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Queenstown Buzz 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

How do the paprazzi do it? I should have spent my time in Queenstown lurking around the hotels where the actors were staying hoping to catch a glimpse of them so I could report that they had two arms, two legs, and a head, or something equally exciting. I don’t have the temperament for it. I ran my Fun-O-Meter over the idea and it registered a strong negative reading – in fact it promised the same kind of boredom, stress and immobility which I least enjoy about work.

Instead I spent a day driving around talking to people and looking at things. The river guides knew where the remains of the riverside set were on the Kawarau, and could tell me how it had been before the floods destroyed it. They described steps going up from the water’s edge to a landing between two large flat-topped pillars. I found the spot, a kind of natural staircase between two small stone headlands that appeared to have collapsed recently into boulders and rubble.

More boulders choked the space where the stair would have been, and a whole pinetree lay across it like a carelessly-dropped straw.

[ Kawarau Set Upriver ]
Kawarau Set Upriver (34k)

"..the country…. sloped away up away from the river, a tumbled waste of grey limestone-boulders, with many hidden holes shrouded with weeks and bushes…." — that’s Tolkien’s description of the country around where the Fellowship portages their boats around Sarn Gebir. This is it exactly! (except for the limestone. There’s always a purist out there ready to be upset.)

[ Kawarau Set 1 ]
Kawarau Set 1 (38k)

A few pathetic remains were stacked in the grass above the waterline. Nothing more than a few bits of plywood covered in styrofoam and painted to look like slick mossy stone. I guess it could be the place where the travellers re-enter the Anduin.

Below the mangled bits of fake masonry the river was still above its usual level. Something my photos can’t show is the power of it and the express-train roar which sent a faint tremor through the soles of my feet as I stood above it. That discarded pinetree you see, with its bark flayed off by the power of the floods, is easily wide enough to walk on.

[ Kawarau Set Location ]
Kawarau Set Location (45k)

What’s going to go on here? The Fellowship’s boat-trip as far as the rapids of Sarn Gebir? The river guides (jetboaters, whitewater rafters and so on) were anticipating to work again, being filmed on a rapid known as The Takeout. If they film the night ambush by the orcs on the Anduin there it should be really exciting, even for the rafting guides who have done these rapids often in daylight.

[ Takeout 1 ]
Takeout 1 (34k)
[ Takeout 2 ]
Takeout 2 (28k)

The next day I decided to live the experience a bit and took a trip paddling down the river –mostly in it up to the eyebrows. It made jetboating look pretty wussy and dry-footed. Our guides spent a lot of the time unconsciously quoting Aragorn: "Keep the boats in line, and as far apart as you can! Hold the middle of the stream!" or "Back, back! Turn if you can!"

We took more Boromir’s line, "This is madness!"

My other mission was to find the set that the Mountain Scene paper had pictured (as per last episode.) It was reportedly ‘on a knoll near Closeburn,’ which is a few bays round the lake from Queenstown. I drove around there a bit, walked around, went up driveways and up some hills, and encountered a lot of places where money and architects had collided, but no set, though some things I saw were pretty strange. Architecture speaks a language of its own, and these places fairly screamed "We have a million dollars, and we’re going to spend it building a place way out here that no-one except invited guests is welcome to visit!" Nobody ever answered the door. It all got a bit oppressive despite the fantastic views of Lake Wakatipu and the pretty pine plantations.

[ ‘stop, private road’ ]
‘stop, private road’ (25k)

This kind of spying had a severely low Fun Quotient. I was a bored and disaffected spy, ready to defect to anywhere with a briefcase full of New Zealand’s nuclear strike secrets at the drop of a hat. I should have gone up that last intriguing driveway that had a handpainted sign, Fort Denny or something, but by then I couldn’t stand any more and went to the lake to swat sandflies and watch the sun set.

So, enough of that. Everyone else was having more fun doing extreme sports, so the next day I went down the river, as I said, and of course by not attempting to do anything useful I ran across lots of orc extras on their day off.

They were able to tell me about their armour and makeup and so on. (This stuff went into Spy Reports when I checked in from the cybercafe, but I can recap here.) One orc I talked to was a Moria orc, and they have scalier skin, leather tunics, chainmail (knitted lightly out of fabric and sprayed to look metallic) and helmets. The armour has an spiky, gothic, slightly insectoid look to it, I was told. The Uruk-hai extra I talked to said they were given smooth black skin.

One thing that both orcs mentioned was that it was very difficult to see while in full costume. Not only are the helmets a problem, but the heavy facial prosthetics (my source mimed heavy brow-ridges) block out a lot of vision. Early takes where the orcs were meant to run through the trees were cut short as orcs would blunder into them or fall over their weapons at full tilt. Yelling "Bugger!" isn’t regarded as a convincing oath in Black Speech.

I noticed that the orcs were always referred to as ‘Goblins’ by anyone that wasn’t already a diehard Rings fan, and also in all official media reports, so I wonder if the word ‘orc’ won’t make it onto the big screen? Shame; the word has a venerable origin in Old English, appearing as ‘orcum’ in Beowulf.

Other snippets of news from the extras included a confirmation that Legolas was fair, not dark, and mentioned that he had subtly pointed ears. The E!Online article says that the hobbits have pointy ears.

My contact described Legolas’ gear – he carries two throwing-knives on his back, so you can just see the hilts of them poking over his shoulders. He has a bow of course, and apparently it is beautifully made, a real work of art with lots of lamination and inlay-work. People were impressed with Orlando Bloom and said he suited the part very well.

Diehard fans of the NZ soap Shortland Street will be able to see Craig Parker as a major elf too, I hear. A whole new viewership for LOTR right there.

Another comment was that Monaghan and Boyd who play Merry and Pippin get on so well in real life that it’s as if they’re never out of character. "They have that impish quality." Apparently they are a real laugh together.

Liv Tyler’s performance was accorded a lot of respect, from an extra who was also a Tolkien fan and would not be easily pleased, so I felt reassured about the whole Arwen thing.

So, that was a fair bag of news for one day. The next day I hit on a better scheme for searching for the Closeburn set again, and so I took a ride in a stunt-plane that does loops and barrel-rolls and power-dives over Lake Wakatipu. We finished off by buzzing Closeburn, rocking from side to side on alternate wings so we could get a really good look. Nothing. Still, it’s a good rule in life, if you have to fail, to do it with panache.

Someone I’d talked to earlier mentioned that their cousin had a job on a big team of set-dismantlers, so it’s likely that nothing stayed around for any time after it had been finished with.

[ 3 people actually doing nothing ]
3 people actually doing nothing (25k)

It’s possible to turn spending money into a bit of an Extreme Sport in Queenstown – sure, you can sit by the pretty lakeshore and admire the view quietly, but you’ll be one of only half-a-dozen doing it. Everyone else (and we’re talking a town with 15,000 tourist beds in it) is busy doing the adrenaline-rush thing somewhere.

I’d seen enough people for one week, so I drove on further south to look at Te Anau, where one of the other film crews was based.

Next Episode: Dead Marshes and Deep Forests.

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