After our travels around the Owen plateau we retired to the fleshpots of Reefton and Christchurch to catch up with friends, before heading over to the Mt. Cook region. Apart from the fact that Mt. Cook would make an awesome Celebdil, there was no reason to go there except fun. Unfortunately the track we intended to walk on had collapsed so we went up beside the Tasman Glacier instead to Ball Shelter Hut.
The mountains around Mt. Cook can hardly hold themselves up because they are made of soft shale which makes them weep stones and collapse everywhere. Mt Cook is still the highest mountain, but even it shrugged off its tip a few years ago. As a result, the Tasman Glacier is covered in grey stones below a certain point. We couldnt even see it. We walked up a shingle path with a shingly range on our left and a shingly ridge of moraine on our right. It was like travelling through an enormous Ministry of Works depot for roading metal.
We played spot-the-hut-shaped-rock a lot. There were some pretty cunning ones. I was fooled.
When we finally rose above the moraine to travel instead on its dissolving ridgetop, we could see the glacier below us and it was eerie! A grey plain pocked with sinkholes where the ice had given way below the shale. The holes were filled with noxious-looking glacial meltwater, a greenish-grey opaque colour. There wasnt much snow around, and it occurred to me that the place could be filmed as a creepy bit of Mordor scenery, because without being present and feeling the cold, the place had a look of steaming chemical pits and desiccated heat.
Theres no evidence that the crews will film there, though they could use it for backdrops I guess.
We dumped our stuff at the hut and went to look at the confluence of the Ball Glacier. The sun was turning the snow pink on the peaks around us. The clouds poured thickly like (insert cliché here: cotton wool? White treacle? A big bag of styrofoam chips?) over some peaks and drew aside from others. We realised that we could see Mt. Cook towering past the nearer peaks. Standing on the very unstable edge of the moraine we could hear sudden random shinglefalls and slips as the mountains dissolved into the glacier below us.
The next day we drove further south again. The South Island is big! We travelled over endless Brown Lands. I could imagine the Emyn Muil as we wound through the Lindis Pass and hit a cold front from Antarctica coming the other way.
This photo looks like its been touched up to look like a painting. I grew up with Brent Wong paintings that looked like this, and I used to think that was his style that made the landscape look that way. Now I know that he was painting exactly what he saw.
Anyhow, no evidence that New Line are going to film here, but they were filming round Tarras, on Lake Dunstan, just on the other side. Mucking about in boats, according to some locals. Well, if youre going to film the Anduin and you dont want to be continually dragging people back upstream every time you do a take, it would make sense to use a lake, wouldnt it? Because the rivers round there dont wait around much.
This lake, like the rivers, has that opaque spearmint-milkshake colour from all the glacial meltwater with its dissolved rocks. Its a feature of all the water round there. I tasted it: tangy, mineral, slightly bitter and fresh.
We wound up in Cromwell, a tidy town in a big landscape of hills and rocks. My friend went off to see the nightlife in Queenstown, and discovered that everyone she spoke to knew something about the filming going on there. I went up to the quiet hills for a walk in the dusk. It is a countryside that favours fine horses, for some reason, and I passed some that pranced and galloped to show off.
Next morning snow had fallen on the tops. I had some clues about locations to follow up: the name of a road. I followed it and found a farm with a very churned-up road and an unusual number of Keep Out signs. I thought this mushroom thing had to be some sort of clue, but the phone book says that this person really lives here, so that was not a useful lead.
PJ Tyrees mushroom
The farmer next door let me climb up on his land and take photos around the hills above. I could see that the area offered a lot of contrast. Above us, dramatic hills with stony fingers breaking through the snow; below in my top-suspect farm was this rather private valley with its small-scale intimate landscape.
The ground was marked by fairy rings that showed up as overlapping circles in the grass. Wide slopes alternated with sudden flat plateaux. A distant line of young pines breasted the edge of one of these high plains looking like the speartips of a massed army.
We trawled the cafés in Cromwell for information and coffee, and as usual the place had been swarming with film crews until recently and everyones cousins fiancés brother was involved in some way. One café had a copy of one of the Queenstown papers, which contained an aerial photo of a set that nobody else seemed to know about in Closeburn.
Time to hit Queenstown, where the action was still going on.
Our road took us through the Kawerau Gorge, which has everything of gorges and wild rapids that a person could want. Not a lot of room for a road there, though, and a lot of it had fallen hundreds of feet into the river in an exciting sort of way.
The first thing I wanted to do in Queenstown was ask Mountain Scene for permission to use their photo of the Closeburn set. They seemed pleased to meet me, wanted to interview me, told me not to talk to anyone else, and said to return later for an answer about using the photo. When we went back later they couldnt get ride of me fast enough, which was pretty peculiar. Theyd decided LOTR wasnt news that sold papers in Queenstown. After being there a while I realised that they might be right none of the locals seems to have read the books, despite the fact that its employing everyone that isnt rebuilding flood damage or working on Vertical Limit.
Add tourism to that list of occupations. Queenstown exists for the purpose of helping people from all round the world to hurl themselves off bridges, down mountains, out of planes, into rivers. Everyone walks round in a permanent daze of excitement and exhaustion; so many people are young, fit, tanned, athletic-looking and hyped-up that its unusually hard to pick out, say, a famous Hollywood actor in that crowd. They wouldnt really stand out much.
So, back to the Closeburn set. I hit a funky local cybercafe with a sigh of relief (really good coffee! And a week is a long time to be out of touch with Xoanon and Corvar and Cal, not to mention everyone else!) and we decided that we couldnt afford the rights to that so-tempting photo. So too bad, we didnt buy it.
Here is a picture of the photo.
A few things about this picture. Ive left out about ten or so people that are hauling the blue crash mats around. At least, they look the right size and colour for crash-mats Ive seen in martial arts places, and there is a smaller one that one person is lifting, so theyre pretty light. There were various bags and chairs and unidentifiable objects around that I didnt include.
In the photo, several things obscure the head of the statue on the plinth, in front, so I havent ventured to guess if it has a head or what kind.
The structure is open, and stairs lead up through the middle. I think the front is to the left, and there will be a few more pillars on that side. What the thing is on top I cant make out. It looks like there could be a seat of some kind, a stone throne, with more statuary around it.
At first I thought the people on the set must be builders, but builders wear shorts and singlets etc. These guys are all in black T-shirts with a white logo, which I saw the Stuntworx teams wearing, so maybe their interest is more to do with something involving falling off the back of this set.
Notice on the statues plinth there is either a big machete or an ugly sword.
So, guesses? Denethors tomb, and a practice session for the scene where Beregond is holding the top step of the porch against the servants of Denethor? Stay tuned, its only two years or so until we find out.
Well, I never got to the orcs and whirlpools. Thatll have to wait for the next episode.
After a few days, the overwhelming public opinion is that if this
is anywhere, it is Amon Hen. Here is Joe Piela's view on it:
"My first guess would be Cirith Ungol: when I first saw the statues they reminded me
of the two watchers (though their location up high rules against it), and that sword
you noted looks like an orc scimitar. So I would guess the stuntmen would be Shagrat
and Gorbag's orcs fighting amongst themselves. My second guess is that they are REALLY
spicing up the "Hill of Seeing" scene (after all you noted that the thing on the raised
platform looked like a seat or throne), with the Orcs first attacking Boromir up on the
hilltop right after the confrontation with Frodo. That way they can start the carnage
early and have Boromir leave a trail of bodies down the hill."
Next chapter: Queenstown!