Arriving in New Zealand it was as I suspected – The Lord of the Rings has done more for the economy and people here than that tram movie Malcolm ever did for Melbourne. Sure, for a while we had a few more anorak wearing public transport enthusiasts buying their zone 3 tickets and checking out the W-class trams at the Tramways Museum, but we certainly never had a Minister for Malcolm. New Zealand has an unofficial Minster for Middle Earth, and if you ring up Pete Hodgson’s department someone will tell you (in the Common Tongue) foreign tourism is up 6% and with each visitor having average expenditure of NZ$3,500, it’s been worth billions of dollars.
The first $19.95 of my own Rings related spending was ploughed into the official Location Guidebook at Christchurch airport, with the next $5 going to a baker who was confident enough in what he was doing bagel-wise to proclaim himself ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Then, in fellowship with my girlfriend, we hauled on our backpacks, buttoned up our elven cloaks (mine is luminous blue and made of Gore-Tex) and headed off on our journey across Middle Earth.
What were the highlights? Well who could forget the thrill of standing next to a road in Twizel with our backs to one of the great mountain views in the world, staring at a pine forest and arguing over whether the trees were too close together to be the ones Arwen rode through as she fled the Nine Nazgûl. The guidebook said that the trees were down the road at Tarras, but a cashier in Twizel supermarket said that was all part of an anti-Twizel conspiracy.
Then, because like Aragorn, ‘long have I desired to gaze upon the kings of old’ (or at least the point in the river where they computer generated that enormous granite sandal) I touched the Kawarau River just out of Queenstown. To get to that exact location – go to the bridge at S 45? 00.711’ E 168? 53.567’. Look contemplatively out on a rocky landscape that no longer has any kings of old. Then bungee jump. Yes, coincidentally, this is also a bungee jumping site of old – the Kawarau Bridge being the world’s first ever bungee, established just after the Age of the Elves in 1988.
Finally we visited Dan’s Paddock just out of Glenorchy, which without the Tower of Orthanc, seemed to be made of the purest paddock. Nevertheless, the imposing Mount Earnslaw skulked in the background, the sun rode low in the sky, and if you sort of squinted in a certain way, you could almost mentally construct Isengard and just about ignore the sheep.
It’s a lesson I should have learned outside the Cheers bar in Boston. Without sets or lighting, characters or digital animation, places that have been lifted out of fiction and into the real world are bound to disappoint. Even here among some of the least disappointing landscapes on Earth. So I didn’t travel to the Alexander farm at Matamata where I could pay $50 to see some hobbit holes. Didn’t charter a helicopter to find the spot in The Remakables where the Fellowship mourned the loss of Gandalf. And didn’t buy a GPS system to find the exact former location of two hinged trees, that could be repeatedly felled and righted again for shooting the destruction of the Fangorn Forest. Instead, I put the Location Guidebook away, to concentrate on the inescapable beauty of the South Island and speak to the real people that inhabit it. To ‘spun’ the vowel wheel and see what ‘heppens’. To not blame them for Ansett, as long as they didn’t blame me for that underarm incident.
Often people had their own Lord of the Rings anecdotes. We met a New Zealand army private on leave at Lake Tekapo, who spoke approvingly of Helen Clarke’s position on Iraq, and glowingly of his time running around as an orc. Claire at Burke’s Pass played a Rohan villager, and was celebrating because she had made the final cut. David is an animator who worked for two years on the sections where Frodo sees the world with the ring on his finger. And Murray was part of the 30,000 strong crowd at the cricket match in Wellington where during the tea break, director Peter Jackson recorded the stamping of the orc army and the chanting of the Black Speech. ‘I was in the film,’ Murray said from his bar stool in Wanaka. ‘I had a speaking role.’
There is a pride radiating from New Zealand that it pulled off such an advertisement for what the country is and what it can do. Normally, when something is going this well across the Tasman, we’d just try and steal it, but it’s too late now. Instead we need our own epic. One that takes in the great tourist sites, and isn’t about the aftermath of nuclear war like Mad Max or that 1950s Gregory Peck On The Beach film. How’s this for a start. A clown fish, living on the Great Barrier Reef always wanted to see Uluru …