An Interview with Lev Wood of Secret Compass Expeditons


Lev Wood is a co-founder of Secret Compass Expeditions. According to their website they clients on “pioneering and exploratory expeditions to the world’s last undiscovered places”.

From the from what I’ve heard about this company, that’s gross understatement.

They led what they called “the first commercial expedition to have ventured into the Zagros Mountains in Iraq,” under the protection of a mildly-frightening AK-47 toting local guide. They’ve also lead expeditions in South Sudan, Afghanistan, and recently completed the first coast-to-coast crossing of Madagascar on foot.

When I found out about these guys I had to interview them. So, I tracked down co-founder Lev Wood to find out more about how the company got started, the obstacles they’ve run into along the way, and the kind of people that actually pay to join these absurdly difficult expeditions.

Trekking in the Wakhan Corridor, North East Afghanistan

Me: How long has Secret Expeditions been operating?

Lev Wood: SC has been operating since October 2010; there was a lot of planning, preparing and getting set up to do for our first expeditions.

MG: What was your first expedition?

LW: We wanted to go back to Afghanistan since both Tom and I served there during our time in the army, so we organized the first group expedition to travel to lake Zorkul in the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. It is an incredibly remote and beautiful area.

MG:How did you find your first clients? For that matter, how do you continue finding them? There can’t be that many people willing to spend thousands of dollars to endure conditions that most creatures instinctually avoid.

LW: Our team members tend to be seasoned travellers, often professionals who, because of work, now don’t have the time to organize their own adventures. Our clients come from a range of backgrounds from around the world. Sometimes though we get the occasional complete novice — on the last expedition we took an Egyptian guy who had never been camping before — but he had the right attitude, he wanted to push himself harder than ever before.


Climbing in the Zagros Mountains, Northern Iraq

MG: What was the most difficult challenge that you faced on an expedition?

LW: Usually, it isn’t the physical challenge, it’s the bureaucracy. Because of the nature of the places we go, many of the local police/ army/ militia/ tribal chiefs have never seen a tourist or even a white face, and they get confused as to why anyone would want to visit their lands. Because of this there are often delays whilst the local authorities try and find out what protocol needs to be adhered to (or how much a ‘permit’ will cost). This can be very frustrating. That said, hacking for 3 weeks through thick jungle isn’t easy either. Neither is surviving off Afghan flat bread for a month.

MG: What kind of training did you receive in the military that has helped you to learn how to deal effectively with extreme situations? What kind of situations did you used to deal with in the military?

LW:My time in the army was useful in a number of ways. It teaches the practicalities of living in austere environments, survival, and so on, but more importantly it gives you a sense of perspective you can’t get taught anywhere else. You learn about leadership under stress and encouraging a team to push themselves beyond what they thought was possible.

MG: Were there any times on expeditions that you got that sinking feeling in your gut, like  “holy shit, we are in serious trouble here.”

LW: A couple of times things got close. A group was once detained in Iraq and we all had to spend a couple of nights in a Kurdish Jail, but the police were actually very nice. In the Zagros mountains our mountain guide fell off a cliff. Luckily he performed a technically perfect ice axe arrest and climbed back up. On the Nile in Sudan one of the team fell into some rapids and broke a couple of ribs. Luckily he didn’t get eaten by crocs. We were arrested there too — at gunpoint by a local militia who thought we were spies. Frostbite in Nepal was quite painful. I was arrested twice in Egypt.

MG: How did you deal with those situations?

LW: A level head and sense of perspective. Smiling when dealing with armed men and looking them in the eye makes them realize you’re a human. Being as prepared as possible minimizes the chance of these things happening.

MG: Are there any trips that you’d like to attempt, but think might be beyond your abilities?

LW: I’m of the opinion that anyone can train to bring goals within their grasp, so no, not really. However, we have to keep SC expeditions within a sensible timeframe — usually 3 weeks max — because that’s how much time most people can take off work. There are loads of exciting expeditions that can’t be done in that time.

Preparing Tea, Wakhan Corridor, North East Afghanistan

MG: Which upcoming trip are you the most excited about?

LW: If I’m not excited about an expedition it doesn’t even get through the planning stages! So all of them. Mt Mabu in Mozambique will be incredible in September — totally virgin forest, completely untouched by man and undiscovered until 2005 — now that is exploration!

MG: Secret Compass has been mentioned by several media outlets and appears to be doing well. What goals do you have for the future?

LW: At the moment we’re concentrating on getting a really exciting portfolio of expeditions lined up for 2013. We want to be able to do as many amazing trips as possible!

MG: Do you have any big ideas in the works that you’d like to mention?

LW: There are some big ones — not necessarily client trips — which I can’t mention right now. We’re working in conjunction with some big name media broadcasters to make some incredible documentaries, so watch this space!

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