Creating the Shape of the Land

Reading Philip Temple’s The Explorer

Six years before the Beak of the Moon series, Philip Temple wrote this, his first novel, the story of an early explorer surveying new territory on behalf of the government. Their motives are economic, urging him to keep an eye out for gold. But for him, it is exploration itself, making his way in unmapped bush that is its own reward. ‘No one had made sense of it on paper, taken back drawn detail for the map making. It was as if he had a part in creating the shape of the land.’

Temple doesn’t disguise his influences. The explorer of the title, Jimmy Duncan, is a version of Charlie ‘Mr Explorer’ Douglas. Douglas was a government surveyor, the first to map parts of the West Coast. Journeys which Temple himself would retrace in his 1985 book New Zealand Explorers. But a glimpse at the author photo on the flyleaf of 1975’s The Explorer shows he was already living the part then, bearded and with a pipe clenched between his teeth just like Douglas/Duncan. At one point in the novel, Duncan dons a headband, Temple’s own headwear of choice during the 70s. The Explorer lets him take it a step further, inhabiting Douglas’ head for a journey into the mountains and back.

We first see Duncan preparing for this trip. He’s ageing, as many people remind him, starting to turn his thoughts to settling down in the timber and iron Westland town. It’s when he steps into the wild that things really get cracking. All Temple’s research and own mountaineering experience pays off, and he describes Duncan’s labours in detail. The book takes on the single mindedness of its character, finding job and job for him to do. We learn how men like Douglas surveyed and survived. What they ate (mostly wekas), and how they pitched their ‘batwing’ tents.

Like the best books about the New Zealand outdoors, the bush is a character of sorts. There is its silence and emptiness, something that gives it the loneliness of a sea voyage. And it’s demanding too, damp and uncomfortable with all those jobs that need to be done. It’s clear although not stated that this will be Duncan’s last journey, and from time to time he wonders why he’s there, coming to articulate the lure of exploration bit by bit even if ‘wilderness did not need to be known. It was not friendly or hostile; simply indifferent.’

That indifferent bush even made its way onto the cover of The Explorer. Designed before endorsements and stock photos became the go-to for historic novels, it adapts a Michael Smither landscape of mountains, and unseen, hidden valleys. The Explorer is out of print now, but it looks like some copies with this perfect cover are still available through Temple’s website, waiting for rediscovery.