Keas Rule, OK?

An interview with Philip Temple

Philip Temple is an explorer in more ways than one. At 23 he was part of the expedition to first climb the Carstensz Pyramide in West Papua, one of the seven summits of the seven continents. A feat he followed with the first ascent of Big Ben on the Antarctic Heard Island. But it is for his writing that he is best known, and through forms as diverse as narrative non fiction, guidebooks, novels and children’s books, he has opened up the natural world for generations of New Zealanders.

Most recently he has published mountaineering novel The Mantis and MiSTORY, a cautionary tale about a future ravaged by climate change.

In your autobiography, Chance is a Fine Thing, you describe how your first attempts at tramping ended with search parties being sent after you. Can you tell us what drew you to adventure and the outdoors so strongly that these first goes didn't deter you?

I had an inbuilt urge to explore even when I was a small child in Yorkshire, roaming the fields about the mining town where I lived towards the end of WWII. Also, I was hardened to long journeys by running away from boarding school - ten times - when I was eight years old. Both of these are recounted in my novel Sam.

Mountaineering has inspired a literature of its own, and this tradition is strong in New Zealand with Denis Glover, John Pascoe and yourself as just some of the writers who have combined their love of the mountains and their writing. We'd be interested in your thoughts on this relationship between writing and mountaineering, what is it about mountains that has drawn so many people to write about it?

Well, mountains are the cathedrals of nature and there is some part of every mountaineer that is a nature mystic. Journeying to mountains, attempting to reach their summits, is a pilgrimage through the natural world. Mountaineering is also a test of one's physical, emotional and spiritual character and capabilities. All of this yields plenty of material for writing, ranging from adventure narrative to philosophical contemplation.

Which writers, outdoors or otherwise, inspired your own work?

Shipton, Tilman and Smythe in mountain books, and John Pascoe's first book, Unclimbed New Zealand; more broadly,when I was younger, I found George Orwell, W.B. Yeats, Ernest Hemingway and Shakespeare inspirational. Orwell, Yeats and Shakespeare I admire more and more today but, beyond mountain writing, I have grown to value many modern practitioners such as William Trevor, John Banville and W.G. Sebald. Of more recent NZ mountain writing, I think Aat Vervoorn is exceptional (but I haven't really kept up in this area) and, in other genres, Owen Marshall for the short story, Brian Turner and Vincent O'Sullivan for poetry and there are some outstanding novels by the likes of Lloyd Jones and Laurence Fearnley.

For your 1985 book, New Zealand Explorers: Great Journeys of Discovery, you retraced the journeys of a number of early European explorers. What did this tell you about their travels that you couldn't get from their own accounts?

In some cases, such as up the Waiatoto with Charlie Douglas, I was essentially retracing the country as they had found it and was able to understand the context of their own accounts. With someone like Nathaniel Chalmers, there was only a very slight account, so that I literally had to re-explore his route, find out just where he went. In all cases, there were moments when I experienced the sensation of reaching back through time to touch their hands - when I knew that 'this is the exact spot where Colenso first collected that plant species' or 'this is the rock face that Douglas climbed in his stockinged feet and where no-one has been since.'

As a climber and as a writer of guides to New Zealand walking tracks, do you have a favourite part of the country?

Anywhere on the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps, among the tussock basins, above the beech forest and below the snowline: kea country. Of the tracks, they are all great but, in the end, after walking it four times, there is nothing to beat the sheer power and magnificence of the Milford Track.

You've written non fiction mountaineering books and fiction on a range of subjects, but you've only recently published your first work of mountaineering fiction with your novel The Mantis which came out this year. Can you tell us why it's only now you've combined the two?

Well, The Mantis was drafted quite a long time ago, added to, subtracted from, revised over the years and for various complicated reasons which are now simply boring, it did not get published until last March. In any case,the best thing I have written about the Southern Alps is Beak of the Moon - the mountain world from the native inhabitants' point of view. Keas rule, OK?

What's next for Philip Temple?

Well, MiSTORY has just been published -a rather bleak view of what it might be like in NZ mid-century if we just carry on with business as usual and hope for the best in the face of climate change, the surveillance society, resource depletion etc... And I am researching for a major biography of the NZ author Maurice Shadbolt.