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Southwards! 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

Some time ago the film company applied for permission from the Department of Conservation in order to have a film crew and three actors work in the Kepler Mire, which is a big swamp near Te Anau. ‘Only three actors? The Dead Marshes!’ I thought gleefully, and headed out of Queenstown for a look.

There were mountains everywhere as usual. The film crews had been helicoptering up to ‘inaccessible peaks in the Queenstown region’ in order to do all sorts of mysterious things including something involving a fortress in Mordor. The mountains I saw alongside Lake Wakatipu on the way out of Q’town would do just fine for Ephel Duath, I thought. So would about a million other places, and if you had a helicopter anyway, you might as well go somewhere that wouldn’t have everyone looking up and thinking ‘I wonder what they’re doing up there?’

[ Ephel Duath ]
Ephel Duath (47k)

The road to Te Anau is so empty that you could drive fast, slow, backwards or on the wrong side of the road, and it wouldn’t matter for hours on end. I got there at the end of a normal day, but being so far south, there were still three hours of daylight.

In an early interview on AICN, Jackson had mentioned the other-worldly quality of the forests in that area round Fiordland and Te Anau. The second film crew had been working out of there for weeks. I chose to go tramping along the lakeshore to a campsite marked on the map.

[ green light ]
green light (41k)

The whole forest luxuriated in a greenish light, and I hope they can capture that on film. It was extraordinary – everything almost luminous, yet very dim. Moss softened every outline, deadened every sound, turned rocks to cushions and turned fallen branches into fat green bolsters. There were green halls pillared with knobbly trunks and floored with glistening ferns. Pure Fangorn.

[ Te Anau Forest 1 ]
Te Anau Forest 1 (115k)
[ Te Anau Forest 2 ]
Te Anau Forest 2 (165k)
"This is nothing like the tame and deer-nibbled forest round Paradise where they’d done so many major scenes."

Mice frisked about out in a tame and almost speaking way, like something in a fairytale, but it turned out that they were simply very hungry, a population boom on the verge of a bust. One nibbled its way friskily through the fly-mesh on my tent and the plastic foodbag, straight to the muesli. It’s even more amazing that it could find its way to escape when some time during the night I decided I wasn’t dreaming and started whacking the bag.

The night’s other disappointment was the fact that I’d built up a big driftwood fire on the lakeshore, brewed some tea and sat down on a log to enjoy it all when it started to rain. It’s not called a rainforest for nothing.

Next morning the rain kept up and the mice watching my breakfast were joined by a pair of mad-looking fearless robins with ‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ stares. If they could speak, they’d say ‘give me that sandwich now, and none of your lip!’ It was a relief to start up the incline towards Mt. Luxmore. The forest was different again in the rain, glossy and shiny, the ferns glittering on every pointed frond. I hope they put some rain shots into the movies.

The forest shrunk, as it does round the treeline – useful if you want to make actors look tall – and then ended abruptly in the clouds. I sat on a rock with nothing visible except the wall of forest I’d left behind, and even that was dimmed by mist. This was going to be one of the world’s most boring walks. Then suddenly a thing happened that is magic – a landscape embodied around me. It was not like clouds merely lifting, it was as though the word had been spoken that brought everything into being around me – the peaks, the bright tussocks, the light, an arm of the lake, lightless indigo under the wall of forested mountains that closed it in.

[ sudden landscape ]
sudden landscape (45k)

A short walk further and I was at the Luxmore Hut, overlooking perfect U-shaped glacial valleys that carried a distant hiss of streams dropping into Lake Te Anau.

[ Mystery Burn ]
Mystery Burn (56k)

The hut was the usual League of Nations, with people from all over the world to talk to. I couldn’t resist the perfect afternoon weather though, and set out minus pack to climb Mt. Luxmore. Maybe there would be a great ‘Kheled Zaram’ tarn on the way. There wasn’t, but I could get drunk on the landscape anyway, the space and the colours. What they’re using this for I don’t know and I don’t care, so long as it’s in there somewhere, or something very like it.

[ Mt. Luxmore ]
Mt. Luxmore (57k)
[ More Alpine tussock ]
More Alpine tussock (52k)

Without a helicopter (or a clue, for that matter) I couldn’t go where the film crews went, I could only attempt an approximation. From the top of Mt. Luxmore I could look in all directions and see endless serried ranks of peaks, craggy and dark. No sense that the wilderness ended anywhere or the sea existed. The flat lowland farms around Te Anau were only an interruption in the wild land. I remembered this scene vividly a month later when somebody in the website chatroom lectured me about how The Lord of the Rings couldn’t be filmed in New Zealand because it was only an island, and a sub-tropical one at that.

Dozing on a rockpile on the summit, I got cold wearing everything I had; gloves, hat, scarf, the lot, even though it was a sunny midsummer afternoon. Later that night the weather closed in and the wind howled around the hut. Next morning, snow was falling on the higher peaks. I headed down through more rain, back to Te Anau.

I don’t know how many trendy cafés there are in that town, but I found one which had great food and a serious list of caffeine possibilities. Of course the LOTR crew had hung out there while they were filming, up to sixty at a time filling the place, they said. Especially the previous month when the floods had cut the whole town off from the outside world and filming was impossible.

‘Where did they film?"

"All over the place."

"Doing what?"


"You ever read the book?"


Which explains a certain lack of interest.

"Yeah, some of the actors were quite famous, apparently," they said. Hmm, the nearest cinema is a few hours’ drive away too, come to think of it.

I headed out to the Kepler Mire, which turned out to be a happy healthy swamp full of springy vegetation covered in flowers. All the plants are brown, which I suppose can be made to look a bit sick, but to me it looked like a swamp in tip-top form. The anything-but-Dead Marshes.

[ Kepler Mire closeup ]
Kepler Mire closeup (60k)
[ swamp near Kepler ]
swamp near Kepler (69k)

More driving round on dirt roads gave the car delusions of Pajero-ness, and we ended up racing across cow-paddocks looking for a good way to get close to some nice wet bits of swamp. Nothing doing. Lots of Dr. Suess-like cabbage trees on the outskirts, looking completely inappropriate.

It got rainier, and I took shots of the swamp doing its best to act gloomy and horrible.

[ Kepler3 ]
Kepler3 (44k)

Well, nice try. Don’t give up your day job, I thought. At least the mountains on one side could have a go at looking a bit threatening, like a distant view of the ramparts of Mordor.

Next episode: Paradise at last.

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