The Road to the Door to the Paths of the Dead

putangirua pinnacles

Who shall call them from the grey twilight,

the forgotten people?

He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

putangirua pinnacles

These words are part of the prophecy recited by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, before he, Legolas and Gimli brave the Dimholt Road that leads to the Paths of the Dead. In the extended version of the Peter Jackson film, it is Legolas, a.k.a. the Exposition Elf, who says them, as the heroes approach the Door. That scene was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles, on the south coast of New Zealand’s North Island, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years. This is the story of when I finally made it.

putangirua pinnacles

Darkness descended long before our rental campervan reached the car park of the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. It was a darkness so deep our headlights struggled to penetrate it, which was a little scary on the winding, coastal Cape Palliser Road, a section of which had crumbled into the waves! Our uneasiness did not abate upon arrival at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite: it was completely deserted.

“I don’t like camping somewhere so isolated,” my fiancé said, as though trying to call the narrative of an urban legend horror story down upon us. Then, sure enough, another campervan arrived, no doubt containing an axe murderer.

putangirua pinnacles

By some miracle, we survived the night. The grey light of morning revealed not only a friendly fellow campervanner, but our first sight of the geographical feature known as Badlands erosion. The cliffs visible from the car park were nowhere near as dramatic as the film had promised, but they were only a sniff of what awaited us, jagged and grey as bone dust. Forbidding columns emerged from them, slanted, straight and sharp, like the bars of an orcish prison. I’d never seen such a landscape.

The path to the ‘Dimholt Road’ was, to my surprise, a rocky riverbed. I should have researched it beforehand, because all I had was a pair of light trainers, when I could really have done with proper hiking boots. Ah well – I only fell over twice! I would have had an easier time of it if I’d just waded through the water, but I was determined not to get my feet wet. Thus began the most challenging game of stepping stones I’d ever played.

putangirua pinnacles

I lost count of the times we had to cross the stream. My freakishly tall fiancé could stride over the water with the confidence of an elf, but I was lumbered with the legs of a hobbit. At one point, I had to take a long, running leap… which resulted in me impaling my thigh on a broken blade of pampas grass that was sticking out of the opposite bank! The wound was a few millimetres deep, but it wasn’t painful enough to thwart the quest, so I resolved to carry on and remember to clean it thoroughly when we got back to the campervan.

Eventually, the riverbed began to rise. Being a hobbit, I struggled to climb it at one point. Then, after an exhaustingly steep section, the canyon walls closed in and I recognised the Dimholt Road. It was eerie. Seriously. I felt less like Aragorn and more like a red shirt beamed down to scout the planet of the week. The sci-fi feeling was not helped by the fact that some unseen person was flying their drone between the bone-dust-grey columns. The noise it made echoed around us like the buzzing of an angry, mechanical insect.

My fiancé walked ahead of me. He looked so small amidst the gloomy towers. My mouth hung open in awe. I was glad I hadn’t turned back when I’d realised how difficult the road to the door to the Paths of the Dead would be, or when I’d injured my leg. This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

putangirua pinnaclesOf course, the alcove that contained the entrance to the Paths of the Dead in the film had been a set, but it was easy to imagine. There were many nooks and crannies between the crumbling columns. Some of the columns resembled crude spears, while others were more, well, phallic.

“Who shall call them from the grey twilight?” I whispered to myself. Pretentious twit.

The world was grey. The ground, the sky, the canyon walls… I’d never seen anywhere more suited to an army of ghosts. I kept expecting to see scraps of grey, sun-bleached fabric fluttering against grey skeletons.

We found the guy flying the drone. I gave him my email address so he could send me the footage. This is it:

Then, just as he put his drone away, the heavens opened. Luckily, we’d brought rain coats, but that didn’t make the descent down a riverbed now slippery with mud any easier. My feet skidded from under me a few times, but I managed to stay upright, my squeals ringing around the grey canyon.

putangirua pinnacles

It took an age to get back. I immediately sought out our first aid kit, which in retrospect, we should probably have taken with us on the hike. My thigh hurt far more now than it had when I’d pulled the stick out of it, and an interesting bruise had already formed. I rubbed disinfectant into it and hoped for the best. (It was fine, as it turned out. I would have gotten an emergency medical appointment at the first sign of blood poisoning.)

Now it was time to drive to Wellington. Little did we know we’d find Rivendell before we got there, but that’s a story for another time…

To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell
In glades beneath the misty fell,
Through moor and waste we ride in haste,
And whither then we cannot tell.