The past is so hot right now

22:18, Sep 08 2012

There's something about the long slog between Queen's Birthday and the start of daylight saving that fosters obsessions.

Last winter I went through a Man vs Wild phase, watching episode after episode of Bear Grylls demonstrating how to survive yet another remote location. I'd avoided the show for years as it seemed a bit ludicrous: a dude eating bugs and jumping off waterfalls? Good one. But it became a guilty pleasure last year to follow Bear through his self- inflicted travails, the construction of various rafts and bivouacs and the occasional sea- water enema, all the while shouting, "What about the cameraman?" or "Just use the bridge!" at my television.

My favourite episode has to be the one where Bear is "stranded" on the North Island's volcanic plateau and pretends there's no human habitation for miles. Surreal comedy at its best.

This winter, television supplied another obsession. TV One's First Crossings is a clear descendant of Man vs Wild, but the masterstroke comes in the melding of tele-venture and history. Over the all-too-brief first series, Kevin Biggar and Jamie Fitzgerald sought to recreate the feats of real-life explorers and castaways from the pages of New Zealand history. They crossed the Southern Alps, travelled to the Open Bay Islands in a coracle and ascended Mount de la Beche while - and here's the gimmick - using the same kind of hobnail boots and ropes that Tom Fyfe and George Graham used in 1894.

Not only did First Crossings take me to parts of the country I hadn't seen before (on television or in person), it dealt with slices of New Zealand history that should be better celebrated. How cool is it, for instance, that the first Kiwis to climb a major peak in this country were a plumber and a chippy who took up mountain climbing in their weekends?

Of course First Crossings glosses over a lot of detail. And apart from the episode where Brunner and his Maori guides travelled down the Buller River, the show doesn't say a lot about pre-European "first crossings". But it serves as a good jumping off point for further exploration, either on foot or from the comfort of your local library.

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Around the same time as I was lapping up First Crossings, I read Kapiti writer Lawrence Patchett's collection of frontier tales, I Got His Blood on Me. These days, most historical fiction being published in this country features a woman in a flowing dress on the cover, but Patchett's short stories mine a different vein. There are shipwrecks, marathon swimmers and battles between sealers and religious nuts. Costume dress is kept to a minimum.

And as in First Crossings, there are often two levels at play. The present and the past are allowed to inhabit the same frame, whether it's the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves pestering a council clerk or a musket-wielding time-traveller appearing on the side of State Highway 1.

Our past has never felt so exciting or accessible.

Here's hoping the exploits of Biggar, Fitzgerald and Patchett inspire a new generation of tradie-mountaineers and bush- bashing storytellers.

Craig Cliff is a writer and armchair adventurer. He writes a fortnightly column.


The Dominion Post