Best-selling author, explorer and film-maker Levison Wood has led expeditions on five continents. His latest book documents a hitch-hiking trip from England to India as a 22-year-old
What inspired your trip along the Silk Road?
I’d just finished studying the history of overland travel at university and I had always been interested in The Great Game, the Silk Road and the stories of the hippy trail, so I wanted to do my own overland journey across Asia. I knew I needed to pick a destination to make it a set challenge, so I picked India and my friend Jon and I set off from Grantham motorway service station. It took five months to reach Goa.
What surprised you most about the trip?
Probably just how easy it actually was to hitchhike through Europe. Of course there was some hanging around but it only took three days to reach the Czech Republic. I had visions of us standing in the pouring rain, unable to get a lift for days, but people were kind and generous, which was reassuring. Also the hospitality of the people of the Caucasus was just amazing.
What was your highlight?
Probably the friendliness of the people in Georgia where I made friends with a young guy on the ferry crossing over the Black Sea. He was called Lasha and introduced himself as a footballer. He invited me to his house and hosted me for days, showing me his hometown of Poti in Georgia and his university. I ate with his family even though they really had very little – no running water or electricity, and they were so generous. On top of that the scenery there was incredible with the raw open plains and snow-capped mountains.
Who was your childhood hero?
When I was younger I saw a painting by an artist called David Shepherd, who was known for his pictures of elephants. I soon worked out that this man travelled around the world, sitting in sprawling African savannahs and depicting some of the world’s most impressive and beautiful animals, while fighting to conserve them as well. It wasn’t long before I discovered that my painting skills weren’t necessary going to earn me a living, but I knew then that I wanted to travel to new places and see new things as much as I possibly could. I read up as much as I could as a kid about conservation and was also inspired of course by Sir David Attenborough.
What constitutes luxury travel for you?
It’s all about the level of customer service and the attention to detail for me – that’s what provides that special something that will set a hotel apart. I spent an amazing week at the Weligama Cape resort in Sri Lanka that epitomised luxury. Luxury is about getting your money’s worth I guess and when you have precious little time to spend on a holiday with your family you don’t want to be kept waiting around. It’s about good atmosphere, good food and the small things.
What is your most precious souvenir?
I have collected some amazing artefacts from my travels ranging from Persian rugs to silver daggers. I’ve got a great coin collection from every country I’ve visited and some ancient bits of pottery and fossils from around the world. But one of the most amazing things I brought back was from the Darien Jungle in Panama where an old tribal lady gave me a thing she described as the head of a thunderbolt. It was a triangular fossil that was sharp, resembling a spearhead. She was convinced it was from lightning. Actually it was a Megalodon tooth from a 30-metre prehistoric shark millions of years old, from when Central America was underwater. But of course try explaining that to someone who had never seen the sea!
What has been the most surreal experience?
Meeting the Dalai Lama was a pretty surreal. I’d tried to get an audience with him when I was 22 and was hitchhiking through India, but he was out of office. I persevered and managed to meet him 12 years later when I was in Dharamsala in the Himalayas again. I was called in to see him and was ready to receive some profound wisdom from the great holy man. Instead he just gave me some travel advice on how to get visas for China.
What is the strangest thing you have ever eaten?
The food in Uganda was pretty unusual and included bush rat and maggot stew.
What is the first thing on your expedition packing list?
I don’t travel anywhere without my Leica SL camera. I’d feel lost without it.
If you could revisit one place, where would it be?
I return to Nepal often and it always impresses me. It’s beautiful, the climate is gorgeous and the people are warm and friendly.
You’re currently circumnavigating the Arabian peninsula for a documentary. What can you tell us about that?
It will cover more than 10 countries and hopefully show people that even though the Middle East is one of the most contested regions on the planet, it’s also one of the most diverse, beautiful and welcoming.
What would be your luxury item on a desert island?
Sad to say, but probably my iPhone.
Eastern Horizons: Hitchhiking The Silk Road by Levison Wood, published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20, is out now.