Pioneers Redefining Possible
LEVISON WOODMaverick journalist and photographer
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.
Kagera River, RwandaWood will begin his walk on the Kagera in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest and estimates he’ll cover 4,250 miles. “Because of political unrest, damming, and controversy over its source, no one has been able to measure the Nile properly,” he says.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, UgandaWood will detour to embed with Ugandan marines battling poachers. “Elephants are being killed every day by Congolese poachers, who come across the border well armed in jeeps,” he says.
Murchison Falls, UgandaHome to one of the highest concentration of hippos and crocodiles in the world. “I’ll cling to rocks to avoid being sucked into croc-infested whirlpools or hack through the surrounding bush, where hippos charge without warning,” Wood says.
Nimule, South SudanThe last holdout of the Lord’s Resistance Army, known for conscripting child soldiers. “The rebels are now part of the government and pose less of a threat today,” Wood says.
Yambio, South SudanWood is taking a side trip to Yambio to see the antipoaching efforts of conservation group Flora and Fauna International.
Juba, South SudanA Wild West boomtown. South Sudan is the size of Texas, and in 2005, there were only a few miles of paved roads. Juba, the capital, is strewn with land mines, a legacy of the war, but Wood says NGOs are working hard to clear them.
The Sudd, South SudanOne of the largest swamps in the world, the Sudd will take six weeks to hike around. “Vehicles can’t get in, and helicopters can’t land,” Wood says. “If I get sick or wounded, I’m truly screwed.”
Khartoum, SudanThe city where the Blue and White Niles converge. It’s also where Wood will enter the realm of Islam. “There are still a lot of issues with human rights violations in Sudan, but I want to see for myself the truth of the situation,” he says.
Sahara DesertWood will cover 1,000 miles of desert in northern Sudan and Egypt, with temperatures reaching 120 degrees. “I’ll pass the pyramids of Meroë,” he says. “There are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt.”
Lake Nasser, Egypt and SudanThe next biggest obstacle after the Sudd, the lake is 300 miles long north to south, and the region is uninhabited. It will take five weeks to walk around.
Cairo, EgyptThe Nile runs right into the center of this city of nine million, the largest Wood will walk through.
RosettaThe end of the journey. “A nice dinner and a snooze will probably be on the agenda,” Wood says.