascinating people.”
It is impossible to remain unaffected by the devastation he witnessed when travelling through many ravaged war zones in the Middle East. “Of course, it gets to you. You can’t detach yourself from it when you hear the personal stories of people who have lost family members. But meeting people and hearing their experiences is what this journey is about.”
It was not short of tense and tricky moments; from being smuggled into Yemen over mountains by rebels to travelling with the army through Iraq.
“I was embedded with the Iraqi army when we were suddenly ambushed by ISIS,” the 36-year-old recalls. “Helicopters were flying overhead and bombs were going off everywhere. It was a bit tense. It was a full-on ambush, but luckily I was on the winning side. They out-gunned them and ended up capturing three ISIS commanders.”
“[The journey into Yemen] was dangerous because if things go wrong, no one will help you,” muses Levison, who recently rejoined the army as a reservist Major in the 77th Brigade. “The Foreign Office aren’t going to come and get you. If it goes belly up, that’s it.”
You can’t get scared though, he says. “You have to go into professional mode and revert to your military training.”
There are lines he won’t cross. “But you accept the risks on these journeys. By pushing the boundaries, you can come back with stories that no one else has got and give audiences an insight into a world they have never seen before. My aim is to shine a spotlight on stories that have been forgotten.”
“I’ve been able to go to dangerous places by putting my faith in the kindness of strangers,” says Levison, who hopes to overturn myths and stereotypes.
“It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m very positive about people. The reality is that despite what you see in the news, most people are pretty decent. The beauty of the Middle East is that people are very hospitable.”
The UK tour, Levison’s second, will be at Sheffield City Hall on Sunday and Leeds Town Hall on Monday.