After a good night’s sleep and a quick oatmeal breakfast, I was charged up and ready to get going on this day. I wasn’t expecting super pictures because I knew the times of day that we would be hitting our stops wouldn’t give us great light, but just being in those places would be a real treat. We were going to see the other two of the top three places I wanted to visit on this trip.
We had already found that the Rob Roy drive wasn’t nearly as rough as we were expecting and many of the optional wilder drives we’d planned had to be left out due to time, but today was the other major day we wanted to make sure we had a 4WD vehicle when we planned the trip. Plenty of tourists get around the Queenstown area in dinky little cars without problems but we were definitely going out away from all of this today. There would be a lot of driving to remote locations but scenery along the way should be some of the best we’d see, if not the very best. Our basic experience had been that the further south we traveled, the more beautiful things became and this was the south-y-est we were going to get.
We headed south out of town on a two and a half hour drive to Mavora Lakes that others described as stunning. I think it would have been stunning to us if this was our first introduction to NZ landscape. Make no mistake, it was a beautiful drive and one I was happy to take as the sun rose bathing everything in gold but it was nothing more spectacular than the other super gorgeous drives we’d been on.
You should know if you want to visit Mavora Lakes, it is out of the way, but I absolutely would make time for it. Along with “Get off the road!” North Mavora Lake was probably the place I wanted to visit most and it, along with the surrounding area, met my expectations.
ORC PYRE AND SHADOWFAX
One of the most pleasant surprises of the trip happened just outside of the Marvora Lakes park. While researching the area, I found out that we would be driving right past the field used to film the burning of the dead orcs and an appearance of Shadowfax. Neither one of these things were must see for me but they are right by the road, so why not? I should have remembered my mantra for the trip “If it is good enough to be film location, it is good enough to see. They wouldn’t pick it if it wasn’t visually interesting in some way.” Kind of long for a mantra, but you get the idea.
We pulled off the road at the appropriate GPS coordinates and it was obvious that the location was at the top of a small hill right there. Melanie wanted to read, so I grabbed my tripod and hiked through the crunchy straw-colored grass up the surprisingly spongy yet firm hill. It kinda felt like walking on a memory foam bed. I didn’t bring screenshots from the movie except for a few key locations (something I would change on a future trip), but as soon as I crested the hill it was a weird sensation – like when they do a push-pull shot in a movie or you rub sleep out of your eyes and can see clearer. I knew exactly what part of the movie I was standing in. This was weird to me. I haven’t seen these movies a lot and this is not a major location, but it seemed so familiar – the grass, the trees in the distance with the mountains rising behind. It was so easy to picture Aragorn and Legolas in this field on the edge of Fangorn Forest. It was beautiful and extremely peaceful. Nothing was grazing anywhere in sight and perhaps only one or two cars came by. Other than that it was silent and I’m so happy that I got the chance to experience it.
Walking down the hill and to my left the grassland opened up a bit more. It was maybe a two minute walk from the orc pyre location. Here the scene for horse lovers was filmed where Gandalf calls to Shadowfax and he comes galloping up. Side note: Apparently the horse was extremely cooperative and did exactly what he was supposed to do on the first take.
NORTH MAVORA LAKE
We were finally here! One of my top three stops of the trip! It was here that the Breaking of the Fellowship occurs at the end of the first LOTR movie and book. This is a pivotal moment in the journey where the Fellowship comes ashore after having traveled several days on the Anduin River. They have passed through the Pillars of the Kings (Argonath) and are now on a big lake (Nen Hithoel). They have to decide if they are going cross the lake and head straight toward Mordor or portage around a big waterfall (digitally added in the movie) and continue on to Gondor in hopes of securing aid first.
North Mavora Lake is a long blue body of water with rocky shores. The forested mountains come right to the very edge of the lake on its opposing long sides and most of the time the mountains are snowcapped making it an ideal stand in for Nen Hithoel which was also set in the middle of hilly terrain (Emyn Muil). In fact, if you look at a map of Middle Earth and a map of North Mavora Lake you will see that they are almost a match.
So when you visit, you get to see a super cool movie location that is beautiful enough to have been made into a park long before the movie came along AND Peter Jackson filmed it basically “as is” so the place feels just like it does in the movie AND it was used for a very important and impactful scene AND the scenes from the movie that happen geographically and chronologically near it are here too giving it a real sense of place (rather than just a nice view in a single direction).
Let me expand a bit on that last statement. On the eastern side of the lake, you can not only go to the exact spot on the shoreline where the boat launch was in the movie, but you can walk a few hundred feet up into the forest and see where orcs chased the Fellowship toward the water, the tree Frodo hid behind, and the tree stump that Merry and Pippen hid in. Most of the time as we shift from one scene to the next in these movies we are jumping all over the countryside in real life. Here is a rare opportunity to experience a place that has parity with its onscreen counterpart.
A word of caution. I thought with GPS coordinates from the Bodie book and a description (broken tree stump and big rooty tree nearby) that I’d fairly easily be able to find the hobbit hiding spots in the woods. I know from geocaching that once you get into forest your GPS is going to start going crazy so you won’t get a more accurate reading than about 100’. I looked for as many pictures and references online as I could before we left on our trip but I didn’t do the obvious thing and look for other traveler’s pictures of these locations. I really wish I had! Once we got up in the woods there were broken stumps seemingly everywhere. We got to a combo of trees that we thought matched the description but once I got home I saw just how wrong I’d gotten it. Dang! The Merry and Pippin tree is so distinctive, I’m sure we could have found it if I’d just looked at some pictures before we went!
Here is where some goob took the time to position his camera just so and set up a fill flash with an umbrella to balance out the ridiculously contrasty blotchy sunlight for a nice picture of THE WRONG TREE STUMP. 😦
The real log and tree look like this:
SOUTH MAVORA LAKE
After a blissful time at North Mavora Lake (except for some sand fly bites), we headed back the way we came and made a quick stop at South Mavora Lake. Almost as beautiful as its Northern brother, this smaller lake is also home to some LOTR scenes.
As the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien at the junction of the Silverlode and Anduin Rivers, it is here that Galadriel sees them off. In real life, there is a suspension bridge over the Mararoa River where it empties out of the lake. This is the filming location so you really can’t miss it and it offers a spectacular view from out on the river and lake rather than just the shoreline.
Next we backtracked to Queenstown, which was now awake and bustling with activity, but we just passed through it on our way to Glenorchy. The drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy has been touted as one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, in all of New Zealand. You can get guides from the iSite specifically for the drive on this well-maintained completely paved road. It does not disappoint except that it is a narrow road sandwiched between a mountainside and a lake providing very few parking opportunities to stop and ogle stuff. Just drive it and enjoy nature. Driving it on a motorcycle or in a convertible would be sensory overload in the best way. You will be joined by every other tourist in the area, but it is so nice, just do it anyway.
Glenorchy is a tiny place of only a couple hundred people and is possibly even more beautiful than Queenstown. It is from here that many of the adventurous excursions into the most spectacular wilderness start – horseback riding, jet boating, hiking, etc. For us, this place was just a pit stop because we had played around for so long at Mavora Lakes.
We knew we wouldn’t have time for guided tours into the wild places nor would we be able to hike so we had planned a driving trip that would take us as far into the breathtaking mountains, forests, and alpine valleys as we could go. The road we were on meanders and wanders until it literally dead ends at the Dart River at the base of a mountain. “Where the sidewalk ends.”
Leaving Glenorchy you immediately realize you are on “the road less traveled” as it turns to gravel the moment you hit the town’s border and you are probably the only car you see on the road. You wind your way away from Lake Wakatipu, the giant body of water that has been in sight the entire drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, and into a beech forest. There are some colossal trees here and relatively soon there is a little turn off for Diamond Lake. The dirt track takes you to a fence which marks the border of Arcadia Station (an old private retreat that was for sale at the time we visited – only $10 million according to the Remax website). It was on those grounds that Beorn’s home was constructed. We chose not to trespass and from looking at various pictures in the Bodie book and online, it is obvious that you can get very near the actual location legally. What a treat! The same sort of beauty as Mavora Lakes but with some open grassland to appreciate the giantness of the mountains as well. The addition of these crazy trees gives the whole area a feeling of being in a children’s fairy tale. It couldn’t have been more perfect of a location for the old bear man to appear.
This spot was easily in my top three places that I most wanted to visit and it did not disappoint. Since I had seen the behind the scenes videos showing the cast laughing about the fact that Beorn’s house had the most spectacular views and none were filmed for the movies, I had wanted to visit.
From there, we continued through the forest, forded a creek and punched out into the cattle grazing land of Paradise Valley proper. It is referred to as a town but as far as I can tell there is just the private residence of Arcadia Station and Paradise Trust, which is a kind of hotel. I didn’t see a gas station or any other man-made structures.
INTO THE WILD
It may seem impossible, but from here things get even more remote, and maybe even more picturesque. We had seen a handful of cars and two other couples on foot since we left Glenorchy, but now we were all alone. Had it not been for the fact that more LOTR sites were on this trail, we would have probably turned around at Paradise Valley. It was getting into the late afternoon, but I knew we could see a few more things and the way the road tucked in and out of the woods tantalized. What was just past that bend? Over that hill?
After hugging the side of an open field, we ducked into the woods for several minutes. If memory serves me correctly, it was here that we had our deepest stream fording, but nothing that our SUV didn’t easily handle. I knew from the trip prep that we would eventually pop out into a big round-ish open area in the middle of the forest called Dan’s Paddock. How beautiful! One of the horseback guides we would meet later told me that he thinks this area is the most beautiful in all of New Zealand. I don’t know if it was my very favorite place we visited but it was an enchanting place to be as the sun began to set. Picture a huge rambling field surrounded on all sides by forest with a complete ring of snowcapped mountains beyond that.
This is one of the places that was filmed to locate Isengard (exterior shots – not when they are walking the manicured grounds around the tower). If you think of the part where Gandalf is seen riding up to the tower, then you are on track. Of course the tower itself was added later by computer but it is easy to imagine it placed near the base of one of these mountains marking the southern end of the Misty Mountains. We didn’t see any moths to have a chat with.
Had we been able to continue north for another 15-30 minutes we would have reached the other side of Dan’s Paddock and the end of the road. There we would have seen where the edge of the Lothlorien forest had been filmed, but instead we turned back towards what would become our most adventurous moments of the trip. But that is a story for next time.