Explorer Levison Wood on the pull of solo travel

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Need solo travel inspiration? As he completes his latest epic voyage across the Middle East, Flash Pack catches up with journalist, photographer and extreme adventurer Levison Wood

It’s fair to say that Levison Wood doesn’t have the average day job.

The seasoned explorer is pining for downtime on a tropical beach after his latest five-month expedition – a 5,000-mile, 13 country circumnavigation of the Arabian peninsula.

Wood travelled by foot, camel and hitchhiking for the ambitious feat, documented in his latest book, Arabia (it will also be shown in a documentary airing early next year.).

Following in the footsteps of greats such as Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger, Wood journeyed mostly alone across the Middle East from Yemen to Syria and Iraq.

His aim? To capture a side of the region beyond the negative headlines we’re so familiar with.

A different take on the Middle East

“It really goes all the way back to 2003,” explains Wood, on the motivation behind his latest voyage.

“When I was a student, me and a mate went on a holiday backpacking around Egypt. This was the summer that the Iraq war had happened, and it was quite an interesting time to be there due to various circumstances. I ended up going to Baghdad and found myself having to hitchhike through Iraq in the aftermath of the war. It left an impression on me.”

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Wood has visited the region since – most notably Afghanistan when he served on tours in the British Army – but his return was for more than nostalgic reasons: “I thought ‘why not go to the Middle East and try and do what I’ve done with other journeys, and challenge a few stereotypes and preconceived ideas about the region?’

“The area is usually in the press for negative reasons,” he adds. “Obviously a lot has happened since I was there in 2003 – the disintegration of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and Israel and Palestine is always a bit messy. But seeing how it has evolved was fascinating, and trying to document that was part of the challenge.”

Unlike Wood’s previous expeditions this decade, which include walking the Nile, the length of the Himalayas and crossing Madagascar on foot, his circumnavigation of the Arabian peninsula was “by any means”.

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But the emphasis was still on travelling slow, and copying how local people got around in any given region: whether that was by donkey, walking or hitching a lift.

“It means that you interact and talk to people,” says Wood. “A lot of times, if you travel on a bus or in a taxi, you only meet people who are used to meeting foreigners. You don’t really have a choice if you’re on foot or you’re hitchhiking.”

Embracing solo travel

Wood has always been driven by a strong sense of wanderlust; he caught the travelling bug young.

“I was very lucky that my parents took me on holiday to Greece when I was about four,” he says. “It was those early childhood memories that inspired me to want to see more of the world.”

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His first solo travelling experience came about when he did the standard pre-university gap year trip aged 18 – “Australia, Thailand, all the usual places” – and that hunger for exploration hasn’t diminished since.

“When you’re a young backpacker, your interests might be slightly different – just going out and having a bit of fun,” he says. “But I love the freedom of the road, and that’s what I still aspire to.

“Even at the age of 36, I’d love to go and do a backpacking trip; just go in a certain direction and see what happens. I think there’s something liberating about that.”

Although his adventurous spirit remains as strong as ever, there is the sense that the years on the road have made Wood wiser. He’s stared down a fair few dramas in his time, from breaking his arm when his car went over a cliff in Nepal, to being shot at by ISIS.

“My concept of risk has changed,” he says.

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“I suppose I was quite reckless when I was 19. But I’ve got more of an understanding of what the real risks are. Often the real risks are getting in a dodgy car with crap brakes.

“It’s not necessarily getting shot up by ISIS that is the dangerous thing. It’s actually the more boring bits that can do you in.”

Taking the adventure plunge

But that doesn’t mean Wood thinks that travelling the world should be restricted to seasoned explorers like himself – far from it. His advice to anyone toying with the idea of solo expedition is to just go ahead and do it.

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“I think half the battle is just getting around to saying ‘this is what I’m doing,’” he says. “So I’d just say, do it. If you’re travelling around, you stay in different places and you meet different and more people. You’re forced to interact, and, as a result, you come away with more memories and more friends.”

He also recommends packing light: “with a couple of changes of clothes, a camera, a credit card and a toothbrush, you can pretty much get away with anything really!”

Wood’s other tip is that, if it’s your first time going alone, then South East Asia is a good place to ease yourself into it: “It’s really easy, there’s a great quality of life and travel, and there’s a good backpacking culture around, so you’re going to meet a lot of interesting people.”

Beers on the beach

But what do you do if you’re a globe-trotting man that has seen it all? Where can you possibly go?

“On my most recent journey, Lebanon was a real highlight – it was my first time in the country, and I’d love to spend some more time there, maybe skiing in the winter,” Wood says. “And then hopefully, when the war finally finishes, back to Syria, because it’s got so much to offer.”

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In terms of his next big trek though, nothing is set in stone. “There are a few places I want to visit,” he says. “But I want to go somewhere I can have a beer on the beach first.”

After the year he’s had, we think he’s earned it.

Images: Levison Wood/Instagram, Simon Buxton, Flash Pack

Levison Wood’s latest book Arabia: A Journey through the Heart of the Middle East, is out now. He stayed at Rotana Hotels and Resorts throughout his Middle Eastern adventure

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