Snowboarding in Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island was a far different experience to the comfortable, resort-style treat you might be used to in Europe or America. Each morning was an early start for a 45-minute or more drive up past the snow line and into the weather. We arrived in Queenstown in July – more than a month after snow is usually both easy to find, and low enough to reach from the foothills above the tourist centre. In 2016, however, a promising early start to the season had given way to unseasonably warm conditions and far too much rain to facilitate the kind of powder we were chasing.
Thankfully, we arrived on the tail of a weather front that did finally dump snow on the fields, and we were able to endure four days of riding while enduring everything from gale force winds (which cut power to Treble Cone’s entire facility), to white out, blizzard conditions. We were even lucky enough to have a fine day where we were able to contend with icy runs during daylight, and experts shooting past us during the night skiing at Coronet Peak. On our final day in Queenstown (click here for our New Zealand itinerary) we had planned to take the hour long drive over the range towards Wanaka for a day at Cardrona Ski area, however our aching muscles and the closure of the field due to wind led us to seek other entertainment.
Eventually, and after an excellent breakfast at Joe’s Garage, we decided to explore the countryside around Lake Wakatipu, upon which Queenstown is nestled. I had read that many locations for The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit could be found nearby (including the backdrop for Orthanc, the mountains featuring in the Two Towers introduction, and the woods of Lorien), and I fancied our chances of uncovering a few without the aid of one of the many operators that professed a unique insight into the terrain.
So it was that we embarked on our quest, armed with a map, and our Jucy Cabana (please note: I would under no circumstances recommend that you attempt to drive a Jucy Cabana to the locations herein described! The roads are not sealed, require regular crossing of fords, and were often very close to off-road sheep tracks!).
The initial drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is sealed (with tar, not smelly marine mammals) and scenic. We found it to be all the more charming with the ominous clouds of the inclement weather that had forestalled our snowboarding, and the views over the lake certainly set the scene for the Middle Earth locations for which we were searching. A little under an hour later, we found ourselves in the village of Glenorchy. The hamlet lies at the northern reaches of Wakatipu with views of the lake to the south, and Mount Aspiring National Park to the north. We stopped to poke around in the local store, which was packed with local delights and wares, before joining a throng (albeit a small one) at the Jetty where a ferry service from Queenstown alights. Glenorchy is a transfer point for a number of adventure tours, including jet boating and Middle Earth adventures.
After a few photographs and another look at the map, we pressed on in search of forests and mountains and a the ever-elusive Paradise. Less than 30km up the road, we found it – complete with a small farming community and an often photographed sign. Not far past Paradise, we were told, could be found the site used for principal photography for Orthanc (or Saruman’s tower for the less initiated). While we were unable to definitively pinpoint the area, there were plenty of likely candidates along the next stretch of road.
Eventually we crossed a stream (the final bridge crossing along the route – everything else would now be direct fording of ever deepening waterways) and reached a siding where a forest stopped abruptly at the bottom of a steep earthen wall. It was instantly clear that we had found Lothlorien. After a peak into the trees, we pressed on with Lorien to our right and grazing pasture to our left. We paused now and again to explore the fringes of the woods or to chat to the cattle, but the Elves were not forthcoming and cow conversation loses its charm quickly.
With each passing rivulet the road became closer and closer to impassable in the Cabana, and as the mountains loomed higher on each side, I felt a growing sense of unease, which I could have attributed to the magical nature of the forest, but I more accurately recognised as concerns about physically being able to make it back to Glenorchy without getting stuck or stalling in a stream.
Just as I decided that the risk was too high and the rain closed in, we reached the end of the road at a place named Chinaman’s Bluff. This is a reasonably well known transfer site for hikers, and on any other day would have been a charming place for a picnic and some exploration. Today, however, we made a precursory scan (still no elves), and embarked upon the return journey. Each river that we crossed was one step closer to reaching the safety of the tar seal, but also one step further from a magical wilderness that earns every bit of its reputation as the true Middle Earth.