To Rivendell where Elves yet dwell

The first Lord of the Rings film came out nearly twenty years ago.

Let that sink in.

The Fellowship of the Ring hit cinemas in December 2001, not five months after I arrived in New Zealand. (At what point do I stop being a British immigrant and become simply a New Zealander?) I was ten years old and I was in love.

At once, it became my favourite film, surpassing even The Return of the Jedi. (It remains amongst my favourites to this day, more prominent in my heart than both The Two Towers and The Return of the King.) I suppose, as well as being a masterpiece, it was, for me, the perfect film at the perfect time.

I had just left my own ‘Shire’ and embarked upon a long, scary journey through Middle-earth, a.k.a. New Zealand.

The fact that New Zealand literally was Middle-earth helped me a little in coming to terms with living in it. I could almost pretend I was living in a fantasy story. (In fact, this was when I started writing fantasy in earnest, beginning a life-long obsession.)

I can’t adequately express how much The Fellowship of the Ring means to me; how much the beauty of its aesthetic and music thrill me on a deeper-than-nostalgic level. I’m getting married in Hobbiton in less than four months, which rather feels like coming full circle. (Is that the point at which I’ll become a New Zealander? I am marrying one, after all!)

What I meant to say, before I got side-tracked, is that despite coming out nearly twenty years ago, The Lord of the Rings is practically impossible for New Zealand’s tourists to escape. This is especially true the nearer you get to Wellington, Peter Jackson’s lair. A while ago, Tim and I were driving towards Wellington in our campervan rental, having just visited the Putangirua Pinnacles, themselves a Lord of the Rings location, when we passed an unobtrusive sign saying only ‘Rivendell’. Now dusk was fast approaching, but what were we supposed to do, not visit the House of Elrond?

So we turned down the beckoning road into what turned out to be Kaitoke Regional Park, just north of Upper Hutt. We knew we had to find Rivendell quickly, as the park gates would soon be locked, so we jumped out of the campervan and rushed off into the gloaming. The first sign of ‘Rivendell where Elves yet dwell’ was an ornate post bearing an Elvish script. More posts followed, explaining a little about the movies, and a map pointing out which bits were filmed where.

Don’t expect to recognise anything. It’s just a random bit of forest above a river. I mean there is this one tree with twisting roots, perched atop a rocky mound, that looks kind of cool… (Orlando Bloom posed there in his Legolas gear, apparently.) I imagine it would be a lovely place for a picnic.

I was about to give the place up as not really worth visiting, when I spotted an ancient, stone archway through the trees. Of course, it wasn’t ancient, or stone, but it looked awesome. It would be fantastic for wedding or cosplay photographs!

In the end, Rivendell made for an unexpected, delightful diversion. We didn’t have time to visit the nearby Gardens of Isengard, unfortunately. Does anyone know if they’re worth it?

Proof That New Zealanders Really Are Hobbits

On my first day of school in New Zealand, I was shocked to discover that no one was wearing shoes. I was ten years old, a recent immigrant, and my classmates were actually laughing at me for wearing shoes.

I found it strange to say the least. Where I’d just come from, England, the opposite would’ve happened: you’d get laughed at for not wearing shoes.

I remember asking a girl why she and the other kids weren’t wearing shoes.

“Dunno,” she replied in her upwardly inflecting Kiwi accent. “It’s more comfy wearing bare feet, I s’pose.”

shoes-for-kids-930176_960_720As she turned away, I struggled to undo the confused knot my face had become. How was it more comfortable to not wear shoes outside, walking over concrete, gravel and bark chippings? (I was also laughed at for saying ‘bark chippings’ instead of simply ‘bark’.) I could understand not wearing shoes on the school field, but some kids walked home ‘in bare feet’ as well.

Maybe it’s cooler, I thought. It was quite warm, after all, even though it was August – winter in New Zealand.

I should mention that this story takes place in Waiuku, a small town surrounded by farmland and beaches. You don’t see many people walking around barefoot in New Zealand’s cities. You do see some though.

footprint-648194_960_720I’ve talked about this before, (in Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand.) I met a kid who’d had a slither of broken glass stuck in their foot for the past few days. They didn’t seem too bothered by it, though. Their soles were so thick and toughened from years of going barefoot that it barely even hurt. I watched, oddly fascinated, as they casually dug it out with a needle.

What more proof do you need that New Zealanders really are hobbits?

feet-830503_960_720My experience of being laughed at for wearing shoes is far from unique. Recently, I read an article in the Hamilton Press – that’s the free paper that keeps appearing in our letterbox – about a 105-year-old woman with similar memories to mine. She moved to New Zealand from England nearly 100 years ago – way back in 1918. Apparently, all the children at the local school went barefoot and called her a sissy for wearing shoes. As a result, she took her shoes off as soon as she arrived at school each day. Her feet became tough. Kiwi feet. Hobbit feet.

It’s funny how things don’t change. My feet have never hardened, though.

A few months ago, some people I know – Kiwis – clubbed together to buy a PS4 for one of their mates. He’d recently been burgled, you see, so this was an awesome act of friendship. They tricked him into accompanying them into an electronics store and surprised him, filming his reaction on a cell phone. This is the video – it went kinda viral:

As well as praise, it attracted quite a few nasty comments. (Well, duh, it was posted on the Internet.) Most of the nasty comments were from non-Kiwis disgusted at the guys’ lack of shoes. Another video was made to address the issue. I want to show it to you because it’s a lovely insight into this particular aspect of Kiwi culture. The guys are just so down-to-earth and light-heartedly funny about it – so Kiwi about it – that it makes me smile. Here it is:

That’s in Australia, Right?

A British Person who’s Never Been to New Zealand’s View of New Zealand

Three months ago, my boyfriend and I went to England. I was born in England, but have lived in New Zealand since I was ten years old. My boyfriend was born in New Zealand.

First Hobbit Hole

No, I don’t live in a house like this. I just wish I did.

Despite having lived in New Zealand for over half my life, I still consider England home. I was surprised, therefore, to find myself feeling very protective of New Zealand. Whenever a British person referred to it or any of its sons as Australian, for example, I felt more than the mild stirrings of Kiwi indignation.

It’s strange. I’ve always laughed at the New Zealander’s desperation to be relevant in the wider world, but when I hear someone say that Lorde is from Australia…! I mean I’m not even especially fond of Lorde’s music, much as I admire her as a person, but she’s definitely from New Zealand. Which is not Australia. It’s a completely separate country.

A bit of White Island

White Island… I was kind of right…

Before I moved to New Zealand, I didn’t know it was separate from Australia. In fact, I thought it was ‘that little triangle bit at the bottom of Australia’ – Tasmania. I thought it was a swampy, Lost World kind of place with recently-surviving dinosaurs and a myriad of volcanoes constantly spewing rivers of lava. How all the sheep survived that, I didn’t give a thought to.

Now, you can forgive a small child for thinking this, but I didn’t realise that so many British adults still think New Zealand is part of Australia. They think it’s a backward place of rudimentary technology. One person I talked to was shocked when I told them that New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote.

“Oh, New Zealand, eh?” said another person, sitting on a park bench in York. “That’s full of dangerous animals, isn’t it?”

“No, that’s Australia,” I said for what felt like the thousandth time. “All we’ve got to worry about in New Zealand are orcs.” (I became apt at pre-empting the jokes. Good thing I like Lord of the Rings.)

Culture 3cropped

See? Sheep. Are you happy?

At least Brits get some New Zealand stereotypes right. The weather is quite nice and the whole country is rugby-mad. And, yes, it is green – although, to be honest, Brits are probably better at recycling, actually.

To be fair, this view of New Zealand isn’t just held by British people. When we were in Germany, we stayed at a hotel that recorded our home address as ‘… Auckland, New Zealand, Australia, Oceania’.

We just so happened to be in Britain at the same time as the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. We watched the opening ceremony, not knowing whether to laugh or cringe at the devastation of the Proclaimers’ song I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), and eagerly awaiting the entrance of New Zealand. What a proud moment. Lorde was played during Australia’s entrance, and New Zealand was treated as just another small, insignificant Pacific island.

nzwine

Yes, very nice wines…

That’s when it hit me: New Zealand kind of is just another small, insignificant Pacific island. Britain is in line at the front of the world’s stage; New Zealand is beneath its notice. Yes, it’s a dream holiday destination, and it does produce some very nice wines, but it doesn’t matter.

This realisation was a bit of a shock to the system. When you live in New Zealand, you’re constantly being told how great New Zealand is. The New Zealand media works to give the impression that the world takes more notice of New Zealand than it actually does.

At least when people do notice New Zealand, it’s usually with a benevolent eye.

“Oh, you’re from New Zealand, are you?” people in Britain would say to me. Then they’d say, “Why would you want to come back here?”

Just remember:

Following in the Hobbit’s Hairy Footsteps

I can’t wait to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at the cinema. I’ve already got my ticket!

Dwarf Statue

A dwarven statue at Auckland International Airport

Although it’s admittedly not as good as The Lord of the Rings, I still love The Hobbit, and to those that say it’s just more Lord of the Rings, I say GOOD. More Lord of the Rings is exactly what I want. The extended editions did little to slake my thirst.

I want more rich fantasy. I want more epic music. And most of all I want those sweeping shots of Middle-earth, each as beautiful as a painting.

I have to keep reminding myself that all of that fantastic scenery is real. It’s real and it’s on my doorstep. In fact I’ve been to a lot of it.

I remember when we were still living in England, when I was nine years old and we were about to move to New Zealand: I wasn’t very happy at all and the only silver lining I had was the knowledge that they were filming The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand.

Below, I’ve listed ten filming locations from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Even if you’re not a fantasy fan you should make an effort to visit them – they include some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. Scrap that. They include some of the most beautiful places in the world.

The Wizard's Vale

The Wizard’s Vale, Glenorchy

1)      Glenorchy

Dart Stables, Glenorchy

Dart Stables, Glenorchy

My family visited Glenorchy on our South Island campervan holiday. It’s near Queenstown, one of the most amazing spots on the planet, and includes the scenery of so many Lord of the Rings locations, among them Lothlorien, Isengard, the River Anduin and Amon Hen, the site of Boromir’s departure. There are lots of tours to choose from, but the one we went on was Dart Stables’ The Ride of the Rings tour – the world’s most scenic horse trek. I’d never ridden a horse before, but this was nice and relaxed, and I was soon riding with the confidence of Eowyn – being on horseback makes it easy to pretend you’re in the story, cresting a hill to be confronted with the glory of the Wizard’s Vale, or clopping through the enchanted forest, wondering whether you’re being watched by elves with drawn bows. I had to give that tour a ten out of ten; the beauty was just overwhelming.

2)      Matamata

Matamata is perhaps the most famous of all the Middle-earth locations in New Zealand, so much so that it has practically been renamed ‘Hobbiton’. It boasts the rolling, emerald hills of the Shire, especially impressive on a sunny day, and there is something very homely and comforting about it. The tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set is fantastic: you get to see all the round front doors with their flowers and even have a drink in The Green Dragon. It’s best to book ahead, as the place is always heaving with tourists, but considering this the cost is quite reasonable. If you’re a hardcore fan, though, be prepared to spend a lot of money in the gift shop!

3)      Mount Victoria

Mount Victoria is in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, and from its top you get great views of the city. That’s not why people go to it these days, though. I have a very clear memory of me, as a child, crying, “Get off the road! Quick!” in imitation of Frodo Baggins in that famous scene, and of crouching under a certain outcrop to hide from the Black Rider. Who could resist the urge to re-enact that? Wellington is also home to several other locations, as well as Weta Workshop itself.

4)      Arrow River

‘Arrow’ seems like a strangely appropriate name for a river used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings – the bit where Arwen confronts the Black Riders at the Ford of Bruinen. It’s in Otago and gave its name to the small town nestled upon its banks, Arrowtown. Arrowtown is an utterly charming place, a relic from the days of New Zealand’s gold rush, and it’s an attraction in its own right. I wish we’d been able to spend longer there, because the Ford of Bruinen isn’t actually the most beautiful spot in the area. It’s still pretty awesome, though – you just have to imagine a charging line of white, foam horses coming at you!

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

5)      Lake Pukaki

I first laid eyes upon Lake Pukaki long before the filming of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, when it became the manifestation of Esgaroth, or Lake-town. Even without this recommendation, it’s a magnificent place. The water is a creamy, glacial turquoise, reflecting the snowy crown of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki, or Mount Cook. The view across the lake is simply awe-inspiring – to me, it epitomises the sheer beauty of the South Island. My parents took a scenic flight over Pukaki, but there isn’t much else to do there aside from walking and mountain biking – maybe the film’s release will boost its popularity, although I don’t want its purity to be ruined. There’s a free overnight campground on the lake’s edge (and I can’t imagine a better place to spend the night,) but only if you have a self-contained campervan like this one.

6)      Tongariro

Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mount Doom

Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mount Doom

Tongariro National Park, which is located in the centre of the North Island and contains the three active volcanoes of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, has become almost synonymous with Mordor. Mount Doom itself is a digitally enhanced Ngauruhoe, although the volcano looks impressive enough as it is. The park also contains Emyn Muil, Gorgoroth, the Black Gate and the spot in Ithilien where Faramir was camped, and, of course, parts of The Hobbit were filmed there as well. A great way to see all these sights – as well as the pretty Blue and Emerald Lakes and some spectacular craters and steam vents – is to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It takes about seven hours and you have to be moderately fit, but if you don’t feel like that you can fly over the park, go on a horse trek or, in winter, go skiing.

7)      Shotover River

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover River flows through the picturesque Skippers Canyon near Queenstown. It is a fast and often frothy river and, along with the Kawarau River, provided some of the scenery for the Anduin. Skippers Canyon is just gorgeous – my family went on a jet boat ride in it and it was the best jet boat ride I’ve ever been on. The Shotover Jet is heart-stoppingly thrilling as it skims around and even over rocks! Above the canyon wends the ridiculously frightening Skippers Road, which is so narrow and dangerous that you’re not allowed to drive any New Zealand rental cars on it.

8)      Fiordland

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

In the deep south of the South Island, Fiordland is home to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Manapouri and Te Anau. It is consistently cited as one of the most beautiful places in the world, so it’s no wonder that filming for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies took place there. The Waiau River, between Manapouri and Te Anau, was used as parts of the Anduin, both sides of Takaro Road were used as Fangorn, Kelper Mire was used as the Dead Marshes, Manapouri was used as the area south of Rivendell… I could go on. The crowning glory of Fiordland is Milford Sound, and at the centre of that crown is Mitre Peak. Anyone who visits New Zealand should take a cruise on Milford Sound, but if you walk around you might find yourself following in certain hairy footsteps.

9)      Pelorus River

Part of the pretty Marlborough Sounds at the very top of the South Island, the Pelorus River was filmed as Forest River for the second of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. You know the bit where they escape the Wood-elves in barrels and float down the river to Lake-town? Well the drop was done at Pelorus Bridge. The Pelorus Bridge Camping Ground, which is an excellent place to stay, was closed for filming. The river is awesome to swim in – that area of New Zealand is especially nice and warm – and, no doubt, kayaking down it is set to become a lot more popular.

On the Canterbury Plains

On the Canterbury Plains

10)   Canterbury Plains

The Canterbury Plains are in the middle of the South Island and, along with Poolburn Reservoir in Central Otago, stand in for the Plains of Rohan, the Riddermark. Edoras itself is Mount Sunday, in the Rangitata Valley. The walk up to it and to the top is stunning with the snow capped mountains in the background. It’s easy to get to from Christchurch, and there are many activities to do in the area, including skiing and hot air balloon rides. I think the ultimate experience, however, would be horse riding through that spectacular scenery – you know why!

For more lists of great places to go in New Zealand, visit NZ Top List.

P.S. – Please support my blog by leaving a quick review –> http://www.expatsblog.com/blogs/6084/poms-away – thank you!

The Pinnacles, a.k.a. the Worst Experience of My Life

Wow – when I wrote this I didn’t think it would become one of the top hits for ‘the Pinnacles’! But as it’s getting lots of views now, I think I’d better state here, very plainly, that climbing the Pinnacles isn’t actually as bad as the title of this blog article implies.

When my family climbed the Pinnacles, over a decade ago, I was a teenager. At the time, I was extremely annoyed with my parents for forcing me to go and I told my mum, in a very teenage way, that it was the worst experience of my life. This article is written from the point of view of my whiny, teenaged self, with each of the complaints exaggerated for humorous effect.

I hope readers can see through the ‘unreliable narration’ and note that the Pinnacles DOC hut is, in reality, a great place to stay.

(You’d think I wouldn’t have to say all this, but, apparently, I do. Also, needless to say, I have since grown up and no longer consider this experience to be worst of my life. In fact I, along with the rest of my family, look back on it with laughter.)

IMG_1572saturated

When I was a teenager, my family took a lot of trips around our adopted country, and I did my fair share of teenaged complaining. When we were travelling around New Zealand in a campervan, for example, I complained that I never got any sleep because of everyone else’s snoring and tossing and turning, and that I was going insane for lack of privacy and a proper bathroom. That was nothing, however, compared to how I complained when my parents dragged me up the Pinnacles.

According to the AA Travel website, climbing the Pinnacles is on the list of ‘101 Must-Do’s for Kiwis’. They’re in the Coromandel, up from Thames. We parked our car and set off into the wilderness. My little sister happily skipped ahead, wearing the new tramping boots she’d got for Christmas (– did I mention this was Boxing Day?) and I made my way in a more dignified manner, taking great care not to dirty my white trainers. Little did I know that by the end of this trip, I would be so far beyond caring about my trainers that I would wilfully wade into a river without first taking them off.

The first part of the trail was rather pleasant. The weather was perfect, if a little hot, and the going was good. The track was originally made in the 1870’s, for kauri loggers and their packhorses, and, after a while, I began to feel sorry for them. Most of the way up is rugged stone steps. Steps. Steps. Hours of steps. Being young and fit, however, and also a rock climber, I bounded up them, out ahead of the rest of my family. And, let me tell you, the views were spectacular.

Wilderness 3

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the views were almost worth it.

Wilderness 1

We made it to the top of the steps and up to the Department of Conservation hut, where we would be staying the night. Now I’d never stayed in a DOC hut before, but this was a lot more luxurious than I had been expecting. There was a massive covered deck with picnic tables that gave the feeling of being in a tree house, with a view that turned our meal of freeze-dried mash potato into a fine dining experience. The kitchen was really good, and we chatted happily with other trampers and the warden.

Now here’s where my complaints begin. Though the hut did have showers, they were cold showers. Still, I thought I’d brave one, until, that is, I washed my hands before eating and they almost froze solid. This was the middle of summer and washing my hands was a properly painful experience. Skip the shower, then. We were only staying one night. One thing you can’t skip, however, is going to the toilet.

Wilderness 5There were three long-drop toilets a short way away from the hut. And it’s lucky they were. Also, they had no lights in them. As soon as the door closed, not only was I plunged into darkness and set upon by flies, the smell was so bad I became dizzy and had to bolt outside before I actually went to the toilet, for fear of losing consciousness and falling down it. I spent the next few hours crossing my legs and trying to find the courage to go in the bush, but there was nowhere that was sufficiently out of sight and I knew how poor my aim was. Eventually, my mum had to stand holding the door of the end long-drop open while I went, so I could both see and breathe.

We later learned that the long-drops were emptied once a year: the day after we left.

Then there was the sleeping. Or lack of. There are a total of eighty bunks in the DOC Pinnacles Hut, and though there was nowhere near that many people the night we were there, the large bunking area echoed. Shivering in my sleeping bag on a hard mattress with no pillow, I was tortured all night long by other people snoring really loudly. In fact, at some point in the middle of the night, I jumped in my sleeping bag out onto the deck and read with a torch.

The next morning, me feeling not at all refreshed, my family wanted to climb the actual ‘pinnacles’ bit of the Pinnacles, which is a pretty much vertical ascent (with the help of ladders) that lasts for forty-five minutes. Not to mention climbing down again. The problem was, what with all the steps the day before, my thighs now screamed at me every time I lifted them. I knew I wouldn’t make that climb, so I stayed behind at the hut. So did my mum. So I can’t tell you what the view from the top was like.

After a boring wait for my dad and sister to get back, (at least I had my book, Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, if I remember rightly,) we had to repack our rucksacks for the descent. We each had a water bottle, but, of course, we’d drunk all the water from them on the way up. The only way to refill them was to boil water from the hut’s taps. And, I was horrified to discover, the water was still bright green after we’d boiled it. I stubbornly resolved not to drink it.

Wilderness 4

And so we started down the track, down the steps. And, as I’m sure you know, walking down steps is far more punishing than walking up them. Now imagine walking down large, uneven, loose-stoned, slippery steps with a sheer drop on one side. For hours. And not in tramping boots, but squeaky-soled trainers. I couldn’t even enjoy the view, as, the entire way, I had to keep my gaze absolutely focussed on my feet in order not to fall. I can’t tell you how frightening it was. With every step I felt like I was going to fall head-first down the rocky mountain. My ankles cried. Blisters formed. My legs shook. And there was no respite. No flat bits.

I told my mum that I was in the most physical (and mental) stress I’d ever been in my life and that if someone had offered me cocaine at that moment, I would have taken it. Anything. Soon, I was drinking the green water like it was the nectar of the gods. Then it ran out.

We got to the bottom, of course. After hours of relentless torture. I was so angry with my parents for putting me through it that I stomped ahead to get away from them. My sister, not quite so angry, walked ahead with me. Drenched in sweat, smeared with dirt, my trainers ruined, we came to a river. I dropped my pack on the bank, ripped my T-shirt off and plunged into the water. It wasn’t that deep and was full of rocks that could serve as stepping stones and sunbathing platforms. I lay on one, my legs trailing in the water, eyes closed and turned up to the sun.

Wilderness 2I was beyond caring about anything, which was lucky because out of the bush came a couple of German guys in their 20’s, who tried awkwardly not to look at the topless teenager as they crossed the river in full tramping gear.

So that was my experience of the Pinnacles: the worst experience of my life. Funny thing is, though, every other person I’ve talked to who’s also done the Pinnacles really enjoyed it.

Great Walks for Wusses: My Top 10 North Island Day Walks