“The Nile expedition was a dream journey as I always wanted to do an epic voyage,” Wood told Guardian 20. “I had always been fascinated by the region and the history of the Nile. It gave me immense happiness and a feeling pride at my occupation as a traveller when I completed my Nile expedition.”
Wood’s expedition came to an end in September 2014, when he became the only person in the world to have made such a daunting and seemingly-impossible voyage, which had taken him two years to prepare.
He took a very detailed approach to it all — studying the area maps closely, as well as his own physical attributes before setting out. There was also the fundraising campaign to be taken care of. Only then was Wood finally able to reach the point of the origin of his expedition — Rwanda. For nine consecutive months from that point on, he followed the path of the river Nile, despite all the literal and metaphorical roadblocks.
Wood started in Rwanda, traced the source of the river and finally finished, nine months later, at a place called Rashid, lying east of Alexandria in Egypt, the point where the Nile flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
A photographer and television presenter, Wood documented his journeys in the book he wrote, Walking the Nile, which was published shortly after he returned home in 2014. There’s also a television documentary on the whole walk, carrying the same title as the book, being aired every Wednesday on Discovery Channel in India. Both the book and the documentary give us a sense of the hardships faced by Wood on a daily basis during his Nile walk. The worst point was when he lost his friend Matthew Power, a British journalist, who was accompanying Wood for a part of the expedition and who died along the way, unexpectedly, of heat stroke. Wood says, “After the death of my friend, Matthew ‘Matt’ Power, I was mentally broken. I even thought of giving up at that point of time but then I decided to carry on. You have to challenge yourself at every step, and then only one can complete such expeditions.”
“I think visiting South Sudan was really terrifying because there is a civil war going on there. Egypt was equally tough due to political instability. I was even arrested in Egypt and put in house arrest for three weeks.”
Wood grew up in the Staffordshire village of Forsbrook, England. And he traces his dreams of becoming a seasoned traveller back to his provincial childhood. “I have always loved travelling,” he says, “and I was fortunate to travel with my parents to different locations from my early childhood. I still remember travelling across Europe and going camping. It was probably those early experiences that gave me the inspiration to carry on. I went on my first independent journey at the age of 18.”
Since then, he has pursued his dream of travelling the world. For the last decade, his journeys, across the Himalayas, through Afghanistan and Bhutan, Mexico and Colombia, have become more and more challenging. Exploring a new place, for Wood, is always a sort of trial by fire. And the Nile, perhaps, was his greatest challenge ever.
Africa had always been high up on Wood’s bucket list. “I was interested in visiting East Africa,” he says. “I was attracted to this region for a long time but the idea of coming here actually came to me about seven years ago when I was working for a charity in Southern Africa. So, when it happened, I kept a journal while travelling to jot down my voyage and the experiences.”
The Nile has got to be the most difficult path to follow across the African continent, not least because of the lurking pathological dangers — this is a belt rife with diseases — and recurring phases of geo-political instability in the region. So what was the most dangerous encounter he faced in his journey? Wood says, “I think visiting South Sudan was really terrifying because there is a civil war going on there. Egypt was equally tough due to the political instability. I was even arrested in Egypt and was put in house arrest for three weeks. It was quite a tough time in Egypt as the Arab Spring revolution was going on and there were some regions where even the police didn’t want to visit because the Muslim Brotherhood had captured a lot of towns.”
But the political situation was only aspect of the difficulty of being in Africa, especially when you are in the wild heart of Africa. “There were lots of them, lions and elephants, chasing me,” Wood tells Guardian 20. “Then there was another situation where we got stuck in the middle of a civil war in South Sudan. At one point of time during our journey we found ourselves surrounded by rebels in a hotel and they were shooting at the hotel. We also got robbed by bandits on the road. To sum it up, I encountered a lot of hurdles in my voyage.”
The overall journey was also a bit more haphazard than was initially planned, thanks to the regularly changing moods of the climate. “There was no specific plan,” Wood says. “It used to depend on the situation which was largely dominated by the climate and the amount of water we were left with, but the longest time spent was in Egypt when I got detained for three weeks. I was there on house arrest for three weeks waiting to be released. I think it was the maximum time I spent in one location.”
In Rwanda, “The Land of a Thousand Hills” as it is called, Wood reached the location of the Nile’s source, which, paradoxically, is just a small trickle of a stream. Then he headed north, through Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and Republic of Sudan to finally reach Egypt — at the cusp of the Mediterranean Sea. He also spent time with the Mundari Tribe along South Sudan’s Channel Islands, where he learnt to give cows dung massages and even shampooed his hair with cow urine. During this span, he often had to resort to eating bush rats, grasshoppers and pigeons to keep himself energised.
Wood had a small camera crew travelling with him at times, but mostly he spent the nine month span with his local guide and his handheld camera. He says, “I try and learn the fundamentals of the local language before beginning my journey so that I can have basic conversations. But as I travel to different countries, it becomes quite tough at times. I always make sure that I have a local guide who can act as a translator for me. I am also good at navigating my path. But actually I think it is more important to communicate with the locals, so I have somebody with me who can speak the language and can communicate in the local dialects.”
And yet, the expedition was not without its high points. Wood encountered some scenes of unbelievable natural beauty, enough to give you a new perspective on life. He says, “Seeing wild elephants was just remarkable and I think being able to see some of the unknown sites, places like the pyramids of Meroe in Sudan was also exhilarating. There are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt. However, no tourists visit Sudan. It’s just an empty desert where these pyramids can be seen coming out of the sand. So, it’s very evocative.”
For Wood, walking along the Nile was a different degree of experience from all his previous journeys. Here, he faced more physical and mental challenges than he could possibly have imagined. And perhaps for that reason, he got more out of this nine-month-long ordeal than any other. That’s the effect the African badlands can have on you, provided you’re able to, like Wood, surmount all the threats and difficulties they pose.