I was born in 1983 in a small village in the Netherlands. I grew up with loving parents and two sisters, and we played a lot of music and sports. When I was seven, I joined the scouts. That’s where I learned how to light a fire, pitch a tent, and hike with a backpack, but not for one moment did I ever dream of living in the wilderness.
When I was fourteen, I was “discovered” as a pole vaulting talent. My strong upper body would come in handy in this branch of athletics. I became six times Dutch Champion and went on to represent my country in the Youth Olympic Games in 1999. It was a logical next step for me to study Physical Education, and I completed this four-year Bachelor’s Degree when I was 21. Ever since I was ten years old, I had dreamed of being a sports teacher in Africa and finally, in 2004, I left the Netherlands for Zimbabwe to be a physical education teacher in Bulawayo.
We spent every weekend into the mountains, dreading coming back on Sunday afternoon and wondering why we needed to work to have a house, a car, and other things we didn’t really value anyway.
After one year in Africa, I decided to travel around India on my own. That’s where, in January 2006, I met Peter, the New Zealander who had left his home country to live in India. He would spent six months of they year surfing the ocean, and the other six months climbing the Himalayas. He was, for me, the embodiment of adventure. Peter used to be a university lecturer before realizing that life was to be found and lived not in a building but rather out there. “You’ve got to live this stuff,” he said to his colleagues at his goodbye party, “not just read about it.”
Peter said that you could live without working, if you were prepared to live simply. This was something I had never heard before, and he opened my eyes to a different way of living.
Together, we walked through the Himalayas and travelled for two years through Asia before arriving in Peter’s home country, New Zealand. I had to work for a year as a teacher in order to obtain a New Zealand residency. During that time, in 2009, we would spend every weekend in the mountains, dreading our return to civilization every Sunday afternoon and wondering why we needed to work to have a house, a car, and other things we didn’t really value anyway.
We were ready to do something extraordinary. We had been reading piles of books about expeditions and great adventures, and we decided that we would try to live in the mountains for a full four seasons. We organized ourselves well, calculated how much food we needed, and I learned how to shoot on a target in the garden, hoping to be able to provide us with meat.
Arriving in the wilderness in 2010 was quite a shock. Suddenly, there was nothing to do! Our mind had to slow down completely in order to meet the rhythm of nature. We had to learn how to do nothing, how to sit and watch the river, how to spend hours around the fire, how to be patient while learning to hunt. Indeed, the biggest adjustment was time. Time in the wilderness is very slow, while the mind is fast. Time seems to disappear, and living in the wilderness is like living in eternity.
After some weeks, we began to feel more in tune with our environment, and sitting and watching the beauty around us became increasingly easy. During the first year, our senses improved – my sense of smell, hearing, sight, and also intuition. Hunting ignited all of them, reconnecting me with the way our ancestors lived and the skills that were in their blood.
One year in, it was clear to us that we didn’t want to return to a normal life in the suburbs. At that point, a friend had offered us a little hut in Abel Tasman National Park, where we stayed for a while. In 2014, however, we decided to become completely nomadic, never staying longer than a few weeks in one place. In 2015, we began long walking. There is a 3000km walkway from the top of the country to the south, and we spent ten months walking this route. It was a marvelous journey; we were always walking into the unknown and yesterday was soon forgotten.
The most rewarding aspect of living in the wilderness is the fact that we sleep with the sun. In the winter, that means sleeping more than 13 hours. We eat wild meat, we gather plants, we cook on a fire, and we wash in the river. It’s all extreme, it’s intense, but we feel so alive.
I use nothing in the way of skincare. I used to pack a night cream with me, until Peter asked if we really needed to carry around a 30ml tube of cream. When I said that it was to keep my skin healthier, he questioned how I knew for sure that the cream made my skin better. What if it was making my skin worse? I could not answer that question with certainty, so I decided to put his idea to the test. I discarded the tube and observed my skin, noticing that it had not deteriorated much more without the cream than it normally would have.
I do have a lot of wrinkles though, compared to my sister who is 18 months older than me, because we live in the elements. Wind, strong sun, and freezing temperatures doesn’t do your skin much good. I use sunscreen in the New Zealand sun, especially in summer when it’s stronger. I’ve also found that the key to good skin is sunbathing in winter, so you have a bit of tan when the summer sun comes.
As for my hair, I use natural soap to wash it. Ten years ago, I cured dandruff with morning urine. Peter had read about it somewhere and encouraged me to try it out. It worked after only one treatment.
Peter and I spend 24/7 together, so our relationship has to be good, otherwise our life would fall apart. Over the years, my increased alertness has served me well in this regard. For instance, if Peter shows irritation about something, I act upon it. There are so many different ways to communicate; couples often blame each other for not talking about their issues, but humans are quite capable of picking up signals without having to talk about something.
I’ve learned that, if you are aware of your partner’s behavior, you can solve a lot of conflict before it gets any bigger. Peter and I talk a lot about conditioning; in this way, we can examine our own behavior without having to defend it. Living together is an art. It is the most difficult and the most rewarding thing in life, I would say.
We spend our time around the fire, gathering wood, keeping it lit, boiling tea, cooking food, and playing chess. The fire is the most important element of our life. We also read philosophy books, such as by Krishnamurti, Nietzsche, and Thoreau, and this forms the basis of many interesting discussions that we have.
When we are in New Zealand, our diet consists mainly of meat that I hunt – we eat 60 percent meat, 30 percent carbs, and 10 percent plants that we find in the wild. We add flour and rice that we buy from shops, because there aren’t many carb sources available in New Zealand’s wilderness.
But there are also scary moments in the wild. I remember being most scared during a thunderstorm one night; we were hiding in a little plastic tent and knew that one branch falling off a tree could kill us. We’ve also had to negotiate big cliffs and avalanches in the mountains, when I’ve been scared I was going to fall off. Other times, we’ve had to cross flooded rivers in New Zealand when we couldn’t see the floor and the icy water flowed with dazzling speed. But the moment the storm or the crossing had passed, we were relieved and relaxed again. It felt so different from modern society, where you can live in a constant state of anxiety, where there is no real physical danger and no real relief.
Only once on our journey did we get very hungry. We were relying on me hunting goats, but hadn’t come across any. After two days, we had started feeling very weak and drowsy; we could think of nothing else but filling our stomachs. It was an all-consuming feeling. Interestingly enough, on the fourth and fifth days, the body adjusted and it was easier to live with the hunger. Eventually, I shot a goat and we had plenty to eat again. I realized then that most people in developed countries have never really felt hunger, and how tragic it is that millions of people around the world still do.
I don’t miss anything about civilization, and whenever we happen to stay with friends, I miss the silence of the wilderness.
When we are in the city, we make the most of it. I borrow a guitar and go singing at the supermarket. I love to sing, and this generates a little income. We see friends, we have very interesting conversations, we drink, we eat different foods, we listen to stories and learn about the world. I love that too.
However, in the city, I find it really hard to deal with sleep deprivation. We end up staying up late because of screens and artificial lights, and I get really tired. Within days, I feel myself getting more stressed, emotional, irritated, and grumpy. We always notice how tired and stressed other people look, and within a week I look exactly the same.
There have been times when we’ve been forced to reconnect with civilization. In 2016, I was contacted by a publisher to write a story about my six years in the wild. All of a sudden, to write a book, I needed a house, electricity, and a laptop. Luckily enough, while hitchhiking to town for supplies one day, I met a woman who offered me her cottage on a big sheep farm. It was so old; there was no hot water, but there was electricity. We ended up living there for five months while I wrote the manuscript of Woman in the Wilderness.
After that, I gave back the laptop and we returned to the wild.
After the book came out in 2017, we left New Zealand and walked across 2000km in Europe and Turkey. As I write this, we find ourselves in a cottage (another one) while I work on my second manuscript. I hope to be finished in April, after which we will return to the wild.
Over the past ten years, I’ve come to realize that humans are very, very small creatures – and quite helpless too. If you left us in the wild, we’d struggle greatly to survive, unlike an animal that is perfectly quipped.
I feel incredibly small in the mountains, and my psychological problems and worries feel even smaller. Over time, they seemed to simply dissolve. In fact, we have become extremely pragmatic, and all forms of religion and spirituality have slowly disappeared. After we had discarded all of these beliefs, I noticed things beginning to happen. I felt a direct connection with plants, for instance, and I felt as if the plants were telling me what medicinal values they had.
My fear of public speaking has dissolved as well. I recently spoke in front of an audience of 1,400 people. Fifteen years ago, I would have been terrified and afraid of failure. Today, I think, “I am in no danger. There is no need to be afraid. I am not going to die. I am not in a flood, not on the side of a mountain, not in a thunderstorm. I am safe.” If I fail, I could lose my status, my reputation, my fame and honor, and the respect people have for me. But all of that doesn’t matter anyway. Nothing is as important as the silence in the mountains.