A return to Middle-earth
The approach to Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain and part of the Southern Alps range, is one of the most spectacular drives in New Zealand – and that is saying a lot. Just like Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain, it looks across a marshy plain, which lies around 750 metres above sea level. Aoraki rises a further 3,000 metres above that. From the road, it can be seen entirely, from its shrubby base to its distinctive double peak, covered all year round with gleaming white snow. The waters of nearby lakes Pukaki and Tekapo are a vivid turquoise. Tiny particles of rock ground fine by the glaciers that feed it turn the water milky and give it this astonishing, alien colour.
On a clear, blue day, gusts of wind buffet down from the peaks, picking up the fresh chill of the snow. In the silence, the occasional growling, crumbling sound of an avalanche may be heard. It sounds like the bellow of a Balrog, a demon from beneath Middle-earth’s mountains.
Along the sweep of the Southern Alps, beyond Aoraki, is Twizel. Normally a small town of around 1,000 people, its population doubled or trebled during the filming of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as cast and crew poured into local farmsteads and guesthouses. Almost everyone in Twizel had a job on the films, whether as a driver, a porter or an extra. One of the town’s prettiest girls was upset to find that her silver screen debut would be under a heavy latex mask, playing an orc.
Twizel’s golden meadows, leading up to violet-grey mountains, were the location for the most memorable sequence in the third film, The Return of the King: the battle of Pelennor Fields, and the assault on the city of Minas Tirith. The city itself was created in a studio and placed here by the magic of visual effects, but even without it the battlefield is unmistakable. Local tours now offer visitors the chance to dress up as the Witch-king of Angmar or the wizard Gandalf, and run around in the sea of grass waving replica swords.
No gimmicks are required to appreciate the beauty of the scenery, nor the startling purity of the mountain air, but the hobbits’ quest, and mine, must come to its conclusion in a very different place – a place where the mountains shake and the earth is alive to its core.
Most of New Zealand’s spectacular mountain scenery is on the South Island, but it was the North Island – specifically, the Tongariro National Park – that was chosen to be Mordor, lair of the Dark Lord Sauron. On the road up from sea level, signs of volcanic activity are everywhere. Thermal vents among the trees on the hillsides let off jets of hot steam from underground caverns. Then, beyond a lake populated by flocks of black swans, there is the first sight of the Tongariro mountain range.
The beginning of the Tongariro Crossing, one of New Zealand’s most remarkable hikes, lies across a high, flat plain. It looks like something from another planet, dotted with flax bushes that grow triffid-like flowering spikes. Green groves are hidden among the rocky outcrops. It takes seven or eight hours and strong legs to hike the whole crossing, past ice-blue crater lakes, over snow-covered ridges and through windswept mountain deserts, where totara trees cling to the soft black volcanic sand.
The trees grow small and stunted, their living branches bleached bone-white by wind and dust. Human inhabitants, too, are at the mercy of nature; the last major eruption in the Tongariro area was in 1995–1996, and there is a constant bubbling of minor volcanic activity. Occasionally I catch the rotten-egg stink of sulphur lingering in the air.
Ahead, rising into the stormy clouds, is Mount Ngauruhoe, the massive volcano better known in the films as Mount Doom. It was at its peak that hobbit hero Frodo Baggins, played on screen by Elijah Wood, finally succeeded in his quest to save Middle-earth by destroying the ‘one ring to rule them all’.