ARROWTOWN, New Zealand – You might call it a double-dose of Middle-earth. For a Tolkien junkie, it’s heaven.
Although I don’t fit that profile – Frodo isn’t my go-go guy – I did read J.R.R. Tolkien’s stuff to my kid, and wasn’t going to miss a chance to plunge into the splendors of Middle-earth (aka New Zealand) that Oscar-winning producer-director Peter Jackson, a native, selected for his filmed trilogy.
Jackson knew what he was doing. So small, so few people, this country of two principal islands is a scenic smorgasbord of distinctive topography: ruggedly commanding ranges, virginal forests, grand beaches, endless sheep and deer-dotted meadows, vast uninhabited tracts – some lonely and desolate — conducive to solitude and privacy.
Jackson has said, “Even though we are down here at the bottom of the world, we have mountains, forests and fields, rivers, lakes and waterfalls that have a familiar yet slightly fantastical appearance.” Beats Hollywood.
First dose, I thought I’d better see the most recent of his movies. Conveniently, the third, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was playing at Arrowtown’s gem of a movie house, Dorothy Brown’s Boutique Cinema. Offering 30 plush seats, divans and easy chairs, and room for snacks and guzzle (hard and soft) from the bar, the theatre advertised a welcome mid-film intermission as well. Terrific. Sufficient time to go downstairs to the restaurant Pesto for a pre-ordered dinner plate of pasta before returning to “The Return” and those grotesque mastadons, the marauding Mumakils in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Creatures to give anybody, as well as heroic Aragorn, indigestion.
Merely a few minutes walk from the cinema is the Ford of Bruinen the spot on the Arrow River where the Nazgul were in pursuit as Arwen carried Frodo across on her imposing horse, Asfaloth.
Arrowtown, a neatly preserved settlement left over from the 19th century gold-rush days, embraces the Millbrook Resort, our excellent base for the second dose, Middle-earth exploration. Any number of the South Island sites are within short drives. Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins may look old enough to play golf, thus qualifying for the resort’s rolling course, but Tolkien had other diversions in mind for them.
A few years ago, without knowing that I was in bleak, rocky, someday-to-be Mordor (before “The Fellowship of the Ring” appeared), I felt like I’d been attacked by the Orcs. That occurred on this country’s North Island whose loftiest peak, volcanic 9227-foot Mt. Ruapehu, would be chosen to masquerade as Mordor. To me it was murder. Edging among boulders, upward toward the summit, I stumbled, fell on my head, blackened an eye, chipped a tooth.
Peter Jackson’s South Island locations were generally gentler, friendlier. Although wandering on the glittering, steep and handsome Franz Josef Glacier, scene of the Lighting of the Beacons, made me wonder, with each step, whether I’d soon be enriching my favorite orthopedist. However, Frodo and Arwen escaped the Nazgul, and, apparently, so did I.
Also much slapping and scratching, breaking the silence, was involved during a mercifully brief encounter with something — carnivorous Ents? We were tramping a remote, twisting earthen path in a magnificent and mysterious primeval forest of towering silver, red and black beech that hid the sun.
“The Ents are around, impersonating trees,” laughed our guide, Dave Kirkman. “You see, this area is the movie’s Fangorn Forest. The nibblers are actually bugs — I think you call no-see-‘ems — but we’ll soon be past them. Use your imagination and you’ll see Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn.”
Imagination is a useful tool on this journey (and through the pages of Tolkien). Eventually the path opened to the Dart River landing, overlooked by moody, snow-bleached Mount Earnslaw, one of the Southern Alps that pose as the Misty Mountains. Up there amid the notches, the Fellowship attempted to cross by way of the the Redhorn Pass. And Frodo dropped the One Ring, which was scooped by Boromir.
A shallow, wayward rock-strewn waterway, less than a foot deep in places, the raging Dart River is a detour from Hobbitry via powerful, incredibly maneuverable jet boats. Waterproof gear is provided for a wild open-cockpit ride through the gorge, charging at 40 MPH and billed as the Dart River Safari. You board on faith and hang on tight for a splashing zoom of spins, abrupt U-turns and quick veerings left and right on a forbidding obstacle course of outcroppings and narrow passages. “We call it hydro-croquet,” said the young skipper, “Rolls” Royce Ashton, reminding his passengers that the surroundings have had their filmed roles as the territories of Isengard, Methedras and Nan Curunir.
Intrepid wizard Gandalf probably would have preferred his white horse to a speed boat.
Of the numerous locations spread across the country, if there’s one full-package visitation to give a Hobbit zealot a big zing in one day it’s likely Deer Park Heights.
A dour knob of much rock and little vegetation, a haunt of wild goats, the Heights rises to about a thousand feet above rectangular Lake Wakatipu on the road from Arrowtown to the jolly can-do-anything tourism community of Queenstown. (Queenstown offers outdoor types a wide variety of musclestretching, such as bungy-ing, whitewater rafting, skiing, mountain biking, guided treks, kayaking, horsebacking.)
A guide is a good hire for the Heights, a rumpled hillside used for all three movies. Ours, well-versed Melissa Heath, is a schoolteacher and a good walker – the trails to the locations are steep – who knows the films intimately, and delighted in describing what happened where.
“But here, Melissa?”
We had sighted a grim un-Hobbit-looking stockade.
“A Korean prison,” she chuckled. “Left over from a film called ‘The Rescue’ in 1986. Peter Jackson didn’t have ‘Ring’ exclusivity for the Heights, but the prison wasn’t in his way.”
We kept walking, coming to a tarn (a small, temporary lake) encircled by outcroppings called schist.
“Now here Gandalf was riding to Minas Trith on the West Road to Gondor. This tarn was used for a number of scenes.”
A bit downhill is a rock wall from the Paths of the Dead, the locale of scenes from “The Two Towers,” and a marvelous vista of a somber, high and distant skyline.
In the other direction a skier-pleasing range named the Remarkables prods the sky, the setting for the Aragorn-led plodding down precarious slopes of Dimrill Dale toward Lothlorien. Helicoptered viewing (available for most sites) is recommended for the Remarkables.
Some more tramping brought us to another such wall (metamorphic sedimentary rock speckled in quartz, gold and mica) from which the Warg scout leaped to kill Hama. Uphill again to another tarn, and a downer for Gimli, tossed from his rambunctious horse as Eowyn guffawed.
Ascending once more we reached the cliff face of Aragorn’s tumble into the river. Where’s the river?
Melissa said, “It shows up in post-production, graphics inserted digitally. The river was filmed elsewhere, the Kawaru River.”
Of course. “Fix it in post!” is the watchword of TV and movies.
This is also the neighborhood battleground of the Wargs and the Riders of Rohan. Legolas jumped astoundingly onto his horse prior to the clash, and from a ledge began to fire arrows at the Wargs as they poured over the hill.
“The bowmen were doing a sort of calisthentics,” said Melissa, “pulling their right arms back and forth, as though shooting. The bowstrings and arrows came later, digitally. And so did the enemy Orcs and Wargs.”
But make-believe couldn’t cover everything. “The filming was somewhat hazardous,” said Melissa. “John Rhys-Davies (Gimli) wrecked a knee. Vigo Mortensen (Aragorn) broke a toe. Orlando Bloom (Legolas) cracked two ribs.” Maybe the awards and bonuses were consolation.
Undoubtedly a Hobbit junkie could spend a month or more rounding up all the locations across New Zealand, but I got the beautiful picture (and more) within a week. Now I need a third dose: seeing the first and second installments to put it all in perspective.
Melissa said I shouldn’t go home without a treasure: a replica of Arwen’s stunning necklace worn by Liv Tyler, a crystal pendant within a floral motif in silver. She just happened to have one for sale.
Who, standing in Middle-earth, could resist having one for his lady love?