Living WildMelanie Smith
Visiting every country in the world
Being afraid of something doesn’t change its outcome
Melanie Smith is the chairwoman or trustee on several boards, but it’s her commitment to travel and usually alone, that is re-framing the narrative about what it means to be a woman living more wild.
Photo Location: Hiking in the Buckskin Gulch, Utah
Melanie has an impressive career – making partner at a top consulting firm, travelling around the world with her work, working outrageous hours and retiring at 40 to work part-time.
Now, she travels 50% of her time and has set a goal for herself to travel to all the UN sovereign states by the time she is 50.
There may be only 150 people in the world who have achieved this, so while Melanie won’t be the first, she may be the first female New Zealander and the first Maori to do so.
To help her achieve this goal, Melanie is an expert at finding unusual flight connections. It was on her Christmas 2015 London to Auckland visit via Brunei, East Timor, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tonga that I met Melanie for the first time.
When I interviewed her, we talked about eating disorders, wearing makeup, dancing through fear, and listening out for bears while hiking alone in the US.
One of the aspects that really fascinated me about your travelling, is that you do most of it alone. How did that come about?
Well, it wasn’t intentional! But if I kept waiting for other people to have the desire, the money or the time to come with me to the places that I wanted to go to, then it was just never going to happen.
Plus, when I’m travelling by myself I can do whatever works. If I sleep in and get up at midday, then I get up at midday. If I get up at 6am, then I can go and do something and I don’t need to wait for the other person to get up too.
Now when my husband comes with me, I worry that he’s not having a good time. And then I stress about that.
You travel to places that get a bad rap for women or where female travellers are not encouraged to go. How do you go about assessing the risk?
Melanie and her husband in the bathhouse in Airman, Iran
Well, I live in London – of all the places to have a terrorist attack, London seems like a pretty likely target. On top of that, I’m a cyclist and cyclists die on my corner all the time. The drivers in London are bonkers! So the risk of travelling is relative. I believe that generally, people are good, and that’s true of people everywhere in the world.
I have a few tips to help me when I first arrive in a place. If it’s headscarf country, I wear a headscarf. I don’t wear short shorts or flash my cleavage. I don’t drink a lot of alcohol, I don’t go out after dark. I’m careful. I never trust anyone that comes up to me offering help – if I need help, I’ll go looking for it and I’ll always go and find a woman.
I don’t dress like I’m wealthy, I am a bit grubby. And I’m always confident. If I’m getting harassed by young men in their 20’s I tell them;
“I’m old enough to be your mother. How would you feel if your mother or sisters were being harassed this way?” This always works really well – especially in Africa.
Running in the Rees Valley, New Zealand
A few years ago I was held up at gunpoint in Columbia by three men. They took money from me, but I’m great at hiding money, so they didn’t get most of it. I still argued with them because they took my film and wouldn’t let me have it back. When I went to report the incident to the authorities, they wanted to charge me $500 for an insurance report. I said “No way! I’ve already been robbed once today.”
Recently, I was really worried about getting across the border at Nigeria, and I asked myself “What’s the worst that could happen?” Whatever happens, it probably means I’m not going to die. So I just need to work through all the steps to get myself out of that situation. I’m pretty fit. If I need to, I can just run.
I can outrun almost anyone, and I am fit enough to walk or run so I don’t need to get into a taxi if I think it’s not safe.
50% of your life is travel. For the readers out there that think you might be a trust fund baby, can you share how you make this a financially viable lifestyle?
Hanging out with children in a village in Liberia
Oh, I’m definitely not a trust fund baby – I got my first job when I was 11! I got through University with some family support, scholarships and I had three jobs.
I really wanted to be a lawyer and so I went and studied law. After I graduated, I got a job at the law firm where I’d had a summer internship, but I was dating a guy there, so I decided I didn’t want that job. I saw an ad for a job at McKinsey & Company, who I had never heard of but I knew they had offices all around the world. So I started working with them, working 80 hours a week for a long time. I’ve made some good investments and I’ve probably made enough money, but I like to work. It’s good to work.
What helps too is we live in a small flat in London and we don’t have a mortgage. We don’t buy stuff – we only really spend money on good food. When I look back on that time when my colleagues and I were so miserable in our big jobs, we’d go out and spend 500 pounds on a dress or a handbag. I’d rather spend that money on travel now. I have enough handbags to last me a lifetime – I don’t need more handbags! In saying that, I do spend money on good packs and hiking gear.
Also, I have chosen not to have children.
I have so much respect for those people that do have children – it’s a huge commitment in terms of money and 20 years of resources. I wouldn’t be able to lead this life if I had kids.
You are a trustee of BEAT, the UK’s largest eating disorder charity. What’s your perspective on why women are so affected by eating disorders?
Well, a lot more men are being affected by eating disorders these days. It’s not just women. I don’t know why people have eating disorders. There is a Psychiatrist who is on the board with me at BEAT who tells me that no one really knows how to treat eating disorders. They throw everything at it and hope that something or some combination of things will work, but they still have a low success rate.
I think social media plays a huge role with images, images, images! Even the images of the body-lifters aren’t realistic. They don’t look like that normally – that’s weeks of only eating brown rice and chicken for women to get that defined.
We aren’t designed to have such a low percentage of body fat or look like that all the time.
When Melanie told these children in Côte d’Ivoire how old she was, they tried to get her a chair to sit on
With social media too, we are always on. We don’t get an opportunity anymore to switch off. And that means a lot of people are in pain so they eat, don’t eat, drink, take drugs – anything to help the pain.
In the UK, we are seeing girls as young as 8 being admitted into hospital – which means for at least 6 months prior, they have been treated as an out-patient. There are layers of influence coming from the media, their parents, what they learn at school and their friends.
Recently, I was with my two god-daughters on the tube.
They had stolen their mother’s make-up and were putting it on. When I asked them about it, they said their mother had given it to them, which of course was a lie!
When I asked her why she needed to wear make-up, she said “All women and girls look better with makeup and anyway, it will make me look younger.” She’s only 7 years old! What? Does she want to look like she’s 6?!
You told me when I first met that you had lost half your body weight and that you have taken up endurance sport. What got you to that point of wanting to transform your body?
I was 40 and we were hiking the Milford Sound track. Now, it never used to matter how healthy I was, how big I was, or how fit I was – I could always hike. But doing the Milford Sound, I really struggled. And it’s not a hard hike.
I had friends who had gotten to 40 and had heart attacks or had dropped dead. And here I was – I wasn’t strong enough to do this hike. And I wanted to be strong enough to lead a life where I could do the things I wanted to do.
So I decided to do something about it and now I’m training for an Ironman! Yes, my friends will tell you that I’m a very obsessive person, but my advice to people starting out is to start small. I started walking to work. I cut out sugar. Now I exercise almost every day, I don’t always eat well, but about 85% of the time, and I walk everywhere.
I went camping for the first time in 17 years recently, and I spent some time checking out your packing blogs for inspiration. It looks like you long ago let go of the Western Woman’s vices – the hairdryer, conditioner, makeup, perfume. Was that a big task?
Not really, I don’t think I really ever had it! I still pluck my eyebrows, shave my legs occasionally and I shave under my arms but that’s only because you smell when you are hiking for six days.
I used to have pedicures but I lose so many toenails now with hiking, so I don’t bother anymore.
I’ve never been too worried about what I look like. When I was on the bus in Africa there were women with full makeup and we didn’t even have running water.
In my first year working, I did wear makeup. But then I realised that sleep was the most important thing to me when I was working 80 hours a week. I did a Lean Manufacturing course with work and then applied it to home.
I cut out anything non-essential from my routine to get me from my bed in the morning to out the door. I got it down to 9 minutes.
Northern Lapland, after hiking for 14 hours and still not seeing anyone
Not a lot. People used to say that I would figure out all the problems of the world, but as soon as I start thinking, I fall over. I’m pretty clumsy and I need to focus on where I’m putting my feet. I tend to focus on how I’m going to get across a river that’s running particularly high, how to climb over a ridge, what I’m going to eat, am I cold, am I too hot? I also spend a lot of time dreaming about what I’m going to eat when I get out of there, because I’m always hungry!
When I’m not travelling, I spend my days worrying too much – what people think, what I should have said, what the world is coming to. I tend to overthink things and stress about people and situations.
But when I’m travelling, I switch all of that off and just focus on where to put my feet.
Tell me about your relationship with fear.
Half way up Pioneer Peak in Kazakstan – Melanie has just lost half her front tooth in a fall
The thing that is always with me on these trips, the thing that is always my constant, is the pain. It might start in the morning with my feet. By lunch time it’s in my calves, then my butt, then my shoulders.
I read an article about a SAS guy once, who said that when you get to the point of pain where you are thinking, “I can’t do it, I can’t go on, I don’t want to walk another step”, that’s when you are at 50% capacity. And it’s at this point that your mind will not take you, or, will take you the rest of the way.
I could be having a bad day in the Alps where I’m getting hypothermia and I don’t want to walk another step. And then I remember that no one is going to get me, no one is going to come and save me. So I could have my chin bleeding, or I’ve fallen over 6 times already that day, but I need to get up, keep walking, or keep crawling. Climbing up mountain peaks is really not the best place for me, and I have found myself crawling at some points because I have terrible vertigo.
But I still have to put one step in front of the other. I can either go back, or I can go forward. But it’s still up to me, because no one is going to come and save me.
So what do you do in those situations to get you to the point where you can actually move through the fear?
A few times last year, I’d come around the corner and then seen this massive drop. Now to be clear – I’m not worried about falling. It’s the falling and DYING part I’m worried about! So I just put on some music and I dance. That’s what I do now!
People will come around the corner on a trail really surprised to see me, arms flailing, dancing and singing badly to some Guns and Roses song. But that’s me – I dance out my fear.
So you listen to music a lot while you are hiking?
No, the battery power is a real luxury, so I only listen to music when I really need it. Plus I need to be able to hear what’s going on around me. I want to be able to hear the birds! And in the US, I need to be able to hear the bears!
What? The bears? Tell me about that!
That was when I went camping in the US! It’s pretty full on – you aren’t meant to camp by yourself, you have to have all your food in a bear can. You aren’t meant to cook in your clothes and then sleep in them. So here I was camping by myself, cooking in my clothes and then I would be sniffing myself – Do I smell like food? Will a bear come into my tent while I’m sleeping and think I’m food?
I’d walk around every corner on the trail holding my bear spray like it was gun in front of me. By Day 3, I wasn’t scared anymore and I was kinda hoping to find a bear.
We all have fears, and what my fears are might not seem like much to you. For example, my friend is meeting me in New Zealand for a hike soon. He’s really hardcore, really tough, but his fear? He’s worried about being in Dubai airport by himself and not speaking English. That’s his fear.
Sometimes, I still step off the plane in Sierra Leone and think oh shit. What’s going to happen?
Or I could be standing in the boardroom with the CEO of one of the top 10 companies in the world and be thinking “When are they are going to figure out that I’m a fraud?”, even though I’ve been working for them for the last five years!
Look, some days I don’t want to leave the house, I’m too scared to face the world outside my front door.
So what do you do?
I go anyway. I have so many fears! Fear doesn’t change the outcome.
In this quest to see the world, what have you discovered about yourself?
Gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Not as much as I thought I would! What I have realised though, is that the flaws I had at 20 are still there. On a scale of 1-10 I used to be a 10 on the assertiveness scale. I don’t mean to hurt people but sometimes they find me too direct.
I think I’m now an 8. And even though other people probably haven’t noticed the difference, an 8 is a big difference for me and I’m happy with that.
You are a woman of many nationalities. Can you share what identity means for you?
First and foremost I am Maori. I am a Kiwi but there are parts of being a Kiwi that I’m not happy with. Similarly I love being French but there are parts of being French that I don’t agree with, and the same with being British.
It means that home is everywhere and home is nowhere. I can be really comfortable at a marae up north in New Zealand, but there are bits missing that I can only get in the French countryside or in London. I can be comfortable with my Chanel handbag and in 4 inch heels going to the theatre or at a 3 star Michelin restaurant, but there are always bits missing.
Home is wherever my husband and my cats Billie and Barry are.
If you were in a position to lead a group of women, to lead them into a life more wild, a life more feminine, what would your battlecry be?
It’s really simple: You have one life. Do the things that make you happy, not the things that other people say you should do.
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Photo credit: Lucy Spartalis