An extract from the extraordinary Woman in the Wilderness, a memoir by Miriam Lancewood about her decision to leave civilisation to live – and hunt – in the New Zealand bush.
We lit a fire, toasted some bread on hot coals and, after two cups of tea, I stood up and took my bow. “I won’t be back before dark,” I said to Peter, tying my knife belt around my waist.
The afternoon was hot, so I set off in a bikini top and shorts. I had a piece of string tied round my wrist and my bow in my hand.
I walked fast enough to evade the sandflies, but slow enough to pick up the slightest scent in the air. After a few hours, I caught the scent of some goats. For most people, the smell of goats is repulsive, but for me it meant food. It smelled good.
I cocked an arrow and looked for a goat that stood side on, but all I could see were 12 noses—the worst position for an intuitive bow- hunter. I knelt behind a small bush, hoping one of them would turn side on. Unfortunately, they all strolled straight towards me. I was forced to lie down completely. They came so close that they were actually looking at me through the bush, so I pretended to be dead. To my amusement, they believed my performance and kept casually grazing. Then a small kid came very close to me, and I couldn’t resist trying to peek. It was nibbling just a metre away and, when it spotted my moving eyes, it knew it had been tricked. It ran away in panic, and the rest of the mob followed it within seconds.
I cursed myself, and had to circle round for a long time to find them again. When I spotted a big goat in a perfect position and at an ideal distance, I did not hesitate: I shot all my six arrows, one after the other. Two arrows hit. One punctured a lung, the other caught its foot, but the goat was soon running out of sight.
I searched for my arrows, but couldn’t find any in the long grass. I stood perplexed for a minute; I didn’t know what to do without my arrows, but I had no choice. My only solution was to find the wounded goat and kill it with my knife. I wasn’t going back to camp without arrows or goat. So I left my bow on a big stone and searched for specks of blood. I followed a path into the dense bushes until I almost crawled into a spiderweb, which made me realise the goat couldn’t have come that way.
Where would a wounded goat go? It wouldn’t struggle into the dense forest; it would go up the side creek, of course! About a hundred metres up the boulder-strewn creek I found, to my relief, the wounded billy goat. He was resting behind a big washed-up log. I backtracked silently and sneaked through the bushes to come out on the other side of the log, right behind him.
Grab his horns with your left hand and cut his throat with your right, I thought. My heart was beating wildly as I hesitantly moved my hand towards his horns. But the moment my hand hovered over his head, he smelled me and shot off with surprising speed. I had to be less hesitant next time—if there was a next time.
As he ran off over the big grey stones in the riverbed, foam was coming out of his mouth. His lungs were punctured, and he looked so weak that I decided to outrun him. I jumped from stone to stone with my knife in my hand. After 50 metres, I tired and slowed to walking pace. The goat stopped too, waiting until I got close before it moved off again. In this manner, we travelled a long way up the valley.
You’re the most important thing for me, right now, I thought. And I’m the most important thing for you. This goat and I were, in a strange way, completely connected.
I edged around a steep cliff and found him in a small cave. We stood face-to-face for a moment. I walked closer to the goat, preventing him from escaping. When he tried to run past me, I thrust my knife between his ribs. His heavy body sank awkwardly on to my feet. I moved backwards and sat, dazed, on the stones. It looked very big lying next to me.
I dragged the heavy carcass over the big boulders to the nearest tree in the forest. It took all of my strength to lift it into the air, while simultaneously tying it to a branch with my rope. I removed the intestines, and put them out in the open for the hawks.
The horned head, I placed on a tree stump.
Rest in peace, billy goat, I thought.
The birds were singing their last songs for the day. I looked anxiously at the sky. Dusk was slowly creeping over the forested mountains, cold air rolling down from the tops. It was a long way back to camp. I hurriedly tied the front legs to the back legs with my rope and strapped the animal to my back. The goat was still warm, and its fur prickled my bare skin.
The carcass swayed awkwardly from left to right as I walked. It was a long, tiring journey, but the last light in the west guided me through the swift river crossings. I smelled the smoke of our campfire from a long way off; the wind had turned again.
Peter was sitting beside the small fire when I finally arrived. Exhausted, I squatted down while he untied the goat and lifted it off my back. We sat round the flames and I quietly told him every detail of the hunt, while the silver moon rose over the tall mountaintops.
I waded into a dark pool in the river to wash all the blood off my body and out of my hair. Looking up at the moon in the clear night sky, I thought of the long chase and the killing. It had been quite savage. I realised I had become the very person I would have loathed in my youth—when I was a good vegetarian with the higher moral ground. I had come down so far, so to speak, that I was touching the lower ground. The earth.
Woman in the Wilderness by Miriam Lancewood (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available at Unity Books.