A return to Middle-earth
Wandering among table-like rocks – one of which provided a hiding place for ranger Aragorn and the hobbit Frodo in the film – I spot the remains of a long-extinguished fire that featured in the same scene. It’s a strange, tangible reminder of the legacy Middle-earth has left on New Zealand’s land, but sometimes it works the other way round – with reality intruding on fiction. ‘On the DVD of the film, there’s a bit of a blooper,’ says Toby. ‘Dad accidentally flew the helicopter into the back of the shot when they were filming up here.’
The helicopter lifts off again and speeds over fields of snowdrifts, punctuated by glassy pools of black water. Toby steers it into a steep, eerie crevasse called Ghost Valley, and up to the roof of the world: the peak of stark, rugged Mount Owen. Gently, he lands on the soft snow, the helicopter’s tracks sinking into the powder. ‘Welcome to Dimrill Dale,’ he says, using the name given to this place in The Fellowship of the Ring. Miles and miles from anything resembling civilisation, it is perfectly silent – though a little line of hare tracks in the snow indicates that at least one other being has been up here today.
The crew spent 10 days filming on Mount Owen, and did not travel light. Four helicopters transported cameras, sound and lighting equipment, technicians, wizards, elves and dwarves, keeping Reid Helicopters in constant service. ‘The actors playing hobbits wanted to go upside down in the helicopters, and loop the loop,’ Toby says. Did he let them? ‘No,’ he replies sternly, ‘Helicopters can’t really do that.’ For some tricks, only a giant eagle will do.
At dawn, the mist hangs low in the valleys of the Kahurangi National Park. Fat drops of dew dangle from the fronds of tree ferns glittering in the morning light like strewn jewels, while wispy trails of pale green moss lace between high pines. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbits are chased through Middle-earth’s forests by terrifying orcs, the monstrous slaves of the Dark Lord Sauron. This morning, though, everything seems peaceful – until a snapping branch shatters the quiet. Fortunately, the culprit turns out to be one of New Zealand’s less terrifying real-life inhabitants: a sheep.
One of the best ways to experience this strange and beautiful northwest corner of South Island is on the back of a horse. The horse-lords of Rohan are Middle-earth’s most accomplished cavalry and several of the films’ actors learned bareback riding for their parts – including Orlando Bloom and Liv Tyler. Today, thankfully, my steed is safely saddled for a gentle trot along this stretch of wild and windswept coastline.
We emerge into a field of long grass, reaching up to the beasts’ bellies. The horses follow the lead rider through the billowing reeds towards the lonely stretch of Wharariki beach. Wind races across the sand, whipping it into white arabesques that surge over the ground like smoke, and creating rippled fern patterns on the surfaces of rock pools. Ahead, colossal rocks loom out of the ocean, eroded by the sandstorms into natural arches large enough to sail a ship through.
A baby fur seal flops off its rock into the sea as our horses canter towards a series of caverns. They are willing to walk into even the darkest passages, emerging minutes later into the light. Though Wharariki beach feels like the edge of the world, there are still more dramatic landscapes to explore. The lofty peaks of the Southern Alps promise further adventures.