"Getting shot at by ISIS in Iraq. Travelling alone across the Arabian sea, heading into pirate waters, going through Syria that had its moments as well."
British explorer Levision Wood is recalling the moments where he felt his life was in danger during filming for his new Discovery Channel series.
"There were lots of times when you think, this could be quite tricky," he adds. Quite tricky. What an understatement.
Levison's 5,000 mile journey circumnavigating the Arabia Peninsula is not your typical travel series. This isn't a celebrity getting a freebie holiday or a wannabe adventurer, shooting in a jungle and then spending his evenings in a 5* hotel.
Arabia With Levison Wood sees the presenter begin his journey on the edge of Arabia in Kurdistan where he runs the gauntlet in Iraq, encountering the final bloody stages of a campaign to rid the region of brutal ISIS, and culminates in Lebanon where he travels from Hezbollah's heartland to the snowy highlands forging his way through a raging blizzard that almost takes the life of his mountain guide.
The staggering Discovery Channel series also celebrates the majesty and beauty of the Middle East, looking at each country through the eyes of its people – and showing how much more there is to the region than bombs and bullets.
BT TV spoke exclusively to Levison Wood about the series to find out what motivated him for the trek and why getting the Central Line is more stressful than ISIS.
1. What inspired you to take on this journey?
I'm fascinated by this region. I think it’s a pretty misunderstood area of the world. It’s somewhere we only ever hear the bad news coming out. Since University, I’ve always been fascinated by the culture and the history. I thought, why not make a film where we don't focus on the negative and hopefully offer a balanced perspective.
2. Even when you're stuck at the Iraq border with ISIS shooting, you seem calm. Do you ever get stressed?
I think I probably get more stressed in London when my Tube is delayed than when I’m getting shot at by ISIS. I think you’re in an environment when everyone is stressed, you get stressed. When it’s chilled, that rubs off as well. I don’t really get stressed when I’m travelling because you expect things to go wrong. It’s only when you have expectations of things happening on time and running smoothly that we lose our rag a bit.
3. What was the biggest challenge making this series?
The safety thing was something we looked at very intensely from the start. The biggest challenge was getting all the Visas, all the bureaucracy that takes forever, convincing people to let us film, making sure people know we’re not spies and that we’re not there to show bad things. That was often the hardest thing to achieve.
4. The region has suffered such devastation and you highlight that in episode one. Did you see many signs of hope?
I did actually. That was something I was quite amazed by. Even places like Syria where people’s homes have been destroyed and there is complete devastation, people are waiting in refugee camps for it all to be over so they can go back home. That was quite reassuring.
5. The scenes with the soldiers cheering as they prepared to head out to fight ISIS were quite surprising. Is there a very different attitude to war in the region?
There is bravado wherever you go. But I think when you’ve been brought up in war and it’s all you know, you become more accustomed to it. And it wasn’t just the attitude from the soldiers fighting. Even in the coffee shops in Damascus, locals having a glass of wine or cup of tea – you can hear the bombs and gunfire in the distance but these civilians don't bat an eye.
6. In the first episode, you outline the problems since the Iraq war. Do you feel a responsibility with the show to explain the history of the region in the series?
Let's be clear, Saddam Hussain was a total monster. But the truth is, the country has been very fractious for a very long time, it doesn’t just go back to the Iraq war. It goes much, much further back than that, to the 1920s really. It’s easy to blame that war. And that war was a mess – the country has fallen apart. There is a responsibility to do something about that, but unfortunately there is lots of sectarian violence, lots of in-fighting with tribal groups and lots of external players like the Americans, but also Iran. You know, Iraq and Syria are proxy wars for the bigger nations and that’s what is so very sad for the people that live there.
7. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Arabia?
When we say Arabia you just think camels, peasants and terrorists, if we’re quite honest. People often overlook the cultural and historical legacy, the beautiful places, the diversity and that is really what this journey was about. Showing people the beauty, the reality and the diversity of Arabia.
There are so many amazing landscapes from the beautiful valleys and mountains from Lebanon to Yemen – and the beautiful forests there. But a real highlight for me was going to Saudia Arabia and finding the train that Laurence of Arabia blew up in 1917. To see it there 100 years later is quite amazing.
I'm probably going to my feet up for a little while and take a break from it all.
Arabia with Levison Wood premieres in the UK on Discovery Channel, 9pm on Thursday, June 27th – BT TV Channel 322 / 376 HD.
Discovery Channel is one of the 60+ premium entertainment channels available for BT TV customers.