New Zealand offers an insight into the films of the Tolkien classics
DIRECTOR Peter Jackson’s film interpretation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were both filmed in New Zealand, where the jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside is perfect for equine exploration. There, you can ride in the footsteps of Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins and the rest of the Middle Earth characters.
My adventure starts in Queenstown, a popular tourist destination on New Zealand’s South Island, on the shore of Lake Wakatipu.
It has spectacular views of the lake and on to the Remarkables mountain range, once a gold miners’ stomping ground but now home to thousands of sheep and cattle, that also stood in as Tolkien’s Misty Mountains.
The town has also earned the title of ‘Adventure Capital of New Zealand’ and you can’t go far without spotting adrenalin-pumped tourists bungee jumping from a mountain side, or flying down the Dart River in jet boats.
On a chilly October morning, I leave a buzzing Queenstown and the comfort of the St Moritz Hotel, which was a temporary dwelling for many Hobbit actors, and drive 45km north to the head of Lake Wakatipu and the tiny town of Glenorchy. People there are used to the presence of Jackson and all things Middle Earth; many were extras in both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and the landscape surrounding the town was also used heavily throughout the film trilogy.
Glenorchy is also home to Dart Riding Stables, who take riders deep into Middle Earth territory, through areas where scenes were filmed, and the guides not only have local knowledge, but are full of Hobbit stories.
I saddle up for The Trilogy Loop, a three-hour trek in stunning wild country, always with the mountains and the Dart River in our sights. Our ride passes through tree-lined glades to the edge of the forest and a location used for a scene where Saruman’s army were filmed leaving Isengard.
There’s plenty of opportunity here to canter along the flat riverbed area, where there’s an abundance of river crossings through water that comes up to the horse’s belly.
This builds up an appetite for a relaxed lunch back at the Glenorchy Café on Mull Street, where inexpensive and huge portions of good home-made food are just what’s needed to set me up for my two-hour afternoon ride through Paradise, an area of pristine natural beauty that Jackson used as the Lothlórien Forest.
During the filming of The Hobbit, Jackson announced – via his Facebook page that he was returning to Paradise to film scenes for parts two and three.
I’m riding Elvis, a veteran equine star and stunt horse that fought in many a battle throughout the trilogy. I was rather hoping he’d have a quiff forelock, but fortunately for him, he’d been spared the humiliation.
He carries me deep into Middle Earth’s Amon Hen, through an ancient oak wood where the sunlight filters through the leafy canopy and illuminates the spot on the forest floor where Sean Bean, playing Boromir, fell to his death after being fatally struck by arrows from a gruesome orc.
Paradise is a magical place but there are no ugly orcs to spoil an easy ride and the experienced horses are sound, sturdy and ideal for novices.
The following morning I continue my riding odyssey at Ben Lomond Horse Treks, based on a busy sheep farm 15 minutes from Queenstown. It overlooks Moke Lake, whose north shore was also a Rings location.
We saddle up for a three-hour ride that takes us along a vast riverbed that we cross no fewer than 30 times from bank to bank, through cold shallow streams.
Waterfalls tumble from rocky outcrops and in the distance I spot Harrier hawks flying between jagged peaks. We return high across the hilltops, where, still to this day, hopeful prospectors come in search of gold.
And so to Nelson, a small town at the north-west end of New Zealand’s South Island – not on horseback, but a one-and-a-half hour plane ride via Christ-church.
There I visit Gollum’s Precious, the all-powerful One Ring, and the central icon for the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at the Jens Hansen Gold and Silversmith studio.
In 1999, Jackson approached the late Jens Hansen, a Danish-born goldsmith, and asked him to create some designs for the One Ring.
Jens and his sons, Thorkild and Halfdan, made around 40 variations from 18-carat plain gold rings to fit small Hobbit fingers, to a huge, eight-inch gold-plated steel stunt-ring.
I leave Nelson and drive three hours along Route 60 towards Farewell Spit and join Farewell Bay Horse Treks owner Gail McKnight for a two-day ride.
We start along Old Man Range cliff top with its spectacular views of the 35km Farewell Spit, the longest in New Zealand, then on to Wharariki Beach, riding through its vast sea-worn archway and huge caves, then cantering along the deserted beach and past fur seals frolicking in shallow pools.
After a picnic lunch, we turn inland past the tropical Kaihoka Lakes to Kaihoka Station, a large sheep farm owned by the Wiley family where we spend the night in the old back-to- basics farm cottage.
There, we dine by a large open fire and listen to Joyce Wiley’s Hobbit tales of dressing 30 horses in their hairy suits for their starring roles.
Early next morning we saddle up and head to Windy Ridge, zigzagging up and down steep hills and through fields coated in luscious shades of green grass to reach our destination.
At times we lead the horses over steep rocky parts, giving them enough rein for them to pick their own path among the wind-bent trees, huge stones and small caves.
I’ve been on horses all around the world, but this area has to be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever ridden through.
When I return to Nelson and the comfort of Wakefield Quay House overlooking the sea, I reflect on my Middle Earth experience: New Zealand is a place of breathtaking, raw beauty, where magical tales really do come to life.
• Qantas Airlines, (www.qantas.com) flies to Wellington and Queenstown via Sydney, return fares from £1,471. Austravel (0800 988 4834, www.austravel.com), has a 15-day New Zealand Splendour self-drive that flies in to Auckland, goes through North Island and round South Island finishing in Christchurch from £2,377 per person, including return Qantas flights from London Heathrow, 14 nights accommodation and car hire. Based on departures May 2013.
Trekking: Dart Riding Stables (www.dartstables.com) from NZ$135; Ben Lomund Treks (www.nzhorsetreks.co.nz) from $80; Cape Farewell Horse Treks (www.horsetreksnz.co.nz) from $65.
Hotels: St Moritz Hotel, Queenstown (stmoritz.co.nz), rooms from $199; Wakefield Quay House, Nelson (www.wakefieldquay.co.nz), single from $245.
Tourism New Zealand (www.newzealand.com).