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Miriam Lancewood

Miriam LancewoodMiriam Lancewood was born in 1983 in a small village in the Netherlands. After completing her university degree, she worked for a year in Zimbabwe, and then traveled to India where she met her husband Peter.

She had been a competitive pole-vaulter and studied Physical Education before travelling to Africa and India. Peter had resigned from his job as university lecturer in New Zealand and had moved to India to live like a "modern nomad".

He had already lived five years in India when he first met Miriam. Together they hiked over eight mountain ranges in the Himalayas, journeyed for years through South East Asia, including Papua New Guinea, and eventually ended up living in Peter's home country of New Zealand.

Miriam worked for a while as a teacher, but they decided to give up all their worldly belongings and move into the mountains with a tent and a bow and arrow.

They wanted to learn how to hunt and survive in the wilderness, and they wanted to find out what happens to the mind and body, when living amid the beauty of the wildest natural surroundings on earth.

"I have been so surprised by how much energy you get from living in nature. I think this is actually our natural state.

"Our ancestors lived the way Peter and I do now. It's amazing how much energy you get from just living in the forest. Compared to the mountains around me, I'm very small. Your fears and worries get even smaller." said Miriam.

Miriam Lancewood"Now we often don't know what the day of the week it is or even the date."

This Dutch couple who've been living off the land in the New Zealand wilderness for almost a decade now have no intention of going back to civilisation any time soon.

Miriam and Peter Lancewood came up with the idea of living in remote South Marlborough, on New Zealand's south island, after finishing a hike in Miriam's native Holland.

"We wanted to actually be a part of nature, rather than just observing it and we wondered whether we could survive a year in the wild."

Miriam and Peter Lancewood went on to live in the New Zealand wilderness for the past decade after coming up with the idea during that hike in Holland.

They told their families they would only be gone for a year, but over 10 years later they are still living the ultimate nomadic lifestyle which they adore after experiencing that they could feel so free by removing the modern conventions and conveniences from their lives.

"It's perceived as being scary, but I see the wilderness as my home and I feel very comfortable there - we sleep when we are tired, usually when the sun goes down. When the first birds sing, we wake up." Miriam recently told ABC News.

Miriam LancewoodBefore they had left the Netherlands, they had prepared by packing two 85kg bags with everything they needed - from rolled oats to milk powder, flour yeast, honey, rice and vegetables.

"We counted out everything perfectly, including the teabags," remembers Ms Lancewood. They had also trained by completing grueling 10-day hikes through the bush where they'd light fires in the rain."

Ms Lancewood also hoped the skills she'd developed as a P.E teacher at home would help them survive in the wilderness. "I knew how to shoot with a bow and arrow at a target, which I knew could be useful," she said. Ms Lancewood is a talented archer and uses those skills to supply food for herself and her husband.

"What I didn't know is how much more difficult it is to shoot at something moving." Miriam described the experience as a complete life changer which put life into full perspective. "We eat when we are hungry. We don't know the days of the week, or the date. That is irrelevant really," she said.

"In the mountains I feel so very small. I am insignificant really, and my petty little problems seem even smaller, it seems that the trees pull the burdens off your shoulders,' she once told ABC News.

She described living in the wilderness as living inside a 'living world' and doubts if her and her partner will ever move back to the "civilized world".

Having to hunt for their own food also taught Miriam the value of eating off the land and only eating what is provided. She had been a vegetarian prior to moving into the wild.

Miriam LancewoodIn describing her lifestyle she said it is like 'living without time' and 'having to learning how overcome the obstacles that come with living solely off the land.'

There are times that to do something like this, you do need to be physically quite strong and have quite a bit of endurance and stamina,' says Miriam.

"But I'd recommend it to many people. I don't think I will ever go back to civilisation.'

In order to offer further insight into their experiences Miriam has written a book chronicling her adventure, titled Woman in the Wilderness.

Their relationship is complimentary as she is the hunter and he is the cook. Now they're walking across Europe to Turkey, with a tent and little else.

She can still pinpoint the exact moment she knew she had truly broken with social norms. "It was when the idea was born to wash my hair with urine," she recalls.

She had just started living wild, in the New Zealand Alps, when she developed a persistent dandruff problem. Luckily, she remembered reading about an ancient remedy. “I sat in the sun for a horrible, stinky half-hour to let it soak in.”

Most would expect Miriam to look bedraggled, maybe with a couple of teeth missing, but she is a beautiful and muscular woman - immaculate and smiling broadly, her teeth shiny white (she usually cleans them with ash); no dandruff, legs shaven, she smells of campfire.

Miriam LancewoodShe is extremely well built - reminescent of Sarah Connor from The Terminator movie. Her husband, Peter, proudly says she could beat most men in a fight: "Miriam is the hunter and I am the cook. She is much stronger than me. Women are also better shots," he says. "And they're more careful," adds Miriam. "They are less driven by trophy hunting. They have less of a need to prove themselves."

It was five years into their nomadic life in New Zealand, Miriam decided to write a book about their experiences. The couple have since relocated to Europe, where they're spending the year walking to Turkey; part two of their life's dream of never returning to "civilisation".

In Bulgaria - three hours west of Sofia, upstream from a river where the couple can bathe, they are sitting around a campfire in a wood. Peter is standing over a cast iron pot containing a bubbling bean stew. There are foraged wrinkly plums to start their meal.

It's an exciting occasion for them: they haven't seen another human being for 11 days and they about to be interviewed. At 5pm the journalist arrives and asks what have they been doing all day? "Nothing much. Waiting for you."

In the first few months of their primitive life, Miriam thought she'd go mad with boredom but she soon fell in sync with nature. Half of any given day is spent collecting firewood. They sleep as long as it's dark. They have never had more energy.

It's a stark contrast to when Miriam was still working as a special needs teacher in New Zealand. "Those were grim days. I was always stressed. And so bored. And depressed about thinking I was going to do this forever and ever."

Miriam LancewoodShe has learned so much since she's been out here but one question remains unanswered for her: "Where are all the women?"

She says when they do bump into another person in the wild it's usually a hunter, and always a man. She thinks that perhaps women have lost their connection with nature, "even more than men".

And also, she adds passionately, "why do women behave so weakly, physically? As in, 'I can't lift that," 'I can't shit outside,' 'I can't have my period in the bush.'" She thinks it's a shame women are missing out.

It seems Miriam is not the only woman to think that women are missing out. Her book is coming out in Britain this month but is already published in Holland, where it's become a small sensation. "Women write to me and say, 'You inspired me", she tells me. "They are amazed that it's possible to live this primitive life; but they're afraid: "What's out there?"

She says women worry about being eaten by wild animals or being murdered by a mentally unstable predator, like they've seen in Nordic noir.

Interestingly, the women at her readings in Holland are usually aged between 40 and 50; maybe they are drawn to Miriam's story because they see hers as the alternative life they could have led if only they had been bolder and conformed less.

Younger women still have the big decisions - and regrets - ahead of them. What do the women who write to her tell her the book inspired them to do?

Miriam Lancewood"One woman said: 'You inspired me to get a divorce.' If you want to be more content, sometimes you have to change your life completely."

The seed of their idea was planted in India where they met 12 years ago; Peter, then 52, was a former sheep farmer, arborist and university lecturer, and Miriam, then 22, wanted to see the world.

"Most men my age are fat and can't walk for long. They're envious. Mostly of Miriam." Peter admitted.

Together they travelled for a few years before moving to Peter's homeland, New Zealand. In 2010, they sold or gave away most of their possessions and struck out on their bold off-grid experiment, roaming and camping in the vast, remote countryside.

It was Miriam who carried the big hunting knife and knew how to use their Steyr Mannlicher .308 rifle. Without electricity, digital technology or a watch, the experiment was supposed to last a year.

"In Europe it's tricky because you can never get far enough away from people," grumbles Peter. Fortunately, "We are absolute masters of disappearing into forests."

Miriam's gripe is that you can't use or carry a gun in Bulgaria without a licence - otherwise she would have shot, skinned and butchered a hare for dinner.

Their home is a khaki-green tubular three-person tent with two sleeping bags in it, sleeping pads and two rucksacks neatly packed with rudimentary supplies.

Miriam LancewoodFood and utensils are arranged on the grass: enamel mugs, a black prospector's plate which has become partly redundant since they realised that "panning gold is the most miserable experience you can have". Miriam's bow and arrow - it is beautifully polished and colossal.

"It can be quite unpleasant, sometimes it's awful," Peter reminds me. Miriam's earliest awful experience was slaughtering her first animal: a possum. "I was vegetarian since birth but getting weaker and weaker."

"We were waking up with pains in our stomachs from trying to keep warm." She set a trap but badly botched killing the possum. While it was happening she felt sick, and yet the fried possum tasted delicious: "Later, I felt very proud of myself."

She used her bow and arrow to hunt goats; the couple also ate dead deer left behind by hunters. Peter tells me how when English peasants settled in New Zealand they brought hedgehogs with them. Miriam frowns: "But in Britain there are no wild places left, no?"

Many rivers to cross: Miriam and Peter on their way. Her one regret is that she is not allowed to use her Steyr Mannlicher .308 rifle in Europe.

If you're going off grid, prepping is key. Miriam and Peter spent months training for that first winter in South Marlborough, New Zealand: long, demanding treks, first-aid courses; reading survival and foraging books – working out by the spoonful exactly how much flour, pulses, tea bags they'd need.

They practised seeing in the dark with night walks. Miriam isn't a conspiracy theorist but she's proud she has now learned survival skills, in case of Armageddon.

Miriam LancewoodThey do sometimes return to "civilisation" to send an email or top up supplies or (in Miriam's case) to write a book. Isn't that cheating? Peter disagrees. "Because we are living outside society, there are no rules."

"We can move from the stone age to the big city and back. It's a unique combination of primitive living and modernity." What happens if they split up? Miriam says she'd try to find another off-grid partner; Peter phlegmatically says he'll be dead anyway.

Certainly neither of them wants to return to a life of All Mod Cons: artificial light is too bright, the noise is too noisy, sleep is fitful, the food makes them constipated.

The question Miriam often gets asked by her readers is how they can afford to live as they do. "We have savings, we live very cheaply: on about $5,000 NZD ( 2,600 GBP ) a year - food basically."

But she wanted to write her book for other reasons - "to show that in the 21st century a different way of living is possible," one in which long-term relationships can work.

"A lot of people write: 'I am so happy to read that at least someone is living harmoniously. A married couple spending 24 hours together!'" "I've been married twice before," says Peter cynically, although Miriam likes Peter's worldliness. Her only other serious boyfriend wanted the big house and kids: she doesn't.

She thinks the key to a good relationship is a desire for self-knowledge: "If he says something and I see it as an insult, then I think, 'Ah, why do I see that as an insult?' I use it as a reflective method to find out about myself."

Miriam Lancewood"We refuse to fight," adds Peter. When he annoys her, says Miriam, "I pretend not to listen." Doesn't living in these physical circumstances force dependence? "We call it independent inter-dependence," explains Peter.

"Sometimes under extreme stress we do get a bit snappy," (for example, when they both nearly drowned in some New Zealand rapids). Miriam completes the thought: "so you become more aware of how external factors affect your mood."

The book hints that theirs is an open relationship but I'm not sure how that can make much difference given they never meet anyone.

They'd like to meet some Roma in Bulgaria, to exchange nomad experiences. Don't the poor feel patronised by their experiment? "No, it is the middle classes who don't like us," says Peter - "especially men."

"A lot of my old friendships are breaking down because of it. Most men my age are already buggered. They can't sleep on the ground, they're fat, they can't walk for long. They're envious. Mostly they're envious of her," he says, looking at his wife.

"They want to know how to do it." As in, how to marry a woman 30 years younger? The age gap can be difficult to ignore; Miriam mentions it several times in her book, mainly because other people keep bringing it up. For them it isn't an issue, although would Peter really be here with a woman his own age? "I have never met a woman in her 60s who wants to live as I do," he says.

Miriam and Peter often use the word "trapped" to describe how other people live. They never intend to have children and rely on another modern innovation - Miriam's IUD - to make sure they don't.

They say it would be impossible to live in the wild with kids. So are kids a trap? "For us it would be a trap," says Miriam. "You have to have a regular income. You have to settle down." She laughs: "It scares me just thinking about it."

Miriam LancewoodMiriam describes how men they do meet on their travels will often suddenly open up about their personal lives: "They say they wish their wives would come out hunting with them or if they had a choice again, they would never have children. That was the end of their freedom, they say."

Men we meet say if they had a choice again, they would never have children. That was the end of their freedom, they say.

She looks at Peter: "We met one guy - do you remember him? He said, 'I can't wait for my children to be old enough to leave the house.' And I said, 'Oh, how old are they?' And he said, 'Three and five.'"

There was a pilot who told her he had recurring fantasies of pushing his wife out of his helicopter. Peter's theory is, "Modern civilisation, the suburban life just doesn't suit men's nature. It leaves men feeling constantly unchallenged."

"I'd say a third of the population are seriously unhappy." He finds it startling that, with the advances in birth control, the majority of women still choose to have children. "I've met so many interesting women in their 20s, then along comes 30 and they succumb to the pressure. You think: 'Why did you do nothing else with your life?'"

The real problem, thinks Peter, is that everyone is too obsessed with security, to the point where it interferes with their ability to think logically, or find happiness: "People say to us we're living their dream, and I say to them, 'Do it.' But they say, 'Oh, I can't,' and I say, 'What do you mean can't? Of course you can."

"They look a bit confused by that statement - because it's true." Maybe, I say, it's because they'd prefer a more temporary break with society: once you have opted out of your career, sold all your stuff - there is no return.

Miriam Lancewood"And that," he says, with satisfaction, "is exactly the point." Miriam nods in agreement. "Because once you have cut with your boring, unhappy life, I can guarantee that you will never want to go back."

Peter turned round and put Miriam's arms over his shoulders. "Now it's just us," he said, embracing her. Miriam took a deep breath. "I feel like we have finally come home." Peter nodded. "This is the world we were all born into."

Miriam took his hand and looked out at the valley and forest all around them. Peter had read all of the old newspapers and magazines in the hut from cover to cover.

"Amazing feeling, to be so alone in such an isolated place, isn't it?" he said. The nearest house was a good three days' walk from there. At this time of year, in winter, most people left the mountains alone and stayed inside until the spring.

Back at the hut, Miriam rekindled the fire and made tea, which she carried over to Peter, who was sitting on a rock near the river.

"This is absolutely beautiful, isn't it?" Miriam looked at the crystal clear water, which cascaded down from the mountains. Yet after her initial elation, an uncomfortable feeling was creeping to the surface, a kind of realisation that sent a flash of panic through her body.

It was the one thought that clashed with all her fantasies of living peacefully in the wilderness: it was the 'what now?' thought. What was she going to do next?

Miriam thought of things to do and remembered she hadn't seen the toilet facilities. The long-drop was built 70 metres from the hut. It was a deep hole with a wooden structure on top; the only thing about it that resembled a modern toilet was the white seat.

Miriam LancewoodA soggy roll of paper sat in the corner. Miriam lifted the lid and looked into the hole. The smell was so horrible that she quickly closed the lid.

"If I sit on that toilet with the door closed, I'll be suffocated", Miriam thought.

It was worse than she expected, and she forced herself not to think of the months ahead. So she jumped into action instead. Miriam collected a bucket of water from the river, found an old towel and started washing the grimy walls, dirty windows and even the stains on the mattresses.

Several times Peter offered to help her but, dreading the moment when all the chores were done, Miriam preferred to do everything on her own. She needed to fill up the empty day. This was the one thing all their hiking trips and training had not prepared them for: boredom. Miriam joined Peter, who was calmly reading an old newspaper in the sun.

"I think it'll be a bit of an adjustment in the beginning, don't you?" Miriam sounding far more coherent than she felt at that moment.

"Oh, yes, a major adjustment." Peter nodded. "The mind needs to calm down. It could take days to ease into the rhythm of this place. Maybe weeks."

Those first days were indeed a major adjustment, on many levels. Miriam no longer had a job, a project or stimulation like social contacts, email, music and all the rest. It felt as though she was going through withdrawal symptoms.

Her mind was running too fast, her thoughts were all over the place and endless memories flashed by.

Miriam LancewoodEven though Peter appeared tranquil compared to her, he said he knew exactly how she felt; he had not found a million chores to do, but he had read all of the old newspapers and magazines in the hut from cover to cover. His suggestion was that we just go through the boredom and restlessness, and do nothing for a while. Nothing.

That was the last thing Miriam wanted to do. Nothing meant boredom, the dreaded void, horrible emptiness. Nothing was the unknown and Miriam had discovered that she was afraid of it - this was the fear she would have to face in the many weeks to come.

Miriam said sickness, along with availibility food, were two of their key concerns. They cannot call for an ambulance or medical assistance as they have no phones. And medical attention is often at least several days or weeks away anyway.

She added: "Peter once got sick with malaria. There were no doctors and we were in the middle of the jungle. It's a very scary moment when you don't have any emergency resources."

"We just have to be very careful. We have a very big First Aid kit and had medicines with us for malaria. We also have to be very careful not to get in an accident. If you break a leg it would be so bad."

The pair packed up their bags in 2010 bringing just a backpack with them. "We got rid of all of our belongings when we left in 2010, and I had left only what we needed," she recalled.

"We realised you really need very little. You need two shorts, three shirts, one woollen jumper, one long pair of pants, a pair of leggings and a couple of pairs of socks. Not all that much."

Miriam LancewoodMiriam says their first three months living in the wild were very difficult. They always have a back-up of supply of some food - which includes a very precise calculation of tea bags - but with animals scarce and her technique unpractised, they were in danger of getting hungry.

"My very first hunt was possum and I had to hit it on the head and I couldn't do it properly, and it didn't die," said Miriam.

"The animal was looking at me with these afraid eyes. I was panicked, shaking with fear. I just wanted to give up."

"I thought I would go hunting so I practised with my bow and arrow on a target in the garden. I thought that would be good enough for when I went hunting. I envisioned myself as a film version of Robin Hood."

"But in practice it was so difficult because I couldn't see any animals. I was so disappointed with myself and my hunting. I wanted to give up and had no stamina to keep going."

After a few months the situation improved and they moved to an area with more animals, with possum becoming a staple. She has also switched to occasionally using a rifle - a quicker and more effective hunting tool.

Miriam says she does miss her family and friends, that she sees around once every three years. But, Miriam says she has more energy living in the wild and they can also ask hunters to post letters for them when they meet them on their travels.

Miriam LancewoodHowever, Miriam said she wouldn't trade her life to go back to working in a city. Her reality now is a far cry from when she worked as a special needs teacher in New Zealand, a job in which she found herself constantly stressed.

"I certainly wouldn't go back to having a job and being in a city and having a so-called 'normal life.' I would hate to have a monotone existence where we know what we are doing next week, living round the clock where the clock is ruling your life."

"I have been so surprised by how much energy you get from living in nature. I think this is actually a human being's natural state."

"Our ancestors lived the way we do now. It's amazing how much energy you get from just living in the forest. Compared to the mountains around me, I'm very small. Your fears and worries get even smaller."


Woman in the Wilderness by Miriam Lancewood (Piatkus Books, 14.99GBP ). To order a copy for 12.74GBP, go to www.guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10GBP, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99GBP.

Or order from Amazon.com

Books: Woman in the Wilderness: A story of survival, love & self-discovery in New Zealand.


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