IF ANYONE’S UP for becoming the first person to walk the 4,175-mile Nile River, it’s Levison Wood. In 2004, at the age of 22, he hitchhiked from England to India. Along the way, he walked across Afghanistan, where he later fought as a British Parachute Regiment captain on the front lines against the Taliban. In 2010, he delivered ambulances from London to Malawi, driving through 27 frequently hostile countries. Among many other adventures, he’s also led the first-ever crossing of Madagascar, pioneered whitewater rafting trips in South Sudan, and led an expedition to Siberia's Oymyakon, the coldest inhabited place on earth.
But deciding to walk the Nile, says Wood, now 31, is the boldest thing he’s ever tried to do. “When you’re a kid, you have pipe dreams. Mine was to be an explorer. So I read books about explorers when I was young. How did they get to be where they are? I realized they joined military. They became Army officers. So I studied history at university, notably the history of Africa and exploration in Africa, and later became an Army officer. Eventually it came together. With the Nile trip, I thought: There aren’t many things people haven't done yet. Why not try this?”
Until the early 20th century, malaria killed almost everyone who tried to walk the Nile. More recently, countries like Uganda and Sudan have been too dangerous to pass through. But with effective anti-malarials and South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011, Wood believes now’s the time. “It’s the last great world first,” he says. “For me, it’s about pushing limits. This is my line of work. I’ve been doing it for years. I know Africa reasonably well, but walking the Nile will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
In many ways, it will be much more difficult than walking the length of the world’s other famous river, the Amazon, which British explorer Ed Stafford completed in 2010 after two full years of trekking. And while the Amazon’s killer species are mostly limited to venomous snakes and spiders, the Nile’s riverbank presents a safari’s worth of man-eating predators. Wood can expect to encounter lions, leopards, hippos, and crocodiles—not to mention vast stretches of desert, antsy militia and rebels, and other life-threatening hazards. “There are as many reasons not to walk the Nile as it is miles long,” says New Zealander Cam McLeay, who ascended the length of Nile in inflatable powerboats in 2005. During that trip, McLeay and his expedition mates confirmed what most consider to be the furthest source of the Nile, a tributary of the Kagera River in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest. “That's why it took thousands of years for anyone to paddle its entire length. The Amazon simply doesn’t have the same magnitude or variety of challenges that the Nile does.”
Overcoming the obstacles is just part of the mission’s journey. Along the way, Wood also hopes to raise awareness about some of the contemporary issues that face Africa in the twenty-first century and encourage dialogue between nations. Embarking in early winter, Wood plans to reach the Mediterranean Sea in Rosetta, Egypt, by December 2014.