Interview: Derek Grzelewski, Author of The Smallest Continent

Writer, filmmaker, mountaineer and fly-fisherman Derek Grzelewski is most comfortable in the outdoors, and what beautiful outdoors New Zealand has to offer. Since moving to Aotearoa there have been no limits to where this Polish born adventurer will go or what he will do to shift his perspective on the world around him. NZ Booklovers recently caught up with Derek about his latest book The Smallest Continent: Journeys through New Zealand Landscapes, New Zealand and adventure.

You were born in Poland but call New Zealand home now. Your ‘escape’ from communist Poland is pretty incredible. Can you tell us more about that?

Poland was a hermetically closed country back then, a police state but without the modern technology.  I was not yet twenty when I watched a column of tanks rumble past our home, the soldiers in the hatches stone-faced, inhuman like automatons, avoiding eye contact with those who watched them from the street. On 13 December 1983, unable to contain the groundswell of freedom movements, the Communist cabal desperate to cling to its power, declared martial law, in effect a war on its own people. It was a strange kind of war, an invasion from within. The Poles are a feisty and free-spirited lot, with a long tradition of heroic uprisings, but this time around, as they voiced their protests, they were met with an iron fist of uncommon cruelty and swiftness, something that might have been expected from an outside aggressor, not from the group of supposedly elected public servants.

Battles flared around the country: workers occupying factories, taking on riot police with lances whose tips were heated white-hot in industrial foundries and furnaces. Stones and bricks against bullets. Tanks bulldozing impromptu barricades. Stretchers made out of unhinged doors to carry the bodies of the fallen, to hold them up as martyrs. Army jeeps on intersections.

This was the historical stage upon which I was to serve my time in the army, perhaps one day to open fire on the protesters when ordered to do so. But the protesters were people like me, their grievances just and coming of age, and I could not point a gun at them any more than I would do at myself. And so I left. I climbed over the Tatra Mountains into Slovakia, went on to Western Europe, and some years later washed up on the happy shores of New Zealand. I wrote up the entire adventure in the introduction to my previous book Going to Extremes: Adventures in Unknown New Zealand, concluding that “Sometimes you have to go to extremes just to find room to breathe.”

Did this spark your thirst for adventure or was it something else?

I belonged to a leading mountaineering club in Poland, which was hive of free-spirited, worldly adventurous people who, despite restrictions imposed by the communist regime, travelled widely and truly lived their dreams. It had huge influence on me, in terms of priorities in life, what’s worth doing, how and why. It was both the beginning and the inspiration for adventures and writing about them. As I wrote in the invocation to The Smallest Continent: “There was a time in my life — early and formative — when I used to live for the mountains. Any landscape without them was unappealing, lacking visual interest, flat and boring. Back then, we climbed in every spare moment, and at other times too, skipping school, postponing work. When I could not go climbing, I would pull out my rope and hold it to my face like a bouquet of wildflowers, inhaling its fragrance. It smelled of lichens, limestone and granite, pure mountain air and freedom. It got me through the down days. We returned from the climbs to huts or camps, and we bragged about our exploits the way the Second World War fighter pilots may have come down from their air battles, still high on adrenalin, feeling invincible and above the mundane concerns of quotidian existence. Seeing ourselves as the poets of the vertical rock and ice, romantics of the mountain vistas, who could be moved to tears by a sunset but who also had enough tenacity to tough out a fourteen-hour hanging bivouac in minus twenty degrees Celsius.”

You have explored pretty much all of New Zealand. Is there anything we should be doing in terms of conservation?

I’m a Big-Picture kind of guy and from this perspective I see how so many New Zealanders are still stuck with this native/introduced species idea, which is a form of ecological apartheid, and a hypocritical one too, because frankly, we are the greatest pest which has invaded this island paradise. And yet, in the last chapter of The Smallest Continent, one of the country’s leading ecologist Brian Patrick says : “Nature is infinitely more resilient and diverse than we give it credit for. It’s also all-inclusive. “Native” or “introduced” are just labels we give things, Nature itself does not care for any form of ecological purity. We’d do well to learn from it. In one way or another, we are all introduced here.”

So in broad terms of conservation, I’m much more aligned with the native traditions which consider all land, animals and plants as sacred. To me, it is not about preserving chunks of land or iconic species but about reconnecting with Nature as a whole. From there, conservation is quite natural and can be expressed in the timeless words “thou shall do no harm.”

The Smallest Continent is about relationships with the land. Which part of New Zealand do you hold most dear?

I live in Wanaka, on the edge of the Southern Alps, and so this place is very dear to me. Maybe because it’s so European and has such distinct four seasons. But I’ve learnt to connect with the land wherever I go so in this sense all places are dear and special in their own ways. To me, one of the greatest gifts our smallest continent has to offer is its unrivalled diversity of landscapes so it follows that we shall honour it by experiencing them all.

Of the 13 stories in the book, which was your favourite?

They are all my favourite as I’ve hand-picked them for the book from many others. But the story of Charlie Douglas (Alone in the Wild) has always been close to my heart. He was our equivalent of Henry David Thoreau, wise and insightful, and his ideas about conservation and our relationship with the landscapes were well ahead of his time. He was also funny too. Who else could have written: “I can combine the Swagging abilities of a Mule, the stowage capacity of the Pelican with the digestive powers of an Ostrich so can go into places where few dare venture through fear of starvation.”

Reading your book made me want to go out and explore even more. If you could recommend only one place in New Zealand that I had to experience, what would it be?

Start where you are. The journeys with the landscapes are not about going further or picking off the highlights and top spots, but about going deeper, seeing more and more clearly. T.S. Elliot’s words “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,” seem like such an overused cliché, but that’s only because most of us have not yet got what he was trying to tell us.

Who or what inspires you?

Flamenco guitar of Diego del Gastor. The writing of Edward Abbey. Perfect ski turns in deep powder snow and the sight of rising trout. The silence of the high mountains, first light on the snow, and the bubbling of a trout brook. The work of Eckhart Tolle.

Where will your next adventure take you?

I’ve started to work on my final book in the Trout Trilogy (of which The Trout Diaries and The Trout Bohemia were the first two titles.) Lots of research, encounters and time on the rivers with good people. Then the writing itself, that’s always a grand adventure.

0 comments… add one

Rebekah is an Otago-based mother of two young girls. The former journalist and primary school teacher has a soft spot for New Zealand authors and young adult fiction. Follow her on Twitter.

Leave a Comment