Levison Wood is one of the most accomplished explorers in the world. He’s walked the Nile, crossed Madagascar and most recently hiked the Himalayas from Afghanistan to Bhutan. It’s an exhausting lifestyle, but Wood says he usually sleeps pretty well — when he’s not getting chased by lions, hippos and buffaloes.
A former officer in the British Parachute Regiment, Wood has served in Afghanistan and lives in London when he’s not traversing entire continents. He’s also a keen-eyed photographer and a charming storyteller: his book “Walking the Himalayas” documents his most recent expedition, a trek through the entirety of the famed mountain range, which is also the subject of a documentary on the UK’s Channel 4.
In his own words, here’s an honest-to-goodness explorer on sleeping in the Himalayas, eating goat’s brains and cold nights spent in the company of scorpions and spiders.
Sleeping in the wild is a lot easier than you’d think. It’s a simple life. Probably the one thing you might not know is that in the jungle, rather than camping I always take a hammock. You don’t want to be walking around at night in the jungle, just because there’s so many things out there that can ruin your day — lots of snakes, scorpions and spiders. So as soon as it goes dark, and usually that’s pretty early if you’re around the equator — four or five o’clock — you’ve gotta be in your hammock. And it doesn’t get light again ’til six or seven, so you’re basically in your hammock for ten, twelve hours of the day. So you get a lot of sleep.
In an ideal scenario, you find a local village and you ask the chiefs if they’ll let you camp by the village — near a river, so you can get water. You try and buy dinner or something to eat and it’s usually fine. But it certainly happens sometimes, especially in the more remote places, that the villagers will come out because they’re curious. In a place like northern Pakistan or Afghanistan, they don’t have TVs, so you’re the entertainment while you’re trying to camp in a place like that. All the kids come out and will stand there for hours, just watching you do your stuff.
In Afghanistan, at the beginning of the journey we were in this very remote place called the Wakhan Corridor. The only people there live in yurts, and they didn't know who we were — they thought we were religious fundamentalists. So we had to convince them that we were not, in fact, members of the Islamic State, we were there just to do this expedition. When we finally convinced them, it was fine — we got to eat goat's brains and eyeballs and things like that as we camped among the nomads.
Walking at night is difficult. Unless you’re gonna have your headlamp or torch on all the time, you’re gonna trip and fall and break your leg. Particularly if you’ve got camels, camels don’t like walking at night. So what you have to do is wake up really early, four or five o’clock, walk until about 11 a.m., and as soon as it gets too hot, find or make some shelter. Then try to rest during the hottest part of the day and walk again during the evening. But you need to be camped up as soon as it gets dark.
I’ve had plenty of sleepless nights. In the Himalayas, myself and the cameraman, I remember we got lost in the forest high in the mountains in Kashmir. Basically we got separated from our guide and the horses that were carrying all of our equipment. It got dark, and we found ourselves in this very remote valley with a river that we couldn’t cross, because the water was too fast-flowing. It was too late in the day to try to climb out of the valley — these was very steep mountains — so we had to find this broken old shepherd’s hut and try to sleep in there.
We didn’t have any sleeping bags and we had no warm clothes. Luckily we had a lighter, so we could make a fire, and that was probably the only thing that kept us alive. So we didn’t get much sleep because of the cold and because we didn’t have much food — but the worst thing of all was that the floor was just crawling with scorpions, millipedes and snakes.
Usually I dream about food. If you’re on an expedition or a long-term journey — in the Himalayas I was away for six months — it’s not about the luxuries, you don’t expect the luxuries, but it’s always the essentials you’re concerned about. Where the next meal is coming from. And so you tend to dream about a lot of food.
It’s not like you can carry any special nutritious food on a long journey, not even any rations. You can only really carry three or four days’ worth of food. So we have to rely pretty much entirely on what we find along the way. So you’ll forage, or you find your roots going from village to village, but sometimes you might be two or three days, maybe more, from any sort of civilization, and when you get there it might not be anything more than buying some rice. Sometimes you have to go kill a goat or whatever. But you eat whatever you can get your hands on — sometimes it was as simple as some rotten old rice and that was it.
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the cold. There’s nothing quite so uncomfortable as waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and the sun’s coming up and it’s just freezing cold outside — getting out of your sleeping bag and having to pack it up, especially if it’s snowing or raining. My favorite environment is the desert. It’s clean, it’s not wet, you get out of your tent as soon as the sun comes up, because if you stay in your tent longer than that you’re in an oven. So I like the desert — it’s the easiest environment to operate in.
My bedside table: In my house I’ve got some of the things I’ve collected on my journeys. It’s a bit of a cliché — the trinkets I’ve collected along the way, some memorabilia and always a good book.