I suspect I’m not the only non-Kiwi out there whose formative impressions of New Zealand were fueled by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s ironic, of course, that Tolkein’s stories should now be synonymous with this country, even though they were envisaged by their creator as representations of his native England. But having now experienced some of the locations used by Jackson in the movies for myself, it is impossible to imagine Middle Earth being filmed anywhere else but in New Zealand, so perfectly do the landscapes here convey the epic grandeur of Tolkein’s fantasy world.
While the green and hilly countryside around Auckland recalls the gentler scenery of The Shire – home of the Hobbits - it is the spectacular vistas of New Zealand’s South Island that best evoke Middle Earth’s most dramatic locations. I remember salivating at the prospect of visiting there when I watched a documentary on the making of Lord of the Rings almost a decade ago so a trip there was near the top of my New Zealand wish list. Luckily, we had been in the country less than two weeks when Margot and Steve - Holly’s mum and partner - were kind enough to invite us down to their other property in the South Island’s central Otago region, affording us an unexpectedly early taste of New Zealand’s most awe-inspiring landscapes.
Our plane journey from Auckland to Queenstown proved to be a mouth-watering appetiser for what was to come as the flight path took us right over the Southern Alps and New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook. Clear skies allowed us some fantastic views over the snow-capped mountain range while the English Middlesbrough-born lady sat next to us proved infectious with her wide-eyed enthusiasm for the region, to which she’d emigrated some 20 years ago.
The prospect of a two hour drive from Queenstown airport to the house where we were to stay in Otago had not, I must be honest, filled me the greatest sense of excitement. Such lengthy car journeys back home can be mind-numbing in their tedium, so rarely do the motorways provide any opportunity to admire the beautiful English countryside they carve through. Thankfully, New Zealand’s country road planners have had to good sense to place their highways in such a way as to maximise travelers’ enjoyment of the scenery. Indeed, the landscapes here are almost certainly best viewed from a car, from which one can experience hundreds of miles of stunning views in a single day. We spent the majority of our all-too-fleeting week in Otago on the road and witnessed some of the finest natural sights we have ever seen.
From towering white-peaked mountain ranges to giant crystal-blue lakes, Otago is top dog when it comes to heavenly scenery. Indeed, one evening, as we drove back to the house from Dunedin via the famous “Pig route”, the setting sun cast such an other-worldly glow on the land around us that we could quite easily have believed we had been transported to paradise.
Apart from the land itself, the most remarkable thing about this part of the world is just how few people there are here. We literally drove for hours without seeing another soul - let alone passing another car on the road - though in retrospect this should not have been such a surprise on our journey across the legendary Danseys Pass. Up to this point, the roads in Otago had impressed us with how smooth, straight and well-maintained they were so we had little trepidation as we mapped out an apparently innocuous shortcut from the historical town of Oamaru back to the house near Oturehua. Faint alarm bells started ringing when we were greeted by a sign announcing that the Pass was “open”, suggesting a potentially more hazardous route than those we had become accustomed to. Nevertheless, we proceeded undeterred and the opening stretches, while winding, were not especially troublesome to navigate. The higher up the road led us, though, the narrower and steeper it became, and when the hitherto even tarmac gave way to tyre-anathema gravel we really did start to worry. It soon became apparent exactly why the Pass was subject to periods of closure, for even the most confident and experienced of drivers would struggle to contend with the road’s most gruelling sections in even slightly adverse weather conditions. At one point, I was having to manoeuvre the car (not, I must add, our own but one we had rented at the airport) around 90 degree turns with a sheer drop on one side and a jagged rock face on the other and the early evening sun shining straight into my eyes. Thank god we didn’t meet another car coming in the opposite direction as there was barely enough space for one vehicle to pass through there, let alone two. Not that anyone else would have been foolish enough to attempt such a journey in anything other than the most sturdy 4x4…
In the end, the staggering views of the mountains – one of which we went right up and over the top of – more than compensated for sweat-inducing terror of the drive, though we weren’t half grateful for the pints of Speights Ale we treated ourselves to at the closest country pub when we finally emerged the other side.