New Zealand: the Last Two Weeks

The past few weeks have passed by in a flurry. This is an exceedingly belated entry written by the poolside in Fiji. These are more notes to myself I suppose, notes so I don’t forget. I spent some of today reading the handwritten drafts that eventually become my blogs. It reminds me to get my ass back in gear and finish NZ – the blogs are always better when they’re fresh!

Lord of the Rings: Part Two

Of course my Middle-Earth adventure couldn’t end in the South Island.

It began with the Tongariro Crossing. The crossing slithers its way past three volcanoes – including Mount Doom itself. The hike took six and a half hours. Mount Doom loomed over most of the track, enough to fire up images of Frodo and Sam struggling to reach the fires of Mordor. I didn’t climb the mountain itself. Adding another 5 hours to the already grueling journey did not seem like fun! In truth, it was actually less difficult than I imagined (I thought another Livingstonia… see Malawi entries). The toughest part was the middle, where the aptly named “Devil’s Staircase” is, and an interesting downhill section which involved half-skiing, half-sliding down a rocky slope. But the rest was fine and the views spectacular, especially of the red crater and the emerald lakes. The arid, volcanic plains. Definitely worth the effort.

The Tongariro Crossing was our last major activity (except gumboot throwing) on the Stray Bus. The next day, we dropped Lofty’s friend Wendy off at the airport and headed back down to Rotorua.

But not before stopping in Matamata, aka Hobbiton. If you though LotR tourism must have died out so long after the movies were released, this place proves its alive and well. On a farm a few k’s out of town is the only set left standing in all NZ. The famous hobbit holes of Hobbiton, left there because a fluke rainstorm prevented their deconstruction. The countryside had a vague brown tint to it, a result of a long drought. As it was the last tour of the day, there were only five of us. One was an animation director straight out of a Hollywood stereotype.

The Hobbiton set was by far the most elaborate tour I’ve been on. Huge photoboards displayed stills from the movie, to aid visualization. The tour guide knew exactly what she was talking about and filled us in on the little details. You had to be under 5’4″ to be a hobbit. They chopped down and then rebuilt an entire oak tree from a neighbouring farm. The farmers who owned the property looked at the location scout and asked: “Lord of the what?”

Classic.

It certainly filled my LotR quota!

My Birthday

I spent the weekend of my birthday in the beautiful 300 Lake Terrace Apartment complex in Taupo. The morning broke clear and bright over the lake. I was treated by Lofty to an awe-inspiring eight-piece fry-up, incorporating every fried breakfast food you could imagine. Pure decadence. Then Sarah arrived in time to drive out for our skydive – my third! A paltry 12000 ft this time, but who’s counting? Next time has got to be a solo jump… There’s no better way to turn 22 than to throw yourself out of a plane. Trust me on that! We capped off an awesome day with molten lava cake (my fave) and Canadian Club and L&P (NZ’s drink of choice – even I liked it, despite its fizziness!)

The next few days in Taupo were spent productively at Killer Prawn golf ( a hole in one challenge we were thisclose to making), the Honey Hive (where we gorged on free honey samples) and wandering around Taupo itself. A fun town, now forever associated with some pretty amazing memories.

Storming it up in NZ.

…but before the storm, the quiet. We headed up to stunning Hahei Beach in the Coromandel peninsular. The drive was particularly interesting; bad gravel roads made our journey much longer than we planned, but we did get to see a square kauri tree.

We spent the next day just lying on the beach, reading. Bliss.

The perfect way to prepare for the night of mayhem that was my birthday night out in Auckland – and a huge Oasis reunion to boot. My amazing friend Isabel came over from Oz (well from the UK, but recently from Oz) and it was great to see her. We hit up the bars along Auckland’s waterfront after cheap drinks at the hostel bar… we met celebrities (okay, Brandon from Strictly Come Dancing) and wore cowboy hats and after that it gets a bit hazy! Suffice to say it was a good time.

The Oasis reunion continued the next afternoon, when we met up with “Driver Stu” for a rugby match, Blues vs. Bulls. Stu’s sister was one of the cheerleaders and it was fun to watch her warm up the crowd. We had really good seats and the game picked up in the second half. By the end of it, I think I had a basic understanding of the game… at least I could cheer in all the right places!

The next day was our last in NZ. Hard to believe after all this time! We did some last minute shoping and said goodbye to people in Auckland, met up with my parent’s friends in Parnell and spent our last night at Mike’s house in Pukekohe. It was hard to say goodbye to Sunny, and to Castle II, and to the camping equipment that had become our lives. But as it always happens in this travelling game, we had to keep moving.

New Zealand is amazing. I loved every moment of it. I loved driving its twisted roads, over one lane bridges and through mountains. I loved sailing its fjords and its islands, swimming with its incredible aquatic life. It is a country with so much to offer, whose few inhabitants care so much for the land they live on. It is a backpacker’s haven. A place of drama. And of solitude. And of perfect starry nights – the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world!

I wouldn’t hesitate to go back in a second.

And now? It’s on to paradise…

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Middle Earth (aka New Zealand): Part One

It’s the books. It has always been about the books. But when you can’t step into the pages and see the world for yourself, you have to settle for the movie. I always knew I would hunt for Lord of the Rings scenery when I reached New Zealand. It started when I reached Queenstown…

The Fellowship of the Ring

While Sarah is not the manic LotR fan I am, she was happy to indulge my little quests. Armed with an autographed copy of Ian Brodie’s “Location Guidebook,” Sarah, myself and fellow LotR fanatic Ryan set out to discover the rings for ourselves. The result was a task more difficult than we ever could have imagined – is this how Frodo and the rest of the fellowship felt once they left the safety of Rivendell?

There were minor setbacks – like the four-wheel drive only road on the way to the Ford of Bruinen (where Arwen defeats the Black Riders) or the private, pay-to-enter land of Deer Park Heights (where Aragon is atacked en route to Helm’s Depp in Rohan). There were successes though. We found the Pillars of Argonath on the river Kaweru; it was one of the main things I wanted to see on my trip to NZ.

And so, the fellowship came to an unfortunate but necessary conclusion: the only way to see Middle Earth is with a guide.

The Two Towers

And what better than the four-legged kind? Dart Stables is located in Glenorchy, about 45 minutes outside of Queenstown. There’s no cell signal and a population of 250, but it is a movie-maker’s paradise. And that’s exactly what it is called: Paradise.

After an exhilarating morning ride cantering along the braided rivers around Glenorchy, I saddled up for the “Ride of the Rings.” This two-hour ride took me up to a viewpoint where the site of Isengard, Saruman’s tower, was clearly and obviously visible. The scenery is spectacular up there. The Dart River viewed from above weaves intricate patterns in the grey-brown silt and snow-capped Mt. Aspiring National Park looms in the distance.

As if the river scenery wasn’t enough, the trail took us through stunning beech forests. The first forest, dominated by towering red beech trees, was the home of Amon Hen (where Boromir is killed by the Uruk-hai in the first movie). The second forest, however, was the more sparsely decorated winter beech forest, and the stunning home of Lothlorien (where Galadriel resides). Even though the forest looks quite different in the movie (2500 spray-painted leaves will do that), the same ethereal presence is evident. To be able to travel through it on horseback is something else completely.

The Return of the King

LotR isn’t the only movie to be made in that area. In fact, on my ride I was taken past the “hot” set of the new X-men film “Wolverine.” Watch for a farmhouse being blown up and a huge motorcycle stunt – I was there! No extra work unfortunately – I could’ve done, but I don’t have a work visa – gutted! Alas!

Also, our guide reenacted a scene from the upcoming “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” movie. The Prince is on horseback through the forest (where I was) when he is attacked and rescued by Trufflehunter the badger – another scene to look out for!

Sarah and I have been saying all along how absolutely out of this world New Zealand is. It’s no surprsie that so much “fantasy” is made here too!

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