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The Ring Goes South The Search for Middle-earth

Search for Middle-earth
 The Ring Goes South
 Glaciers and Snow
 Queenstown Buzz
 A Walk in Paradise Garden
  more coming soon

I’m home from the South with calluses on my feet, after driving nearly 5000 km and hiking over a hundred. I walked at the level of a hawk’s flight, spending long days in the midsummer sun of the deep South. It gave me a tan in patches as clear as the markings on a killer whale. It’s a different world down there. I didn’t see any Elves, but I can’t find a scrap of regret in me for the time I spent looking for them.

Everywhere I went there was always the landscape that is going to be one of the stars of these movies. I wanted to take photos of that, more than anything, and I hope it will give people somewhere to park their imaginations until the movies are finished.

The others might have had high hopes that I’d get to do some useful lurking and spying, and maybe catch some photos of the LOTR film crews in action. I wasn’t so sure. It just isn’t me.

My last bit of lurking was on an old Hercules set and in the middle of it I realised I didn’t enjoy spying any more, the same way I no longer have a great desire to climb construction cranes. Other people have fun doing that stuff now and we have better ways of getting information than sending me out with a camera..

So I agreed to do an interview with the Evening Post in Wellington on my way south, which I didn’t see until much later. The story made the radio news as well, so if there are any benefits to publicity I’ll find out soon enough. I used to worry that if people could find me I’d get hate mail from loonies, but so far people have been very courteous towards Tehanu.

Tehanu in Wellington Evening Post

Corvar pointed out that the photo made me look like the neighbour in ‘Home Improvement,’ which was pretty funny. Or Killroy, according to Jincey.

After the interview I went out with another ‘Rings’ fan and we went to look at the set of Helm’s Deep from the other side of the valley. It was half lost in the dark by the time we got there. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast between it, exposed on the stark hillside, and the tidy wooden houses on the opposite hill. There are better photos in the ‘Spy Reports’ archives so I’m not putting anything here.

It’ll be interesting times in Stokes Valley when filming starts on the nights to come – reportedly between January and March. I could see ways of getting closer to the set without bothering security, but it would take a compass, a machete, and an unhealthy streak of masochism. Buy binoculars now, I’d say. Correct me if I’m wrong, but having a long view of the storming of Helm’s Deep will have to be the most interesting thing ever to happen in Stokes Valley. I lived round there for what had to be the longest year of my life, so I speak with some authority.

The next day I got the ferry to the South Island with my friend the Poet. We landed, and suddenly the light was clearer and spaces were bigger. We drove through an entirely edible landscape for a few hours – all vineyards and orchards – before arriving at the Kahurangi National Park in Northwest Nelson. We knew that the film crew had a permit to film on Dept. of Conservation land on Mt. Owen. Good, because it was in my book, "101 greatest NZ Tramps."

In NZ, a tramp is a walk in the wilderness that lasts more than a day.

We could see the peaks where we were headed past from the carpark, and they were poking out from above the clouds above us. Lumpy grey misshapen tors loomed and disappeared out of the mist, a kilometre above us. How were we going to get up there?

The answer was painfully obvious after two or three hours of zigzagging uphill over rocks and roots. We were in dense beechforest with its strange perfume of honeydew. We couldn’t see anything except more trees, and the occasional squeaky-toy-like rifleman, which is a tailless spherical bird slightly bigger than a bumblebee.

Beechforest Mt. Owen
Mt Owen - Beechforest 134k
Fangorn Mt. Owen
Fangorn Mt. Owen 132k

Next we got up to a level of forest that was so lichened and derelict-looking that it could have modelled for Fangorn easily enough. I wonder whether they’ll use this kind of thing or go for the more traditional green shaggy forests lower down?

We plunged into a ravine and knew we were in limestone country, because there were caves gaping out of the cliffs above us and the streambed we were climbing had lost its water to an underground reservoir. After a spell of kicking through "pineapple shrubs" – wonderfully alien looking things – we finally got above the treeline and played ‘spot-the-hut-shaped-rock‘ for a while until arriving at the real hut. The film locations were still above us somewhere. After six hours of relentless climbing, if we had seen a film crew and their nice helicopter, we would have just sneered.

Granity Pass Hut
Granity Pass Hut 135k

The next day we got up onto the plateau and found ourselves surrounded by golden tussock and strange peaks like crumpled silver. There was a confusion of marble cliffs and tors between us and Mt. Owen itself.

Mt. Owen
Mt Owen 88k

I thought we were short of time and didn’t want to risk getting lost on the plateau, so we didn’t go further. Later I talked to someone who’d got lost up there while making a documentary a few days before we were there, so we weren’t being that stupid after all.

Mt. Owen
Mt Owen 93k

Clouds boiled below the peaks east of us as though held back by a spell. Say the wrong word and they would rise up in a moment to blot out the landscape and the trail which was only sketchily marked out by cairns.

Mt. Owen tarns
Mt. Owen tarns 83k

I was fascinated by these tarns you get in the mountains. They reflect the sky oddly, dull and dark, a lightless unreflective blue. I never found one large enough to look like Kheled-zaram, the Mirrormere, but I have no doubt that one exists somewhere and that the film crews with their helicopters have found it.

Travelling downhill with a pack for six hours hurts more than going uphill, strangely enough. We passed the time reciting as much of ‘I had trouble getting to Solla Sollew’ as we could remember. After that we deserved a beer so we headed off to the Kohatu Tavern.

The locals there knew the filming had gone on for about three weeks until a few weeks before we got there. The crews had been helicoptering up to the high tops all the time. They were filming in a cave, too. Well, there was no lack of caves up there, for sure. The ones we saw you would have needed to abseil into, but there would have been plenty more that we never saw. Those grim tortured peaks, what could they be? Moria Gate, the Paths of the Dead (didn’t get the impression there were that many people involved) or even the pathways above Morgul Vale leading to Shelob’s lair?

One woman said she’d seen Peter Jackson himself a few weeks ago.

"Oh? Where?" we asked

"Over by my Nanna’s place."

OK, great. That turned out to be in Tapawera, we found out.

"It was definitely him eh! Big guy, scruffy t-shirt and messy hair."

Everyone around us was wearing workboots, singlets, and some mud, and I had about half a pound of dried sweat in my hair, so I felt that we were in a slightly weak position to be passing judgement.

That was about it for that day. We drove off down to Murchison (where a man in a horse and cart sold us socks!) and talked to the people at the café there. People at the head of the Matiri Valley nearby reported seeing strange powerful lights on Mount Owen night after night. A great deal of equipment had gone up there in helicopters, they said.

Caves? Filming at night? My guesses are tending towards Morgul Vale and Cirith Ungol, then. They could find ravines around Mt. Owen which, glimpsed at night, would form into that kind of barren, riven landscape easily enough.

I have to wait and see, same as anyone else.

Next episode: Fairy rings, whirlpools, and orcs shouting "B* * * * r!"

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