by John Masters
The Toronto Star
QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand – On my mission, I have ridden a horse from Middle-earth. I have stood on the banks of the River Bruinen at the ford where the terrifying Ringwraiths, the hooded Black Riders, were swept away in the sudden flood. I have walked in the Golden Wood, in the Elvish land of LothlÃ³rien.
Of course, it wasn’t quite the same as when the hobbit Frodo Baggins and the wizard Gandalf were there on their mythic journey to the Crack of Doom to save humanity from the forces of evil, and my quest was a much more modest one — simply to see some of the sites where The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films were shot.
The hobbits, elves, trolls and the troublesome army of orcs were long gone by the time I arrived, but a dusting of the magic remained.
Director Peter Jackson, a native of New Zealand, knew Middle-earth when he saw it. And as virtually everyone who’s viewed the previews agrees, New Zealand is the closest thing in the real world to the imaginary world that author J.R.R. Tolkien created.
The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of the three Lord of the Rings books, is one of two major fantasy films to be released this Christmas season, along with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Both pit young heroes against evil made even more sinister by its possession of supernatural powers.
The former is based on a half-century-old classic, written by a British academic just as the Western world was recovering from the horrors of World War II. The latter, also the product of a British writer, J.K. Rowling, made its debut shortly before the Western world found itself faced with a new evil. Both films, if they are true to their sources, stand to do very well with a populace now especially eager for tales of adventure in which good eventually wins.
In the case of Harry Potter, those locales — London, Scotland, the North Sea — are steeped in Western history. But for The Fellowship of the Ring (and the two sequels, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, already shot and to be released over the following two Christmases), the places are taken from nature, only slightly transmogrified for the cinema.
Film New Zealand has published a map listing nearly three dozen locations scattered across the North and South islands. Mordor, for example, was Rocky Point, Cape Palliser, on the southern tip of the North Island. The road to Hobbiton was the Otaki Gorge Road, just north of Wellington.
On the South Island, the bulk of the filming was done around Queenstown. For Tolkien lovers, an extra reason to come here rather than, say, Matamata, a small place on the North Island where the rolling, grassy hills of Hobbiton were located, is that there’s still plenty to do after you’ve seen all of Queenstown’s Middle-earth.
This is New Zealand’s outdoor adventure capital, the birthplace of bungee-jumping and the site of some of the country’s best skiing. While not comparable to North America’s biggest ski resorts, it does have a varied dining and nightclub scene, which you’ll likely have time to sample. Frustratingly, despite the long list the Film New Zealand map gives of scenes set hereabouts — including “White Mountains, Eregion Hills, Emyn Muil hilltop, Misty Mountains, Ithilien camp, summit of Amon Hen, Osgiliath hilltop, Pillars of Argonath” — finding many of them may depend on your talking to locals who were part of the filming. The movie-makers were secretive and — at least when I was there — none of the places used have set up plaques to recall their moment of celluloid glory.
There are, however, two things the avid Tolkienite ought to do while visiting Queenstown. First, take a horse ride with Dart Stables. Dart, in Glenorchy, a 40-minute drive west of Queenstown along beautiful Lake Wakatipu, supplied many of the horses used in the films. One of them, Tabasco, was the bay-coloured mount I rode on my outing.
“They put funny saddles on them, and face masks,” recalled our guide, Sharlie Morton. “The riders wore shaggy black and brown leather and helmets.”
We were more plainly attired, riders and beasts alike, but we did travel the same country as Frodo and his band: up the sparkling, bouldery Rees River, past Diamond Lake and into the mossy woods of Paradise Farm, which played LothlÃ³rien. We stayed overnight in the unadorned cabins the film crew used during its 10-day shoot there in December 1999. And Sharlie took us to the gates of LothlÃ³rien’s castle, on a hillside in the native beech woods.
“They had people running up and down here,” she said. “I remember Gilly, a friend of mine, replacing moss here.” (The crew was zealous in its ecological concern.) Alas, while the moss seemed undisturbed, no trace of LothlÃ³rien remained, but for the soft green ambiance.
“This is where they had broad stairs,” remembered Sharlie. “They looked awesome. Just here they had the stone head and an angel with her arms crossed in front of her, lying on the ground.” Sharlie surveyed the trees. “It all looks very different now.”
The second stop to make is the Arrow River at Arrowtown, a 15-minute drive from Queenstown. Arrowtown sprang up following the discovery of gold in the river in 1862. By the 1870s the rush was over, but the town lived on. Its main street retains the look it had in the 19th century, although it’s become a much-visited spot now and boasts a number of good restaurants, in particular Saffron, named by CondÃ© Nast Traveler as one of 2001’s top 100 hot new dining spots on the planet. (Hobbits ate here during the movie shoot.)
The Arrow River was used as the ford of Bruinen, the place where our hero Frodo is nearly overpowered by the Black Riders. On the day I visited, a smoky mist hung in the high hills, and the bare limbs of trees reached out over the swift water of the river’s gravel-bed channels. Dull fall colours glimmered on distant trees and fresh snow lay in the far-off mountains.
As I walked upstream from a small bridge towards the town I could easily imagine the Black Riders, the pounding of their horses’ hooves, the water frothing, their black capes flying out behind them as they bore down on the transfixed Frodo. But this is where the magic of filmmaking and the natural magic of New Zealand’s landscape part company.
What you won’t see in the movie, and what doesn’t exist in Middle-earth but does on the bank of the river, is a miniature golf course.