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The International Writers Magazine: New Zealand

(This article was first published in 2002)

No Vacancies In Middle Earth
Tim Pile
It’s never wise to leave travel arrangements to the last minute. Waitlists, steep price hikes and airlines with dubious safety records await those unable to get organised a few months in advance. To make matters worse, I’d chosen a country recently used as the location for an Oscar nominated film. My plans were definitely going to be in the hands of the gods… or wizards.

Arthur's Pass NZ

New Zealand is known by Kiwis as Godzone and by Maoris as Aotearoa, Land Of The Long White Cloud. At present this quiet, remote nation is undergoing a phenomenon best described as Braveheart Syndrome. It happens like this: locations are mapped out; a film is imaginatively shot, and the resulting publicity does more for the country’s tourist industry than any number of TV commercials or posters ever could. The locals then wait for the tourist hordes to descend.

It happened in Scotland, in the aforementioned epic; Thailand was inundated with young wanderers searching for The Beach. Even the Kiwis still experience a whiff of interest as a result of The Piano. Lord of The Rings however, has propelled this land of towering peaks, crystal streams and ferny forests into a must see destination.

I was oblivious to all the commotion as I rang around travel agencies pleading for a last minute opening. Eventually I found myself a seat to Auckland. My travelling companions scavenged a little longer, paid through the nose too, but at least we were on our way.

We first sensed the impact of Hobbit Mania as we attempted to hire a car for some North Island touring. Nothing was available for at least ten days. Staff at the big international companies shook their heads - even Rent a Dent hadn’t a solitary vehicle to offer. ‘Blame Lord of the Rings mate’ came an apology that was to become a familiar refrain. We weren’t too enamoured with the idea of using public transport, and although New Zealand is renowned for effortless hitchhiking, we were too tired, too old, and too impatient. Making a snap decision, we flew to Christchurch on the South Island. What could be more pleasant? What could go wrong?  Christchurch, as it happened was full. Not busy. Full.

‘I had sex yisterday’ volunteered a cheerful hotelier in response to our doomed attempt at finding somewhere to stay. An awkward moment’s silence followed by some rapid vowel decoding informed us that there had been half a dozen rooms available as recently as 24 hours ago.  With rain slanting down and a bracing southerly wind reminding us that the South Pole was only down the road we continued our search. Row upon row of no vacancies signs took me back to childhood holidays in English resorts like Brighton and Blackpool. A bench at the railway station appeared to be our best option. Fortunately we were saved by a resourceful innkeeper, some hasty phone calls and the rumour of a cancellation that had us scurrying across town to claim the last couple of rooms in Christchurch. Miraculous. Even Gandulf himself would have been impressed.

Tracking down a rental car in New Zealand was still proving about as likely as finding a sober Kiwi at the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. Still, if you’re stuck, there are worse places to be for a few days. Christchurch is billed as more English than England. The River Avon meanders through the centre; Cathedral Square forms the focal point and if you don’t meet many locals, it’s probably because they’re at home watching Coronation Street. Mind you, people are friendly, it’s safe to walk around at night and prices are so reasonable that perhaps it isn’t too similar to the old country after all.

New Zealand’s clean and green reputation is matched by its laid back feel and friendly attitude to tourists. Service is slower, pleasantly so. When you do reach the front of the queue you find yourself discussing the weather, or how sad it was to see Princess Margaret go. Bear in mind that it can take up to 48 hours to feel entirely comfortable with this change of pace. Ring

Inevitably our attempt to spend the evening watching the movie of the moment at the local cinema was foiled. We blamed the Valentine’s Day crowds and settled for a late showing. Three hours, lots of elves, and some spectacular scenery later we felt the time had come to get out and discover Middle Earth for ourselves.

Director Peter Jackson is a Kiwi, and he knew better than anyone that his homeland wasn’t short of the kind of fairy tale landscapes Tolkien had conjured up in his epic fantasy novel. From Hobbiton, set around Waikato, on the North Island down to Queenstown (Lothlorien) and the Milford Sound (Fangorn Forest) on the South, a tourist loop has unwittingly been created that will keep even the most avid ‘Ringer’ happy for a couple of weeks.

Beggars can’t be choosers and lacking a car we settled for a journey across the spine of the South Island aboard the popular Tranz Alpine train. Unsurprisingly it was more popular than we had predicted so we ended up foraging around for a bus instead. We were down to final options when we found a mini bus that could get us to Arthur’s Pass - an other worldly valley of snow capped mountains, boulder strewn rivers and waterfalls.

We hiked among the soaring mountains, fully expecting to bump into Frodo Baggins and his band of Hobbits. The air was exhilarating, the streams clear enough to drink from, and most importantly, after two weeks of trying, we had finally left the crowds behind.
For our next trip we intend to head somewhere a little less popular with film buffs. No Mans Land looks set to win the Best Foreign Film category at this year’s Oscars. Perfect. No need to book too far in advance. It was made in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
© Tim Pile 2002
timpile at emailcom

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