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The Gap Year Blog

Into the Wild Meets Lucy Irvine

20 Feb 2016 13:55 PM

Image courtesy of Robert Irvine

Lucy Irvine epitomises the kind of adventurous spirit that we love here on Into the Wild. Reaching celebrity status back in the 1980's after her incredible story was adapted for the big screen, Lucy continues to live life the way she likes it best...isolated and truly happy. Today, Into the Wild speaks to Lucy about her extraodinary past, her fulfilling present, and her exciting plans for the future - something you could play a significant role in yourself.

Frontier: Wikipedia describes your adolescence as ‘tumultuous and free spirited’. What kind of things did you do as a youngster to earn this reputation? Is it accurate?

Lucy: 'Free spirited' is well meant, though such a cliché...But my youth was up and down. I first walked out of school aged 11, having asked myself why my day had to be divided up the way it was and why I had to wear a uniform. Tending to question everything, I gave up on formal education aged 13. It was not that I didn't like learning, when I ran away, I took books, a blanket and apples - plus a notebook and pen. My 2nd book, Runaway, describes how irritated I was to wake up in hospital after an accident on a motorbike, to find a social worker reading my diary.   

Frontier: What was your first real travel adventure?

Lucy: At 16, I took off from Scotland to hitchhike around Europe, starting with a friend but travelling on alone after Greece. I met with much kindness but was attacked twice, too. Working on a moshav in the Golan Heights for a while steadied me after the rough experiences. It was interesting to be with soldiers and I liked the principle of work in return for food that I helped to grow.

I took little money with me on that trip (though I'd saved up, after working as a cleaner, amongst other things, since aged 13) so I mostly slept rough. I missed a boat in Turkey so had to sleep on the coast until the next boat came. That was the first time I observed people of a very different culture at close hand – a  poor community subsisting on fish they caught and sheep they tended. A child wanted me to take her baby sister back to Britain in my rucksack - which was as disturbing as it was educational.   

Frontier: You’ve mentioned the big family troubles you experienced growing-up. Did your desire for adventure come from a need to escape this, or from another source?

Lucy: That's a good question and one I avoided answering for years. People thought it was 'brave' of me to go off and live in remote places, so I let them. But maybe I found the challenges in those remote places easier to face than those at home...A new book I'm writing touches on this.   
Frontier: In the early 80’s you answered an advert to spend a year on an uninhabited island with a stranger named Gerald Kingsland. You’ve said how a lack of responsibility gave you the freedom to take on such a strange adventure. Are you glad you went?

Lucy: Oh yes, I am glad I went. Although I may have lacked responsibility in the eyes of conventional society, I felt a responsibility to push myself hard to find out what my life meant to me and what I wanted to do with it. I was actively seeking a big personal challenge at the time I answered the ad. And I got it.

Walking out of school so young, I had none of the 'proofs of worth' normal in Western culture – exam results, a career path mapped out etc. To prove to myself that I was not totally stupid I took a test and joined Mensa when I was 16. But the year on the island was a much tougher and more meaningful test, with enduring results.  

Frontier: Where was this island?

Lucy: It was in the Torres Strait, half way between Papua New Guinea and Thursday Island off the Northern most coast of Australia. It was more coral atoll than tropical - lots of rough bush, sand, redback spiders, crabs, goannas, turtles, dugongs - and sea-going crocodiles close by.     

Frontier: What did you do with your time on the island?

Lucy: In brief, I learned: how to rig systems to catch water; how to fish with very simple gear (no carbon fibre rods like in the film!); how to get green coconuts down from tall palm trees; how to dry shark for when we had no fresh fish; which woods burned best and for what purposes, how to build a shelter.

Plus, I learned how to walk more slowly and live in the present more and to appreciate every tiny wild fruit I found and to love the shape of the island and accept all its moods. Above all, I learned that I loved life with a passion and that a cup of water is a precious gift: I learned not to take things for granted.  

My 'castaway' year was, until recently, the steepest learning curve of my life and the most rewarding experience.   

Frontier: The adventure was the inspiration for both an autobiographical book named Castaway, as well as a film by the same name. How did it feel to watch your personal experiences played out on the big screen?

Lucy: Nicolas Roeg, who directed the film which starred Amanda Donohoe as 'me', was honest: this was never going to be a film about my personal experience. He wanted to explore the relationship between an older man and a yonger woman (Oliver Reed played Gerald, my husband-of-a-year). I think that having 'the desert island dream' as a backdrop to this exploration, makes the film unusual and interesting. But it is not much about me.

Frontier: This adventure nearly ended very badly with both of you being rescued from starvation by locals from a neighbouring island. Did you think your time was up?

Lucy: I was too busy trying to catch a fish to continue living, to think about dying. Water was the biggest issue. It stopped raining and we were on strict rations – not good in a hot climate. We'd been told there was a spring on the island and there was when we arrived, but it dried up. No one had lived there before, so research we could do in advance was limited. For me, a bonus on top of the Torres Strait Islanders' help was that I learned so much about their lifestyle and history.    

Frontier: What appeals to you about living in isolation?

Lucy: It's not so much about isolation for me, as choosing to live in a different way. It's easy, when living in a culture with embedded institutions, to forget that established ways of life are all manmade and can be  reassessed and reworked. There are different ways of spending our (horribly limited) time on earth.  

19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill advocated more 'experiments in living'. That idea appeals to me. He feared that the Industrial Revolution would make consumers and conformists of most people and it probably did. Let's hope the digital/communications revolution works in a different way.  

I found my first remote living experience to be of such value - in teaching me perspective - that I took my two younger children with me for another year out of civilisation, in 1998. We lived on a Solomon Islands Outlier, a venture described in my most recent book, Faraway.  

Isolated living has become a habit with me now, I think. I find it easier to live alone and with limited influences coming at me. But I have entered on a new phase in my middle years, which involves  'getting out more.' I've even gone back to school - doing courses in screen writing, philosophy in film and political philosophy.

Also, I did bring up 3 sons, mostly alone, and that involved mingling a bit. For what it was like to be son-of-a-castaway, see The Guardian's 'The Castaway Kid' in which my son, Robin Irvine, is interviewed.

Frontier: Where do you live these days and what are you doing there? Are you happy?

Lucy: I live in a caravan in a peach field in rural Bulgaria. I did not plan it that way. For a couple of
years, I had a lovely, partly mudbrick, house, in which I played at being an expat - after having a disastrous time attempting to be conventional in the UK.  Then the house burned down and suddenly I was back to very basic living again. My desert island experiences were of value in reminding me what is most important in life; all that 'stuff' I lost in the fire really didn't matter.

What do I do?  Apart from growing a little fruit - cherries, peaches, plums - I write and care for rescued dogs and cats. At weekends, I try to help a little locally by having people from the gipsy 'ghetto' (that's how the word translates from Bulgarian) to help on my land. They have no employment, otherwise. I have become close to a family of ten and in winter, when there is no work for them, I buy their preserved fruit and vegetables rather than going miles to shop in a town. I also buy eggs and goat's milk from Bulgarian pensioners. They need the  money and it's convenient for me.       

Frontier: Do you have plans for the future or do you prefer to take life as it comes?  

Lucy: I like to plan, if only to diverge from the plan. After the fire, for instance, I decided to write a book. That's the one I've nearly finished now. And each year now, I like to learn in a field which interests me and to read around that subject. I also like to see my sons and plan trips around meetings with them.

As to being happy,  I find myself almost embarrassingly happy most of the time. I live very frugally for months at a time then do what I'd really like to do. To be frank, I'm not sure why more people dont do this.

Frontier: We hear you would like to go away with Frontier. Which project are you thinking about going on?

Lucy: The  project I have in mind involves teaching in Madagascar – which is (kind of) on the way to where I could visit my eldest son who lives on and works from, a boat in South Africa.

But in order to commit to the project, I need someone to care for my acre of land and rescued pets, here in Bulgaria - for about a month starting at the end of October. It would have to be someone happy in their own company and all round resilient, fit and responsible. Anyone interested could contact me via my ancient website. But I must stress this would have none of the safety nets of a gap year project and I could not accept anyone under 22.  

Frontier: Of the countries you have visited, which has been your favourite?  

Lucy: I still like visiting Scotland, so it must be one of my favourites. I did go back to my first island in The Torres Strait - a strange experience, as there'd been a cyclone and a veil of sand covered signs of our time there. Ortherwise, I don't have a favourite - yet.

Frontier: Where would you most like to visit that you have yet to see so far?

Lucy: Oh, so many places...India, Cambodia, Georgia, The Amazon...But I'm interested in intellectual exploration too, these days. Though I would not mind doing more of that on the hoof...

If reading Lucy's story has inspired you to get out there and experience the world, why not check out all of the amazing adventures to be had on the Frontier website, including teaching projects in Madagascar!

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!