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Published: June 27th 2014
It would be rude to come to New Zealand without indulging in at least a little bit of nerdy Lord of the Rings tourism. With this in mind, I decided I was going to go on a trip to the place they filmed the Misty Mountains and Lothlorien Forest scenes, and obviously I was going to do this on horseback so I could pretend to be an elf princess.
Unfortunately in a burst of overexcitement when I first arrived in Queenstown, I had made the potentially unwise decision to book this horse riding trip the day after downhill mountain biking. I woke up a little apprehensive, unsure if my knees or my bum could take it.
Horse riding seems to be a big thing in New Zealand, but I have minimal experience of things equestrian. That girlie horse loving phase was something I mercifully dodged as a child. I believe I may have once briefly expressed an interest in learning to ride, but my mother told me horses were for posh people and I had a perfectly good hamster to play with. So that was that.
My last horse encounter was in Ecuador many years ago, with a
cheerfully leathery cowboy called Mauricio who had scars from being stamped on by a bull. With Panama hats instead of a safety helmets, he took us cantering across impossibly precarious hilltops on horses he seemed able to control with the power of his mind. I knew I couldn't hope for anything quite that exciting in a country with actual health and safety laws, so I wasn't really sure what to expect.
The stables was at Glenorchy, a tiny town that could perhaps best be described as “rustic”. It took half an hour to drive there from Queenstown, along roads so twisting I thought whoever built them must have been taking the piss. The early morning air was cold, in sharp and frosty contrast to blue skies and sunshine the day before. It seemed to be a completely different season. Out in the field, the horses looked like they had similar feelings about being up at this hour.
When the other riders arrived we got taken out into the paddock to be introduced to our steeds. All of the 60 or so horses at the stables are rescued former racehorses, who would have been dog food years ago had
they not been repurposed for trotting with tourists. Each has his own little story. The only exception to this was Scar, a genuine wild horse who had been found impaled on a fence post as a youngster. He was rescued and taken to the vet, but the group wouldn't accept him back once he'd interacted with humans, so he was adopted and eventually trained. He's the bottom of the hierarchy, picked on by all the posh thoroughbreds.
Our guide interrogated us on our life history and riding experience, then after much thought, carefully matched us to our perfect horse. For reasons unknown I was assigned a fat, belligerent horse called Baxter, who always managed to lag just far enough behind that I couldn't quite hear what the guide was saying. Since the horses all live freely together out in the fields, they have established their own strict hierarchy. We were informed that we must proceed in a certain order, because if any subordinate horse tries to overtake a more dominant horse, everything will kick off. Baxter was, obviously, at the back of the line. There was zero danger of him overtaking anything.
The morning ride took us across
I wanted to have my photo taken with Baxter, but he just wanted to bite this fence.
a wide open river valley, splashing through water as crystal clear as it was icey cold, with the saw-toothed, blue tinged “misty mountains” rising up around us on all sides. Our guide chattered on enthusiastically about the various different movies that have been filmed here. Apparently foreign film crews have had to resort to borrowing horses from Glenorchy Stables before, when the expensively trained stunt horses shipped in from abroad completely refused to gallop into the rivers we were crossing now, throwing their riders rather than set foot in the freezing New Zealand water.
As previously stated, my horse was a bit of a bugger. He could be induced to trot without much difficulty, but getting him to stay on task while simply walking was more of an issue, because he would much rather try to eat any plant or object he came into contact with. I don’t think it was just my riding skills at fault here. Bear in mind that when instructing the people who hadn’t ridden much on how to control a horse, our guide stated “gently tap the horse with your heels to start them walking… unless you have Baxter, in which case just boot
him”. A little way into the ride the guide sighed, peeled a small branch off a nearby tree and handed it to me. “This is a Baxter poking stick”, she informed me. I couldn’t bring myself to actually utilise the stick, but merely spying it in my hand seemed to motivate him, and we eventually reached some kind of implicit agreement whereby I let him snatch the occasional mouthful of delicious fern as long as he sped up again sufficiently afterwards.
The afternoon ride (on a different horse) was the one which had been advertised specifically as the Lord of the Rings nerdfest. In between the two I sought out the only café in Glenorchy and treated my achy self to a massive lunch in front of a warm fire.
The second ride was through a large privately owned area of land called “Paradise”. The story goes that it was purchased by a kiwi chap who wanted this area of natural beauty to remain unspoiled and undeveloped. When he was diagnosed with a terminal condition, he tried to sell the land for $1 to anyone he thought would look after it as he intended, but despite interviewing various
Couldn't take my proper camera on the horse with me, so only managed to get a few crappy iPhone snaps which really doesn't do it justice...
candidates, nobody was deemed to be up to the job. Instead he left it as a charitable trust to be managed by a group of his friends, who still own it to this day. Anybody is allowed access to Paradise, though no commercial activity can take place there. The horse rides from Glenorchy stables are the exception to that rule, being allowed access for their paid trips, though some unfortunate staff member has to follow behind the group and scoop up all the horse poo so as not to leave any impact on the landscape. When Peter Jackson approached the trustees to ask about filming Lord of the Rings there, his request was initially refused. It was only when he promised that the area would be left completely unaffected, down to photographing the forest floor, replacing every damaged plant and putting each log back exactly as they found it, that the film crew was finally granted access.
As soon as you see Paradise, you instantly understand why someone was inspired to go to such greats lengths to preserve it. You also realise why it is so beloved of film directors. The location lends itself to fantasy. Had
my horse suddenly been pieced by an arrow, or band of marauding orcs happened to burst forth from the undergrowth, I wouldn't have been at all surprised. The landscape is expansive and wild. It feels imaginary.
This ride was a lot more sedate. The horses picked their way slowly between densely packed trees, up and over steep hills, across the velvety woodland floor. Eventually the scenery opened out into cinematic panoramas over the valley we’d been riding through that morning. The guide was genuinely knowledgeable and full of quirky stories about the filming that happened here (for example, this is the tree that Boromir dies against, and here is the spot where the overhead cameras accidentally knocked out half a local ruby team dressed as orcs). The other riders displayed varying levels of interest in this Lord of the Rings trivia. I would rate our enthusiasm on a ten point scale as follows...
1) Never even watched the films.
2) Fell asleep half way through.
3) Can’t really remember what happens but would definitely shag Aragon.
4) Owns the DVDs.
5) Owns the books.
6) Owns the books and has actually read them.
7) Read the books way before the film when they were still hyper-nerdy
8) Once tried to steal lifesize cardboard cutout of Legolas from HVM in Manchester
9) Knows large chunks of dialogue off by heart. Owns some kind of mildly disturbing constume.
10) Has tattoo on their arse in Elvish
15 year old me was an 8. In spite of having read the books as a child back when they were still desperately uncool, and having watched all the LotR films when they first came out, I could remember surprisingly little. I felt pretty guilty for not having seen The Hobbit. A bit like I hadn't done my homework.
Later on in my travels I realised I could have done horse riding trips much cheaper elsewhere in New Zealand, but I don't regret going with Glenorchy. The horses were so evidently well loved, the guides had genuine enthusiasm and the location was pretty extraordinary.
When I got back to the hostel, The Hobbit happened to be playing on the big TV. At any given point in time, a Lord of the Rings film will be playing in roughly 50%!o(MISSING)f all hostels in New Zealand. It’s like The Beach in Thailand, or The Motorcycle Diaries when you’re backpacking around South America. The kitchen was full of European girls cooking food more sophisticated than anything I could ever hope to achieve in a fully stocked kitchen back home. What kind of backpacker toasts almonds in hostel? One of them was actually baking bread. Resisting the urge to shout "ALMOND WANKERS" at them, I settled down with my instant noodles (which tasted like spicy chicken and shame) to watch the film. It seemed to reaching a pivotal moment. "Saruman believes that only great power can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.
I have found it is small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.
Small acts of kindness and love."
Wow. That Gandalf comes up with some fantastic quotes, doesn’t he? Whatever he’s smoking in that big old pipe of his must be making him pretty wise. I like to think that somewhere in the world, someone has that line tattooed on their arse in Elvish.
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