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"The future is totally unknowable." Miriam Lancewood on the reality of living off the grid.

For the past eight years, Miriam Lancewood and her husband Peter have lived in the wilderness of New Zealand. No phones. No internet. No bed. No refrigerator. No electricity. No concept of time.

They’re completely off the grid. And while that sounds terrifying to some, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

So what happens when you’re thousands of kilometres away from the nearest town and you get sick… or you want to know what time it is and you don’t have a watch or a phone?

This is an extract from her book Woman in the Wilderness (available on Booktopia for $18.95) in which she recounts her initial experience adjusting to the wilderness, including the immense feelings of boredom, she wasn’t expecting.

***

Peter turned round and put my arms over his shoulders. “Now it’s just us!” he said, embracing me. I kissed him softly on the forehead.

In the sky above us, a big hawk appeared, gracefully following the path of the river below. When it saw us, it flapped its brown wings wildly to change course, then disappeared over the other side of the mountains- which, to us, was the other side of the world.

I took a deep breath. “I feel like we have finally come home.” Peter nodded. “This is the world we were all born into.”

I took his hand and looked out at the valley and forest all around us.

“Amazing feeling, to be so alone in such an isolated place, isn’t it?” I said.

“It is. The nearest house is a good three days’ walk from here. This time of year, most people leave the mountains alone and stay inside until the spring.”

I looked up and saw some clouds drifting over the ranges. They were moving fast; there must have been a lot of wind on the tops.

“What do you think will happen to us?” Peter wondered.

I thought for a while before responding. “I don’t know. I really can’t picture the future.”

“Because it’s totally unknowable.”

“Yes, it’s actually as though we have no future. Just the great timeless void, an infinite mist.”

Listen to Miriam Lancewood’s conversation with Mia Freedman about braving the wilderness on No Filter.

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

“This is absolutely, amazingly beautiful, isn’t it?” I looked at the crystal clear water, which cascaded down from the mountains. The big round rocks, worn smooth by the current, shimmered in the sun.

“Yes, and vast parts of this island are like this, too.” Peter leaned back on to the rock.

“I just feel so lucky to be here, to actually live in this beauty.” I looked at the rocky outcrops on the other side of the river, the dense forest in the distance, and the old trees nearby. When my tea was finished, I made another cup. We had no clock, but I guessed it was probably ten in the morning. I thought of Virginia and Rose, who would be sipping their coffees at the table by the window in the staff room.

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We were now in such different worlds.

After my initial elation, an uncomfortable feeling was creeping to the surface, a kind of realisation that sent a flash of panic through my body. It was the one thought that clashed with all my fantasies of living peacefully in the wilderness: the ‘What now?’ thought. What was I going to do next?

I thought of things to do and remembered I 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. A soggy roll of paper sat in the corner. I lifted the lid and looked into the hole. The smell was so horrible that I quickly closed the lid.

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

I felt a little apprehensive. The hut and toilet were worse than I expected, and I forced myself not to think of the months ahead. I jumped into action instead.

The hut desperately needed cleaning, so I 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. We would definitely sleep in the tent, as the hut obviously belonged to the rats and mice, but in bad weather we could at least shelter in a clean hut.

Peter saw me running back and forth with buckets. “Why don’t you sit down for a minute?” he asked. But I had been running around for years and I found it difficult to sit still. I took the dirty frying pan from the shelf and scrubbed it clean with sand from the river, then I did the same with the cutlery and the billy. Next, I searched around for the best place to camp, eventually pitching the tent underneath some trees with a flysheet strung over the top as an extra roof. The tent would be our bedroom, the hut our living room during bad weather; the river was our tap, fridge, shower, dishwasher and washing machine, and the whole valley was our garden. Our home in the wilderness. I started to feel better about the place.

Woman in the Wilderness Miriam Lancewood
"We were now in such different worlds." Image: Supplied.
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Several times Peter offered to help me but, dreading the moment when all the chores were done, I preferred to do everything on my own. I needed to fill up the empty day. Finally, after I had tied a rope between the trees for a washing line, I sat down. I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

What time could it be? I wondered.

The sun was just touching the top of the mountains. It felt as if it was four o’clock, but it could also be three o’clock. The day seemed endless.

This was the one thing all our hiking trips and training had not prepared me for: boredom. Being occupied with walking every day was relatively easy when compared to just... living. If I had been a hiker, I would have shouldered my pack and begun to walk to the next hut. If I had been a hunter or a fisher, I would have declared it a day and walked back to the car. But I could go nowhere.

I 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?" I sounded far more coherent than I felt.

"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. Sometimes I felt comfortable and at home; other times I felt insecure about the future. But mostly I felt bored and restless. I no longer had a job, a project or stimulation like social contacts, email, music and all the rest. It felt as though I was going through withdrawal symptoms. My mind was running too fast, my thoughts were all over the place and endless memories flashed by. My head felt chaotic compared to the silence of nature, whose gentle rhythm was much slower than my busy self.

I was glad to be able to talk with Peter about the difficult process of slowing down. He hadn’t ever lived in the wilderness before either, but he did seem to understand the nature of the mind a little better than I did. Even though he appeared tranquil compared to me, he said he knew exactly how I 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.

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Nothing.

That was the last thing I wanted to do. Nothing meant boredom, the dreaded void, horrible emptiness. Nothing was the unknown.

I had discovered I was afraid of nothing. I would be forced to face this fear in the weeks to come.

On the first morning that we awoke to sunshine, we built a big fire outside the hut. I like fires. Since the age of five, I have been fascinated by two things, both taught to me by my very patient father: building tree huts and lighting fires.

We had brought with us flour, yeast and an old-fashioned camp oven, which is basically a big iron pot with a flat lid. Peter had learned to use camp ovens when, as a 20-year-old, he worked as a cook on cattle stations in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia. In order to bake bread in our camp oven, we would need dense wood for our fire; Peter explained to me that if we used soft wood like pine we would end up with ashes and no embers, which would leave our bread uncooked in the middle. It took about two hours for the dense wood we gathered to become red-hot embers.

To hear the rest of Miriam's story, listen to her interview with Mia Freedman on No Filter. 

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