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Walking The Longest River In The World


Levison Wood is an explorer and former military man who is no stranger to a great adventure. When he was in his early twenties, he hitchhiked from England to India. Now in his thirties, he has just completed another epic trek. He recently walked the length of the River Nile. On this week's Winging It, we're taking you along the Nile with Levison Wood.

Levison Wood's journey will be shown on Animal Planet this Wednesday. It is called "Walking The Nile." And he joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Levison, thanks so much for being with us.

LEVISON WOOD: Hi there, my pleasure.

MARTIN: So you began this journey in Rwanda, and you followed the river along its path through several countries - Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Egypt, which are all very different places. I wonder how the people you met - what their relationship was like to that river. Did it vary from place to place?

WOOD: Well, the River Nile is a very iconic river. It's the longest river in the world. And it played a very important part in the creation of civilization, you know? This is a river that's 4,000 miles long. It travels through several countries of which I walked through six - all very, very different in the diversity of the cultures, the people, the landscape was what impressed on me. And I started in the jungles, the rain forests of central Africa, walked through the savannas and swamps of places like Uganda and Tanzania and then eventually got to, you know, the Sahara Desert.

MARTIN: What was the Sahara Desert like?

WOOD: Hot.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WOOD: You know, I was there at literally at the hottest time of year from May through 'til August.

MARTIN: Why did you do that? Couldn't you have scheduled that differently? (Laughter).

WOOD: It was the lesser of two evils, actually, because I had to work it around the rainy season in central Africa. Because that would have been even more difficult because if you try and walk through swampland when it's rainy, you're not going to get very far - plus the flies, the mosquitoes. So unfortunately I had to try and avoid that and hit central Africa in the dry season which ultimately meant getting to the Sahara in the hottest months.

MARTIN: We should backup, though, because tragedy struck your expedition early on. Matt Power was an American journalist who met up with you when you were in Uganda - that leg of your journey. He was there to document your walk. He ended up getting heat exhaustion, and he died on that trip. Did you consider stopping at that point?

WOOD: Yeah, of course. I mean, what happened to Matt was an absolute tragedy. You know, when you go into the wilderness, when you're in remote areas, of course, you know, you know the dangers. And you sign up to those, but it doesn't make it any less of a tragedy when that disaster does strike. Of course, you do question is it worth it? You do question the ethics of what you're doing. And of course, I stopped for several days wondering whether it was the right thing to do. But ultimately, I made the decision, very difficult decision to carry on because I wanted to keep Matt's memory alive by having that resolve to finish.

MARTIN: What kind of preparation did you have to make? Did to go out of your way to make sure that if something really bad happened to you or to anyone on your team that you would be prepared to manage that on your own?

WOOD: Yeah, of course. I had lots of medical training before going on this, refresher training from what I'd been taught in the army. There's lots of things that you need to do to prepare. You know? You have to really do your homework when it comes to the political situations, the culture. And getting to know the right contacts, making that network so that when you turn up, you're not just turning up. You know, you've got the permission, the paperwork. It took me the best part of three years to actually put together and plan. But of course, it's an expedition, and the whole point of it is there's lots of unknowns. And no matter how much preparation you can do, you can't be 100 percent prepared.

MARTIN: You know, you traveled through all these countries, and they each border this very important river. Do they have stories that they tell about this river? Is it purely a utilitarian relationship that they have with this waterway? Or is it something else?

WOOD: Everywhere I went people had very different relationships with the river. An example would be in Rwanda, people didn't want anything to do with the river. The river was seen as something that was cursed. And it was because of the genocide 20 years ago. The river was seen as polluted because so many dead bodies were floating down the river that even now, 20 years later, people have this fear, this sort of aversion to go near the river.

But then further north in Sudan, for instance, the Nubians - they're very ancient people. They've got a very close affiliation with the river. And for them, the stories they, even now, they tell the same stories of the ancient Egyptians had about river gods and river fairies and river demons. And so there's this fascinating association with the river that the Sudanese, you sort of hear in the media that Sudan - people are scared of it. It's a - people think it's a dangerous place. Well, actually I found that Sudan and the Sudanese people were probably the friendliest people I've ever met. And it says a lot about country when people will walk 2, 3, 5, 10 miles to the river to go and fill up these enormous pottery urns that they leave outside of their house, not for themselves but for the passing travelers.

MARTIN: Where next?

WOOD: Well, I do have a big - another big expedition planned for this summer. But I'm afraid it's top-secret at the moment.

MARTIN: I had a feeling you might say that. (Laughter).

WOOD: But watch this space.

MARTIN: But hard to top walking the Nile.

WOOD: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, that gets a little difficult to come up with more extreme adventures.

WOOD: It does. Yeah, there's always bigger and better, or at least people want bigger and better. But this is what I love, so I'm going to go where my passion takes me and go explore another part of the world.

MARTIN: All right, we'll look forward to it. Levison Wood - you can see his journey of the Nile on Animal Planet this Wednesday, 8 p.m. eastern time. The show is called "Walking The Nile." Levison, thanks so much for talking with us. Safe travels.

WOOD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.