The Road to Isengard
“Daaaaaaa-daaaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaaa…da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa…daaa-daaa….” The song enters my head, unbidden, and forces itself all the way to the tip of my tongue. Only a tremendous force of will keeps me silent. I glance at Theresa, and she at me, the simultaneous repression evident on both our faces. We grin, then burst into in the grandiose theme music from The Lord of the Rings, managing a few bombastically off-key measures before dissolving into fits of hysterical laughter.
We’d been warned. Twisty, at times precarious, and almost impossibly scenic, the Queenstown-Glenorchy road carries extra baggage these days; a rather striking portion of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus was filmed in this area. Worse, this is a fact immediately obvious to even the most casual observer; every expansive vista and secluded hollow is eerily familiar. I say “worse” because the aforementioned impossible scenery scarcely needs another way to distract the unwary driver from the task at hand. The road describes a long series of irregular swivels, hugging the rocky shores of Lake Wakatipu, then rising far above the water into steep, tree-covered slopes before plunging lakeward once again. After a sharp northern turn, the trees fade to be replaced by the smooth, grassy slopes of the Richardson Mountains, rising up several thousand meters to meet a cold, grey sky.
“It’s distracting,” the locals advise. “You’ll want to pay attention to the road.” I’m learning how right they are. Especially with my wife sitting next to me, now quietly humming a different theme from the movie. I shrug, capitulate and join her.
The Great River
I’m not sure if it would be uncharitable to describe Glenorchy as a frontier-town exurb of Queenstown, but as it doesn’t appear that a resident can survive without frequent trips to the markets of the bigger “city,” I think the characterization is accurate. But what Glenorchy lacks in infrastructure – though it is not without businesses, though most seem oriented towards the feeding, watering, and bedding of tourists – it makes up for in sheer enticement. It is, in one sense, the end of the road (the paved road, at any rate) that brings one to Queenstown, and it perches tantalizingly close to the end of the Milford Sound access road. Close, that is, but not touching; it is emblematic of the modern New Zealand symbiosis between commerce and environmentalism that the twenty-mile bridge, road, and tunnel system that would make the Queenstown-Milford journey a quick hour and a half (rather than at least four) remains unbuilt, and is likely remain so. Any other country would probably do it in a heartbeat, but not this one. Convenience would be…well, convenient, but it would be a tragic shame to spoil the remote beauty of this location.
As for us, we’re in Glenorchy for another of those seamlessly integrated tourist experiences that New Zealand seems to have perfected, wherein multiple modes of transportation are woven into a tapestry of activities that accommodate all levels of interest, adventurousness and athleticism. After our long, emotionally overwhelming day at Doubtful Sound, we’re up for no more than a half day’s excitement, and so after a early (and chilly) lunch under grey and gloomy skies, we make our way through Glenorchy’s few but well-ordered streets to the headquarters of Dart River Safaris.
Elsewhere in the region, jet boating is an activity built around speed and implied danger. Boats on the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers spin and skid at shocking speed, clattering over rocks in four inch-deep water and narrowly careening under low-hanging branches and away from razor-sharp shoreline cliffs. Here on the Dart River, it’s less about adrenaline and more about sightseeing. To be sure, there are face-soaking spins and perilous near-misses of both rock and branch, but the epic hour-and-a-half ride gives both speedy and still opportunities to gaze at the incredible scenery. The river itself is barely up to the name: a few meandering rivulets of churning turquoise glacial runoff over rocks and sand – certainly not deep enough for anything except these shallow-hulled speedsters – but the valley it describes cuts a deep and dramatic angle between the Richardson and Humboldt Mountains, and high riverbanks show that, during the springtime runoff, the aquatic story must be a very different one.
It’s early autumn right now, however, and it’s cold. We bundle up, take our seats, and with a ear-piercing roar head due north, into the teeth of the wind. Our driver stops, periodically and usually after one of those trademark jet boat spins has soaked us all in icy droplets, to point out some key feature of the landscape. Half of them are purely geographic, but the other half are – inevitably – somehow related to The Lord of the Rings.
“See that hillside there? That’s the backdrop for Isengard.”
“Remember when the Ents attacked Orthanc? That’s the edge of Fangorn right there.”
“That really pointy mountain…the one with all the snow on it…that’s Zirak-Zigil, where Gandalf smoked the Balrog.”
I can’t help but feel momentarily sorry for those on the boat who have no idea what he’s talking about. That said, of all the phrases I never expected to hear outside the confines of a fetid, acne-infested basement game of Dungeons & Dragons, “smoked the Balrog” must be very near the top of the list. In my mind, I see the opening to The Two Towers, and – digital creatures aside – it is in fact exactly as he describes it. Years ago, pulling into the Grand Canal of Venice, I’d felt like I was in the midst of an elaborate and impossible movie set. Here, I have that feeling again…except that it is the entire country that is the set.
The music wells up once again. Thankfully, no one else can hear me humming over the roar of the boat’s engines.
The Old Forest
We continue our race upriver, the snow-draped peaks of the eastern and western ranges looming ever closer, occasionally stopping for a brief and slow-paced detour into some crystalline-emerald pool away from the bubbling froth of the river, to simply enjoy the (relative) silence. Near the end of the trip, however, disaster strikes…or rather, it strikes our companion boat, which gets stuck on a midstream rock. Their driver jumps into the frigid waters in attempt to dislodge the vessel. No luck. Some negotiation ensues, and soon several passengers have joined him in an attempt to move the boat, which eventually succeeds. I wonder what level of compensation would be required to get me into that water, and fervently pray that I won’t have to find out. I do ask our driver what happens in situations like this.
(Continued here, with an extensive photo essay from the Dart River…)