Levison Wood
March 17, 2015

RedOrbit exclusive: ‘Walking the Nile’ with British explorer Levison Wood

John Hopton for redOrbit.com - @Johnfinitum

You know you’re on one hell of journey when you're walking through the entire Sahara desert – in summer.

Last year, British explorer Levison Wood attempted to become the first person in history to walk the entire length of the River Nile, an expedition which would take nine months, seven million steps and masses of physical and mental endurance to deal with the challenges thrown at him by nature and humanity along the world’s longest river.

Walking the Nile, which will be shown on Animal Planet on Wednesday, March 18th, documents Wood’s 4250 mile journey through six African countries from Uganda to Egypt, during which time he encountered some of Earth’s most beautiful and brutal landscapes, negotiated war zones, minefields and ganglands, and enjoyed the hospitality of remarkable communities. Walking the Nile is one of the most real travel documentaries ever seen on TV, and the explorer has to deal with an awful tragedy early on in the trip.

“The biggest challenge wasn’t the physical, it was more the mental, and having to deal with that and the motivation each day - that was the biggest thing,” Wood told RedOrbit. “My body held up as well as could be expected and you just kind of get on with it; you can override that – but mentally, that’s the most difficult thing.”

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He says he dealt with the challenge by “Reminding myself on a daily basis just how lucky I was to be doing this in the first place, even though it was tough. Being in a position to be able to explore Africa was of course a huge privilege.” He also listened to audiobooks and shared his music with a nomadic guide who appeared to take to Gnarls Barkley.

An iPhone but no water

There is a memorable scene where two Bedouin Sahara guides give the explorer a traditional (and rough) massage and cheer him up with a dance, but things get much more serious for the group when they run out of water during a detour away from the Nile, and are perilously close to dehydration before finding a remote well.

Asked how to navigate sections where the Nile was not visible, Wood told us that he made use of modern technology such as Google Maps on his iPhone, a contrast to his often primitive surroundings. Overall, though, the set-up was very basic, usually involving only Wood and one or two local guides. He spent large sections entirely alone, filming himself, and said that here monotony was a significant challenge.

The milk-drinking giants

The ex-paratrooper spent most nights sleeping rough: under the desert sky, on the tarmac by the side of treacherous roads and among the sounds of the African jungle, and in one of the most memorable parts of the journey he is awoken by a giant of a man from South Sudan’s Mundari tribe to experience a day in the life of a people who, unfathomably, survive mostly on milk.

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“They’re basically completely reliant on the cows and have been for hundreds of years,” Wood says. “(The cows) are a form of wealth; they don’t use money. A prize cow can be worth the equivalent of 10,000 dollars.” He adds that: “If you want to get married you need a minimum of 50 cows, upwards of 200 sometimes. Because of that it’s also a source of conflict; there’s a lot of cattle raiding and many wars have been fought over them.”

Burned cow dung is rubbed on the body as an insect repellent, and urine is used in all kinds of ways, including as an antiseptic and an all over bodywash.

“They do it for few reasons,” Wood explains. “It dyes their hair red which they find attractive, and they use it to wash because it is safer than washing in the river, due to the crocodiles.” The cows are rarely used for meat, and looking at the healthy state of the people, milk is enough. “They’re pretty big guys just from drinking milk!” Wood says.

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So by the end of the adventure, how did he feel about the river he had walked beside for nine months? “It was definitely a love-hate relationship, a lot of the time I hated that river,” Wood concludes. “But in hindsight it gave me some incredible memories and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Walking the Nile premieres on Animal Planet Wednesday, March 18, in a three-hour special from 8-11PM.


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