At last – a TV series about living off the grid that does not patronise or belittle the lifestyle. Instead New Lives in the Wild but allows the stories to come out of the real lives of real people with something to say.
Presenter Ben Fogle meets people who left the modern world behind; He wrote about it in the British Daily Telegraph.”My long-suffering wife Marina has become accustomed to my returning from wild expeditions with suggestions for a new life. I’ve never acted on such impulses. But what sort of people do follow their wildest dreams?
“Last year, I embarked on some extraordinary journeys in search of people who have left the modern world. It was a pilgrimage of sorts. From the snowy tundra of Alaska to the deserts of the Texas/Mexican border, I spent time with individuals and families who have banished themselves to the planet’s remotest corners.
Dave Glasheen, 69, was a Sydney businessman until he lost his £6.5 million fortune in a single day during the stock-market crash of 1987. His home was repossessed, he separated from his wife and, with his remaining savings, he bought a small corner of Restoration Island, a tropical, sandy bar a mile off the north-east corner of Australia. Twenty years ago, he gave up work to become a castaway, building a house from driftwood and learning how to provide for himself.
“I was 105 kilos when I came here,” he says. “I was a classic corporate cat: overweight. Within two years, I was down to 70 kilos. All I did differently was eat better food. You feel better, you wake up and can do better things.”
Today, with his big white beard, he looks like a cross between Father Christmas and Robinson Crusoe. He wanders the island in a handmade leather thong with just his dog Quasi for company (who also protects their home from crocodiles). The closest thing Dave has to regular human company is Miranda, the female mannequin propped in a chair in his living room. “She a bit worn,” he admits. “She’s lost one arm, but she’s an attractive woman and keeps quiet.”
From the moment I arrived on “Resto”, Dave did not pause for breath as he showed me around his beautiful island. By way of routine, he gets up at sunrise to spend his daylight hours doing little jobs. His life is a whirlwind of chores, mostly line-fishing and collecting rainwater. It hasn’t rained much in two years, so the tanks dotted around his land, which can hold up to 200,000 litres of water, have all but run dry. Though he has enough drinking water, Dave has to ration how often he showers and flushes his rainwater loo.
“In Sydney, I used to be able to pull a credit card out of my wallet,” he says. “Here, a credit card has no value.”
The rest of his time is spent collecting rock oysters, mowing his five-acre lawn and fixing the hairline cracks in his rowing boat, which requires continual bailing thanks to its many holes. In the evening, he turns his hand to brewing home-made beer – “a necessary luxury” – which he bottles to barter with passing fishing boats for coral trout and mackerel.
“The great thing about living in the beyond is that I’ve learned how to survive. I’m way smarter than I ever was.”
After two decades of perfect solitude, Dave couldn’t return to the city. “If there’s more than one boat here, I think it’s a crowd,” he says. But he would like someone to share his castaway lifestyle. “We’re designed as humans to be connected. My dream is that some woman will come here and see it and feel it like I do. There are billions out there. She’s got to be out there somewhere. It’s not a big ask, surely?”
On the other side of the world, deep in the badlands of Texas cowboy country, I met John Wells, a fiftysomething former fashion photographer who once worked with greats such as Bruce Weber. Four years ago, John sold his New York property and ploughed the money into a tiny plot of land over the border from Ciudad Juárez, the lawless Mexican city often described as the most violent on earth.
With his own hands, John has built his own settlement complete with solar-powered shower, a tiny bedroom with a swamp cooler, and even a greenhouse to grow vegetables. “I lived in New York for 25 years,” John says. “It was all about me and doing my thing. I was up my a– when I was in New York, so this makes for a much more spiritual kind of journey.”
This remote corner of the States has long attracted romantics, wasters, nomads, dreamers and doomsday “preppers” who have pockmarked the desert with secret underground bunkers full of water, fuel and food in preparation for the end of the world. Surrounded by such characters, it came as some relief that John was also an avid gun-hoarder.
Like Dave, John followed his dream of a life of solitude – yet he, too, still craves company; John also lives alone but for a slightly crazy rooster called Carl, and his long-horned calf, Ben.
Both men seemed to epitomise the single, white, middle-aged male’s desire to start a new life in the wild. But I also found families that had made this extreme lifestyle change.
When couple Bretwood Higman and wife Erin McKittrick, both in their thirties, left their Seattle home one morning six years ago, they just kept walking. Nine months and 4,000 miles later – some of which they completed on raft and skis – they arrived at the spot where they wanted to live, on a small island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain.
They now live for half the year in their yurt, collecting firewood for the tiny wood-burning stove and making their own clothes. For the other six months, they trek through the Alaskan wilderness with their young children, four-year old Katmy and two-year old Lituya.
While their life is certainly unconventional – they have no access to running water, just a well, so they make do without a shower, bath or loo, and use dogs to lick their plates clean – I was astonished by the fluidity of it all when I joined them for a week in the wilderness.
It was strange to see Erin changing a nappy (made from towelling, of course) on the frozen, mossy Alaskan tundra, and I couldn’t begin to fathom how they trek for six long months of the year with two infants; Marina and I struggle to get our children and equipment into the car for a short trip to visit friends. Of course there were tantrums, but I saw less whingeing and crying than with my two on a trip to the park. Their children could also recognise more edible plants and berries than I knew existed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, their lifestyle has raised some eyebrows, and neighbours have even complained to social services about the children’s welfare. “But this is the life into which they were born,” reasoned Erin. Hig was just as sanguine about the educational value of their lifestyle: “It’s a fascinating process to be unintentionally starving,” he told me.
But perhaps the wildest of the “wild men” I met – certainly the most established – were the Longs, who have earned their unofficial title as New Zealand’s remotest family. It took two days of tough trekking along South Island’s storm-lashed south-western coast to reach their remote home by the Gorge River, where they have lived for nearly 30 years. Robert Long gave up medical school after becoming disillusioned with modern teaching and, after a long trek in the wilderness, came upon his own wild paradise.
At first, he lived off the land in the house he built by hand from driftwood. He met his wife Catherine by chance when she came through, trekking. The Longs have lived a hand-to-mouth existence ever since, fishing in the ocean and foraging for their table.
“There have been times when we’ve been down to our last sheaf of rice and some milk powder, and that was it,” says Catherine.
“I’m out bringing back food and fishing, 24 hours a day,” says Robert. “But I’ve had times when I couldn’t go anywhere for three weeks; the lowest the rivers got was chest-high.”
They home-educated their two children, who only left home at 18 – a testament to their chosen way of life. The Longs emphasise the importance of spending time together, as families once did: sharing a room, working together, learning together, eating together. But they were more than just a family; they were best friends. I was moved to tears by the closeness of this remarkable family.
The grass, of course, is always greener, and while you shun the worries of the modern world, the pressures of life in the wild are merely different. Is there enough water? Will the typhoon blow my house down? Are there enough fish in the sea?
Everyone I met had created a unique way of living off the grid, and I admired and envied those who had fulfilled their dream. I returned from each trip increasingly aware of our materialistic world and resolved to simplify my own life. A smaller house, fewer toys, less complication.
What unified all the people I met was contentment, for they had fulfilled their dreams. They may not lead the perfect lives – but what more can you ask for than happiness?”
‘Ben Fogle: New Lives In the Wild’ begins on Channel 5 on April 22 at 9pm
Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site
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