Best-selling author Miriam Lancewood lives with her husband in the New Zealand wilderness, surviving in extreme conditions by hunting wild animals and foraging edible plants. She talks to Nina Hindmarsh about her latest European expedition, an upcoming book, and some of the lessons she’s learnt living off-grid.
Miriam Lancewood has given up all modern-day comforts to live life right on the edge and off-grid. The 36-year-old Dutch woman doesn’t have a fixed address, own a car, or live in a house, and hasn’t had much of a regular job in her life.
Her home is vast and expansive, with no front door and no walls: she’s spent most of her adult life living outdoors in the uninhabited wilderness close to nature, which after all these years, she’s come to know intimately.
Lancewood is in tune with the forest, rivers and mountains and can sense their changing colours and moods. When a subtle wind rustles through the trees overhead, she notices. She can smell the dampness of rain coming in the perfumed forest, and when an animal watches her, she can feel it.
She and husband Dr Peter Raine, a man 30 years her senior, have lived a nomadic life since they met 14 years ago, including seven years in extreme isolation camping year-round in some of the most remote parts of New Zealand.
The couple survived by hunting wild animals and foraging edible plants, relying only on minimal supplies. They slept in a tent, or sometimes when the weather was atrocious, took shelter in huts.
Through all seasons, and often hungry, cold and alone, they spent their days dealing only with the immediate needs of survival: finding food, collecting firewood, building fires, preparing meals and finding shelter. Possum, goat, hare, puha, broadleaf, and wild berries all made for an unusual menu of wild foods.
Much to her surprise, Lancewood has become somewhat of a celebrity in recent years, after her 2017 memoir Woman in the Wilderness reached the bestseller list in New Zealand and The Netherlands. The book spans those six years from 2010 that she and Peter lived in a tent in the bush around the South Island, and then walked the length of the country over the Te Araroa Trail.
In between dropping off the radar back into the wild, she’s flying around the world attending literary festivals and making media appearances – It’s a far cry from the life she set out to live all those years ago, but like everything, she’s treating it just like another adventure.
Lancewood and Raine’s most recent expedition saw the couple trek 2000km from France all the way to Turkey, including a stint living in the rugged terrain of Bulgaria where she featured on an episode of television series New Lives in the Wild.
They’re back in civilisation today, staying at a house in Golden Bay in northwest Nelson, where she’s finishing a second memoir detailing their latest adventures on-foot across Europe, a trip they just returned from last year.
The semi off-grid room near Takaka has no wi-fi, lights or running water; just one power plug which she uses to charge a laptop for writing.
She and Raine, a bearded and grey, long-haired 64-year-old with sparkling blue eyes, are pining for the wide open air and wilderness again. Lancewood sleeps inside so she can wake up at dawn to write, meanwhile Peter sleeps outside in a little green tent, nestled in the bush nearby. He can’t stand sleeping indoors on beds.
Lancewood is a beautiful woman; natural, striking and muscular in appearance, she looks exactly like the kind of person who could survive an apocalypse. Around her neck hangs the horn of the first wild goat she shot and killed with a bow and arrow. There’s also the eye-tooth of a pig Raine gifted her when they first met.
“I thought that was pretty wild,” she grins broadly.
Last winter, the couple rented a house for the first time in years on the beach near Nelson so she could write her new book. It was a reminder to her just how unhealthy it is to live in a house, she says.
With a fridge stocked full of food, Lancewood thinks it’s no wonder people get fat and lazy.
She had to start swimming, running and cycling, just to stay fit while living in a house and writing all day. Then she started practising yoga to counteract the stiffness in her body from sleeping in beds and sitting in chairs, and meditating because the wi-fi “did something” to her brain.
“In the end, I had this whole regime of how to keep healthy,” she says. “All these things that people think are healthy activities are actually a side effect of modern life and of living in a house.”
Living in the wild, you don’t need a health regime, Lancewood says. Just the daily task of surviving – hunting and gathering food, collecting firewood, carrying supplies and building shelter – it has everything you need to stay well. People ask if she meditates in the bush, but she says she doesn’t need to. “Living is like meditation.”
After they camped around the South Island and then completed the Te Araroa Trail, they went on to walk across Europe.
Beginning in France, they hiked 2000km east into Bulgaria and Greece. Lancewood says she loved being immersed in the rich cultural heritage, and exploring the spectacular river gorges and large caves to shelter in. After making their way through Switzerland, Austria and Germany, they walked through the Rhodope mountains and began the 540km trail known as the Lycian Way, in Turkey.
She recalls a memorable moment in Switzerland, trekking high in the mountaintops. On a ridge she turned to the call of a little roe deer. Looking just metres above her, a large cat stared back. Her first thought was that it was a tiger, before realising it was actually a rare lynx.
Walking through the wilderness trails of Europe didn’t come without its hurdles, and she has a few complaints. Lancewood didn’t have a hunting permit so she couldn’t catch her own food. Unlike New Zealand, with its myriad creeks and streams, there was little running water, so they had to carry heavy bottles. Freedom camping is also illegal, and they faced a €10,000 fine if caught, like in Switzerland. But the two of them were never in one place for long. And, at the extreme altitudes they frequented, no-one asked them for a camping permit.
As a teen, Lancewood was an accomplished pole vaulter and trained as a physical education teacher, but ditched both when she met Raine in a restaurant in South India. He told Lancewood about how he’d walked on foot across South India in sweltering heat, how he’d climbed the Himalayan mountain ranges without maps and guides, and surfed waves at night during a lightning storm. She sat and listened to his stories, open-mouthed.
Raine, a former university lecturer, had quit his job, sold his house and everything he owned five years earlier, determined to live as a modern-day nomad. He was 52 when he met Miriam, then a young, 22-year-old eager to see the world. They fell in love, and together climbed mountain ranges in the Himalayas, and journeyed for several years through Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea, before settling in New Zealand.
Raine is the “embodiment of adventure”, Lancewood says. He’s a man with such a zest for life, and is able to fearlessly live with true freedom in exactly the way she had yearned for. Drawn to stories of the uninhabited, rough wilderness and steep unforgiving mountains of Raine’s home country, the couple moved to Blenheim where Lancewood worked as a PE teacher. They were married and she gained her residency, but after a year they started getting itchy feet.
She recalled their journey through the Himalayas where they had met sadhus along the way. The Hindu holy men lived in caves on clifftops, almost enlightened and yet they had nothing. For Miriam, it was an epiphany moment: that’s how she wanted to live, she knew.
In 2010, they sold everything and headed into remote south Marlborough’s mountainous landscape, with all that they needed to survive stuffed into two 100-litre backpacks. It was an experiment, of sorts, that they thought would last a year.
They spent months preparing: 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.
They were tired of working their lives away for money and status, fighting their way up the social ladder and buying more things they didn’t need. They wanted to live without any barriers between them and the naked earth; to cook on fires and smell the wood smoke, to drink pure flowing water from a stream, and to sleep on the hard earth. They wanted to learn how to hunt and survive in the wild, and they wanted to find out what happens to the mind and body, when living in the beauty of the wildest nature on earth.
But for every possession and belonging she’s given up, Lancewood says she’s gained so much more: more time, more inner strength and more peace of mind.
“It’s as though each belonging takes a little space up in your mind,” she says. “By giving away everything you own and having no plans for the future, it’s so liberating. Having nothing creates space for clarity and rest inside you.”
In the wild, the couple decided she would hunt and he would cook. She taught herself how to track and trap wild animals, and how to aim and shoot. She learned how to outwit animals that picked up her scent by climbing into the trees. That way, they could no longer get wind of her scent and she could target them from above. For the first few years, Lancewood hunted with a bow and arrow, but switched to a rifle after realising it was more humane.
Killing the first animal, a possum, was a traumatic experience for her, she had lived her life since childhood as a vegetarian. She would later go on to sew herself vests, blankets and mats out of all the possums she had hunted, killed and eaten.
“It was very traumatic in the beginning, but also because I didn’t know how to do it and the the animal suffered,” she says. “I’m always super anxious to kill the animal straight away, and I’m always shaking. That part of it, you never get used to.”
There were other unusual bush skills Lancewood picked along the way, like how washing your hair with your own urine cures dandruff.
There were some unexpected life lessons she had to learn the hard way, like how to be bored, and how to truly be alone.
In the first few months of their new life, Lancewood thought she’d go mad with boredom and restlessness. The biggest difference between the civilised world and the wilderness is with time, she explains.
“We have security in time,” she says. “We identify ourselves with the past and project into the future. We want to become a better version of ourselves in the future. This dimension of time gives us a sense of security.”
In the wild, Lancewood felt as if she had left her past behind and yet in that same moment, had no planned future. With no job, email, projects or social contact with anyone except Raine to occupy her, the discomfort was immense. It was like having withdrawal symptoms, she says. She didn’t have a past to go back to or a future to cling on to. All that was left was the present moment, and the big, gaping void.
She endured the feelings, and after a few weeks she soon yielded to nature’s rhythms and learned to slow down.
Lancewood says she also learned is what it means to have confidence, a kind that isn’t based on comparison to others. Surviving in the wild, learning new skills like how to hunt and be responsible for her own life, she gained a new kind of sustainable confidence – like an inner fire.
“No-one can take that away from me. That is a beautiful gift from nature.”
Life isn’t always peachy in the bush, however. There were some very hard times. In those difficult moments, had she had a home to return to outside of the wilderness, she says she would have done so in a heartbeat. Instead she was forced to endure it all.
On Christmas Day one year near Twizel, the frozen ground was covered in thick, white snow, and bumblebees were so frozen she says she could pat them. It was supposed to be mid-summer and festive, Lancewood thought miserably to herself.
“I was so unhappy. I would have even preferred to be in the waiting room of the dentist than there.”
With no-one except the other’s company for months on end, they did sometimes get sick of each other. “Then I just go hunting,” Lancewood says. “Peter will say to me, ‘geez you’re grumpy today’ and I say, ‘no, you’re the grumpy one”, and that’s about as bad as it gets,” she laughs.
They missed having friends and community around them at times, but Lancewood says she appreciates people so much more now. When they would see a hunter in the wild they would “almost jump on him” with excitement.
Lancewood says the age gap between them isn’t an issue. “Peter says to me, ‘aren’t you worried I’m starting to look old?’ and I say, ‘Peter, you looked old when I met you. If it wasn’t a problem then, it obviously isn’t a problem now’.”
Having children was never an option for the couple, she says. Not only is Raine too old, they know a child wouldn’t appreciate living appreciate their lifestyle, and not having a home as base.
At 66, she knows he’s getting on in age. If the day comes he can’t keep up their lifestyle, they might buy a piece of land somewhere, probably abroad where real estate is cheaper, and live a simple life.
“Maybe with a pet goat,’ she jokes.
A question people always ask is is how they afford their lifestyle without working all these years. Lancewood says they do have substantial life savings, live cheaply and only spend about $5000 a year. They pay tax through the royalties of book sales.
With the new book set to be published by Christmas this year, they have no idea where their life will take them next, and only that they will continue to “live through open doors”, she says.
“If you have awareness and you are open to anything, anything can happen.”