Miriam Lancewood: 6 years in NZ's wilderness

From Nine To Noon, 10:13 am on 29 March 2017

Miriam Lancewood and her husband Peter have spent the last six years living a nomadic, primitive life in the wilderness of the South Island.

Under canvas most of the time, hunting wild animals and foraging edible plants, relying on only minimal supplies, through all seasons.

Lancewood, who is from the Netherlands, met her Kiwi husband Peter while travelling in India, when she was 20 and he was 50.

The couple travelled extensively through Asia, before settling in New Zealand, where Miriam worked as a teacher.

But six years ago the pair decided to go bush, literally, and Lancewood has now written a book about the experience called Woman in the Wilderness.

She told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan that growing up in Holland, which lacks any mountains, had a significant impact on her.

“I wanted to go to Africa where there was a bit more space and after that I went travelling in India.

“I wanted to find out how I could live differently and then I met the perfect man for it.”

The pair were in South India when they first met and Lancewood says she was attracted to her husband’s good looks, but also the fact that he was living differently.

“He was travelling as a nomad, already for five years in India when I met him and his plan was to walk into the Himalayas and that was exactly what I wanted to do too.”

Lancewood says Peter inspired her to live differently, as she had always believed it was vital to have a job to survive.

“And he said, ‘look, I’ve given up my job and I’m now living off my investment, it’s very little but if I live very simple I can live like this and maybe we can live together’.”

Her family is very supportive of her adventures, but Lancewood says her parents initially found it difficult when she got together with a man who was almost the same age as her mother.

“That was an issue in the start but apart from that they’re very supportive of it.”

While they were walking in the Himalayas, Peter would often talk about New Zealand and she decided she wanted to immigrate there, she says.

In order to do that Lancewood had to work in New Zealand as a teacher for a year, but says during that time she was counting the days until the pair could set off into the mountains again.

The first valley that they eventually travelled to was in south Marlborough, and they set up camp in at the start of winter.

“The silence of winter made it so serene, especially coming out of a house and that.

“That was the most impressive season that we’ve ever done.”

In the lead up to going bush she had been busy preparing for the expedition but says she quickly realised they had to get used to doing nothing.

“The first day was fantastic… yes we were lucky, and then the second day we said, well what now? And there was absolutely nothing to do.

“And then Peter said, look there is a real art to doing nothing and I had to deal with that and in the beginning I found it very difficult.”

She says she had to endure the boredom, but fortunately it didn’t last too long.

“Your mind slows and… goes at the same rhythm of the place you’re in, so you get into the rhythm of nature.”

She says the wilderness is like a big mirror, “it shows really who you are”.

The pair had no clocks and slept according to the sun.

“The effect of sleeping that much, especially in winter when it’s probably 12, 13, 14 hours, is absolutely incredible, you get so much energy, you’re a different person.”

They were based in a tent for most of their six years and adjusting to the cold was a significant challenge.

“We found out that possum fur was incredibly warm, so I learned how to make garments, mats and blankets from possum furs.”

Lancewood was the hunter and her husband Peter was the cook, which she says he was incredible at.

They moved around based on recommendations from others about where would be good spots to live, including the Mataketake ranges near Murchison and the West Coast.

Lancewood and Peter have just finished walking the 3000km Te Araroa trail and she says that may bring to a close their adventures in this part of the world for now.

“We’d like to go Australia, maybe Eastern Europe, wherever there is wildness and I’m sure there are places also equally beautiful.”

Lancewood doesn’t believe she’ll ever return to city-life, but says it’s possible she could live in one place eventually, and grow a big garden.

She says the so-called simple life, and getting rid of many comforts, can bring so much happiness.

“You don’t have to think about all those belongings and responsibilities and other points of stress. And yeah, to simplify your life, you become a different person and you feel like you’re living in a different world.”