Wearing a handmade possum vest and a necklace with the horn of the first goat she ever shot, Miriam Lancewood stands before a sold-out audience in Nelson’s Suter Art Gallery and breaks into song. “I love a wild man,” she sings, eyes wide open, toned arms stretched out in a theatrical pose. “He teaches me to stand alone, no status in the world, no place to call my home.”
The wild man sits next to me on a piece of fur in the front row. His curly grey mane gives off a faint scent of smoke, and there’s the glint of tears in his eyes. “When I met her, she could barely speak English,” he whispers to me over the applause.
This is the first time in their 15-year relationship that Peter has seen Miriam speak in public. But for Miriam, this is familiar territory. It’s her 12th literary festival since her bestselling book, Woman in the Wilderness, was published in 2017. The book was translated into five languages, made Miriam an instant celebrity in her home country, the Netherlands, and drew invitations to book festivals around the world, from Dubai to Hong Kong.
Later, while signing books in the foyer, Miriam chats with everyone, eager to meet new people and talk about her life, which is otherwise spent in solitude with Peter. They’ve been nomads for more than a decade now, living in remote areas of New Zealand or walking long routes, such as the 2000-kilometre trek across Europe that’s the subject of Miriam’s most recent book, Wild at Heart. At the time of this festival, unusually, the couple is spending six months in a house—an off-the-grid hut at the centre of Abel Tasman National Park.
When I visit Miriam and Peter the following week, I see the hut for myself. The weathered deck is broken and slanted. Weeds are growing through the cracks. Peter has planted radishes out the front, and every night the weka eat them. He’s become attached to the birds and given them names, all starting with W. In the morning, he feeds oats to Weasel and Westie. (The spiders have names too, starting with S. I soon get to meet Simon.)
Peter stands in the doorway in a worn-out handknitted jumper, happy to be back in his natural habitat, weary from the trip to Nelson. Miriam has just woken up from a nap. Sleeping is paramount to them both, and the stay in Nelson disrupted their senses.
“When I was training for the Olympics as a pole-vaulter,” says Miriam, “I was obsessed with rest, always clocking my hours of sleep. I sometimes need 10, 12 hours to recharge my body.”
The roof they have over their heads is as simple as it gets. No electricity, no bathroom, no fridge. The bedroom has a couple of boxes on the floor for their clothes. Miriam will give most of them away soon. Above the boxes is a wall hanging with a Dutch poem from her sister Sofie. The last line reads, “I would never want you to be different from being different.”
A note is pinned next to the toilet, with some vocabulary to learn. It’s Tajik. Miriam dreams of one day opening a medical centre in Tajikistan. She hasn’t been there—yet. She doesn’t have any medical experience—yet. There are also weights for Miriam’s daily workout—ever since her three-month expedition in the Southern Alps in 2019 with fellow adventurer Tamar Valkenier, she’s been determined to maintain her strength—and dozens of books from the Tākaka library.
Lately, Miriam has been obsessively reading about concentration camps. Since she experienced hunger on a solo expedition in Kahurangi National Park, when her plan to live entirely off the land didn’t work out as expected, she has been fascinated by endurance and survival in extreme conditions. By how quickly rationality and morals break down. Hunger, she says, “can turn you into a different person” in a matter of days.
“We normally only know ourselves in safe and comfortable circumstances,” she says. “I want to know what I’m like away from civilisation.”
She hasn’t reached her edge yet, and the prospect doesn’t seem to scare her. But a regular life inside walls does. “I wasn’t the person I wanted to be when I worked nine to five,” she says. “I was losing myself.”
Back in 2010, she and Peter were living in Blenheim, Miriam working as a physical education teacher for at-risk youth. She had met Peter, a New Zealander, four years earlier, and they’d travelled together through India, Asia and Papua New Guinea before eventually settling in Marlborough so that Miriam could apply for New Zealand residency. In the weekends, they went camping—but by Sunday evening, neither of them wanted to go back inside.
Instead of the security of a home and a social network, they began to dream of doing something remarkable: finding out what happens to the body and mind when a person lives far away from society, surrounded by the beauty of nature. In 2010, they decided to give it a try. They moved out of their house, gave away their possessions, and spent the winter living in the mountains of south Marlborough. The experiment was going to last for a season. It ended up being seven years.
When Peter and Miriam meet new people now, they tell them, “We live in the bush. We are homeless.” Neither of them feels like contributing to a society they believe is slowly consuming the world. Instead, they want to forge a different path.
Above the table in the hut, a photo of a different hut points to their future. A few years ago, they bought a single-room stone cottage in the Bulgarian mountains for about €5000. No fences, cooking outside, a simple life. Are they living in the wrong century? “No, we love aeroplanes and credit cards,” says Peter. He’s happy in the New Zealand wilderness but, when it comes to society, he’d rather be elsewhere. “The New World suffers from a type of compartmentalisation,” he says. “On the one hand, sacred nature. On the other, capitalistic production. Yet in reality everything coexists. The separation is arbitrary.”
Back in the 1970s, Peter spent days and nights living in trees in protest against commercial logging operations. He bought land on the West Coast, preparing for nuclear apocalypse. “We lived in terribly isolated, miserable places thinking that we might get away without radiation poisoning,” he says. “We were certain it was happening. And it never happened.” He has a PhD in environmental studies, but wouldn’t call himself an environmentalist—the movement has been overtaken by “idiocy and ideology”, he says—and he’s not sure about the scientific method, either. “It rigidly excludes direct experience, unlike most indigenous understanding.”
Despite a looming nuclear apocalypse back then and the currently unfolding climate crisis now, he says he’s watched parts of the world heal. “On our journeys in New Zealand and Europe, we saw a lot of regenerating forest. A hundred years ago, it would have been agriculture. Now the wild places are returning.”
As he and I launch into a debate about the health of the environment, I find it hard to imagine this robust, talkative man as a “butterfly in the rain”—and yet, those are the words used by the doctor who discharged him from hospital just a year ago. After developing kidney failure during a trip across Australia, Peter was given a three per cent chance of survival without a kidney transplant. A nurse advised Miriam to say goodbye. Peter’s final wish was to sleep outside, just for one night. Instead, he recovered in hospital, and returned to life outdoors.
Seeing Peter heal naturally, against all odds, confirmed Miriam’s belief that every part of nature holds the possibility of renewing itself, from organs to forests to rivers. “Every single plant is pure. Every single raindrop, every river comes out unpolluted—that is the very essence of the power of life,” she says. “We cannot destroy that power, not in a million years. If I have one message, it is that: humanity might be doomed, but the essence of life is not in danger.”
A week later, Miriam is in Wellington for another writers’ festival. For the first time in ten years, she watches television. The clarity of the screen is astonishing to her, as are the special effects of commercials. Indoors, she feels like she’s always surrounded by mirrors. It’s irritating. It pulls her attention from her interior to her exterior.
“In the forest, one is aware of the inside of the body,” she writes to me. “How you feel, your energy, digestion, organs, etc. In the city, one is only aware of the outside. I see myself comparing with yesterday, or comparing with others, all image-based.
In the mountains there is no mirror, no comparison.” Her senses, so in tune with the natural world, are constantly pulled in different directions.
Staying with friends is also strange to her, in terms of the influence that others can have. She’s cautious about spending too much time with “bonsai friends”—those who want to “clip me back to their desired shape”.
When she returns to Abel Tasman, she is exhausted from urban life. By Christmas, they have cleaned out their hut and given back the key—Peter is strong enough to return to their tent in the mountains. Miriam sends me enthusiastic messages with photos of food-filled buckets: flour, dried yeast, ghee. “I’m counting on hunting possums and hares,” she writes, “and with my new .223, I can now go for a small hind or a chamois.” At the same time, she’s worried about the results of Peter’s last blood tests. Are his kidneys stable enough to live a three-day walk from cellphone reception? What if things turn serious? She trusts that everything will be okay. “We are ready for it. As ready as you can be. I feel I have wings again!”
Two months later, I drive along a bumpy dirt road through Marlborough’s Raglan Range to the farm gate where I’m meeting Miriam. I pull up and honk the horn. She appears from behind the trees where she has stored their buckets, wearing shorts, a cap and a wide smile. It’s a hot day—there hasn’t been any rain for a while. “You’re lucky,” she says. “When we arrived here, I almost fell into the river, it was so high.” She fills her empty backpack to the brim with the fresh produce I’ve brought—“I missed eggs the most!”—and grabs a stack of old paperbacks. She’s long finished with the two books they have.
I hand her printed-out emails from her family and get a quick update: Peter’s health is fine, but she had a terrible toothache. (She waited it out, and it disappeared after three “agonising” days, she says. “Walking out was no option with that pain.”) At midsummer, they were completely snowed in for five days. Even a nearby waterfall was frozen. Peter stayed in his tent all day while Miriam cooked porridge with heaps of honey to keep him warm. “Honestly, I don’t know if we’re going to last as long as we thought,” she says. “It’s getting too cold at night, even with a possum duvet and yak blanket.”
We tramp up the valley for hours, crossing the river a number of times, not a soul in sight. The first part is farmed land, with a few cows in the distance, steep mountains framing the valley. It’s hard for me to make out a path between the shrubs, but Miriam knows every landmark like it’s her neighbourhood. When walking, she likes to brush the foliage with her fingertips to feel the young leaves.
On an earlier walk together, she pointed out her namesake, the lancewood. It became her pen name by accident; she had used it in her email address, and a journalist mistook it for her surname, so Miriam rolled with it. A lancewood makes a fantastic walking stick, she tells me. “It’s incredibly flexible and doesn’t snap. And then the metamorphosis.” At first, a lancewood grows narrow and spindly, then it transforms, leaves changing shape, into a tree that looks nothing like it did.
While we rest on a rock overlooking a spectacular gorge, Miriam picks tiny tōtara berries for me to taste. She lets me wear her river sandals for the last crossings and carries on barefoot along the riverbed, still nimble after four hours with a heavy pack, lightly stepping over wet stones. The sky is deep blue. As we find our way over the river stones, a flock of geese begin to honk, and one by one, they take off. They gather in the sky, and the wind carries them over the next range. It’s almost evening when we climb up the last forested slope at the end of the valley.
“There is Peter!” Miriam waves excitedly. “And there is my friend!” She points at a tree, a toatoa, on our left. “Usually these don’t stand so alone. This one must be incredibly old. I go and talk to her a lot, or we play chess in her shade.”
Their camp—two tents—is under beech trees, with the river gurgling below. Wasps hover over the ground. A pot hangs from sticks over the firepit. Peter, wearing gumboots, is cooking gooseberries that he’s just collected. “That’s our home,” he says, smiling. It doesn’t get much sun, but it’s sheltered from the wind, and has its own spring just metres away. When it rains, they stick an umbrella on a tripod. “No point in constructing anything temporary,” says Miriam. “We don’t need a project or extra work. We just hunt, we cook, we wash clothes. Sometimes at the end of the day, you can’t even remember what you did.”
When Miriam and Peter first arrived here, it took a while to transition back to life in the wilderness. They got bored, until they adapted to the slower rhythm. There were days when they simply stared at a tree for hours. Time intrigues them—they’re both protective of the equilibrium that comes from not knowing what day of the week or month it is. When they first went into the wild in 2010, they said goodbye to their past and to the future. They planned nothing ahead. They left chronological time behind.
“When that disappears, it feels as if our normal self disappears with it,” says Miriam. “It’s disturbing at first, and then excruciatingly boring for a while, but then it’s liberating.”
She tells me that she has noticed herself thinking about this story, wondering how she and Peter will be portrayed, wondering how they’ll be judged by the public, how it might affect the freedom they crave. Being the Woman in the Wilderness comes with a price: all that public favour is a possession that she stands to lose.
It seems that Miriam is being pulled in opposite directions: she wants to share what she’s discovered with others, but that involves dipping into the conventions of the ordinary world, and she’s determined to rethink all of those, not succumb to them. “I do that with every little thing. For instance, why do I keep my clothes clean or don’t want holes in them, and how much is that my upbringing? So what is my relationship with clothes? They’re for me, not the other way around. I’m not their slave.”
Peter and Miriam are united in their shared willingness to interrogate things that most people simply accept. Their views are often unconventional. “I don’t support the system in any way unless I have to,” says Peter. “Because I think it’s basically an unjust system.” In his view, shaped by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, people don’t need authorities or government. “But our society does not produce strong enough individuals to live without it.” That’s been his life’s project: becoming independent.
A few days ago, Peter went for his first climb since arriving at the campsite, up a bare-faced 2000-metre mountain. It was a steep walk—and a victorious moment. Two years earlier, he couldn’t roll over in his bed without the help of a nurse. His kidney condition is now manageable, but he’s had to feel out his new limits. “It’s been really difficult,” he says. “Much harder than I thought. I’ve had days where I really question what I’m doing.”
After dinner, Miriam and I head out hunting in the last light, trying to stay in the shadows and step quietly. Suddenly, Miriam crouches down and waves at me to do the same. Seconds later, I hear a shot. I see her walk away, then kneel and lift a limp hare out of the grass. She ties its back legs with string to a branch on a tree, then gets out her Swiss pocket knife. We skin the creature, removing its caramel fur, then stick our hands into its warm bleeding belly to pull the guts out. “That’s for the eagles,” says Miriam.
It’s almost dark when we get back to camp. Peter is already sleeping. Miriam puts the hare’s legs and offal in the billy and takes it to the tent overnight to save it from possums. This is how it usually goes: she hunts, he cooks. Again and again, when it comes to describing their relationship, Miriam uses the analogy of Peter being the teacher and she the student. “He’s physically not as able as I am, so I carry a heavier pack—25 kilos so that he can only have 15. He is intellectually so much further ahead than I am.”
Their different approaches complement each other. When Peter says, “The weather is coming in,” she says, “It’s still sunny.” Her optimism is balanced by his critical mind.
He relishes a debate; she’s the peacemaker. What does he love most about her? “That she has no inner conflict.” Peter, who’s been married and had other long-term relationships, learned harmony from Miriam. “Conflict ruled my adult life. Growing up in rural New Zealand wasn’t all roses, so I know where it came from.”
There is also a tenderness between them, perhaps brought into focus by the knowledge that their time together is limited. This is something Miriam realised the moment she met Peter in a chai shop in India: she says she knew she would see him die if she stayed with him.
Long walking—spending years covering thousands of kilometres on foot—is now over for them. Instead, as soon as COVID-19 allows, they want to get on a plane to Bulgaria. This is probably their last stay in the New Zealand wilderness for some time, but they’re not sentimental about the change. They’re ready for a new adventure.
In the morning, Miriam tells Peter excitedly about a deer that she saw in the dusk. Breakfast is fresh bread baked in a frying pan and the hare’s heart, lungs and kidneys. It’s delicious.
Miriam receives a lot of fan mail—people writing to ask, Can they please come and live in oneness with nature, with her? “It’s a lot of people’s dream, but the reality of it might actually be their nightmare,” she says, laughing. There’s the discomfort of sleeping on the ground, dealing with rain and isolation, having nothing to do, and very basic food—they get by on minimal supplies, plus Miriam’s hunting. “So I don’t think we have to worry about millions of people doing this. But it would be good for some to spend time in nature, to regenerate, to rest, to get clarity.” That’s what this is all about. “There is plenty of information out there which we don’t have. But here, we have insight.”
On the walk back out to my car, Miriam and I take a detour to a waterfall that she has talked about since my arrival. My visit has been a whirlwind of ideas, of conversation, of debate—a disruption to the immediacy of experience that Miriam and Peter treasure. Usually, when they’re alone, they play copious amounts of chess together—they met over the game—and read. Sometimes the same books over and over again, like their favourites by Krishnamurti or Nietzsche. Anything they’ve come across while they’ve had an internet connection—Elon Musk and artificial intelligence are their latest fascinations—gets pondered by the fire.
At the waterfall, we drop our backpacks, strip off and step into the rock pool. It’s ice cold. A few more steps and we are standing under the blasting shower of water, holding each other by the hand so the force doesn’t throw us off our feet. It’s a cleansing shock. We scream but endure the wall of water—shivering, euphoric, laughing in disbelief.
Drying in the sun, I’m bursting with energy. Miriam puts on her river sandals. Something about her has changed. “Your article doesn’t matter,” she says. “Being the Woman in the Wilderness is not important. If we identify with an image, we fear losing it. Then small things become too important.”
She’s ready for the next stage in her metamorphosis. She points into the distance: the meandering river, the wild flowers, the steep mountains, the sky where a flock of birds is circling. She smiles into the sun. “This stays. It’s eternal.”