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Frodo should have taken a jet boat

by Thor Iverson

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 – 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 to 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.

[dock in Glenorchy]

The Glenorchy dock’s office
[grass house & mountains]

The roof, the roof…
[grass roofed house]

People in grass houses
shouldn’t throw stones
[palms in Glenorchy]

Strange, isn’t it?

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.”


Darting towards glaciers
[jet boat]

[riverside tree]

A sudden rush of erosion
[snow-covered mountain]

Raise your peaks, raise your peaks if you’re sure
[Dart River]

River, oh river, river running…not so deep
[pointy mountain]

This side up

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.

“The driver’s gotta buy everyone else in the company a case of beer.”

Quite the punishment.

We reach the terminus of our water voyage, and hop ashore to be replaced by a small crowd of people who have done our trip in reverse order. Among them are several familiar faces from yesterday’s Doubtful Sound cruise: Indian, and older.

I wonder how much they’ll care about Zirak-Zigil.

We shed our waterproof gear, trading with those about to board the jet boat, and meet an employee of the Department of Conservation for the balance of our journey. He’s an extremely high-pitched and melancholy guide (from Australia, no less) who is, to be frank, more than a little depressing in his environmental doomsaying. But even he can’t dim the experience that follows.

[Dart River]

Running out of river
[turquoise water]

Color not enhanced


I think Haldir might be around here somewhere

Just a few steps from the river, we are immediately transported…elsewhere. Mossy trees of incredible girth and soft, nearly soundless carpets of fallen leaves rest in timeless, mist-shrouded stillness. This – Tolkien buffs are not long neglected here – is one of the two forests used for the exteriors of Lothlórien, and even without the fictional connection the feeling of otherworldliness is extreme. Part of that, as our morose guide explains, is the utter dearth of birdsong, and while it’s true that the silence is part of the place’s mysterious feeling, there’s something else. It’s not watchfulness – the forest isn’t “alive” in any special sense – but instead the gentle rest of ancient decay. These woods are asleep. At out guide’s urging, we munch on a proffered leaf that tastes of black peppercorns, a culinary rediscovery of an old Maori “seasoning” that adds to the sensory density of the place.

And what is this arboreal fantasyscape, one might ask? On the map, it’s called Paradise. A grandiose claim, to be sure, but somehow it doesn’t seem inappropriate.

The Window on the West

Emerging into bright sunlight, we find ourselves in the midst of a recreated Maori campsite. A small robin lands on a tent pole, stares, flutters closer, stares some more, then approaches within a foot of our faces. It’s silent but curious, and – like so many birds on Ulva Island – completely devoid of fear. This, too, is a bit disconcerting, for it happens as our guide is discussing matters of Maori spirituality. The bird cocks its tiny grey head, continuing to stare at us. I feel like it’s trying to tell us something. More disturbingly, I feel like I’m hearing the message.

Just across a fence, cattle lazily graze a grassy ridge. Our guide sees our stares, and notes – one has to see it coming – that the site, minus the cattle, was used in…

I stop him mid-sentence. “It’s the scene from Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf is riding to Minas Tirith. He crests a little slope, and there it is.”

Yes, I have officially geeked out. And somehow, I don’t think that’s the message that the robin – now departed – was trying to tell me. Music once more swells behind my internal monologue, and I begin to wonder if I’m going crazy. Was it the leaf I ate?

[large tree]

[ridge with cows]

The “riding to Gondor” ridge (+ bonus cows)
[leaving Paradise]

Cast out of Paradise

Robin the cradle

The Passage of the Marshes

We board a small coach, which bounces and shakes along the rough gravel road from Paradise to Glenorchy. White-crowned Paradise ducks paddle around low marshes that border the river, but otherwise the view is completely captured by mountain and sky. For a while, the parade of media associations turns away from Tolkien to advertising, as our guide recites a litany of companies who’ve filmed commercials in this area: Hyundai, Subaru, Dodge, Coors, and on and on…it seems that Colorado is not sufficiently Colorado-esque for many companies who nevertheless want that look in their backdrop, and that this particular road often serves as a substitute for that Rocky Mountain sort of ambiance.


The Isengard backdrop
[mountains from Glenorchy]

Reflecting on clouds
[black swans]

Black swans (no merlot)
[moss-covered bush]

[Thor & path]

Into the west
[Theresa & reflections]

The mirror of Galadriel
[Glenorchy river]

Swan-y river
[reflections at Glenorchy]


Back in Glenorchy, we’re still full of energy, and so pay a visit to the Department of Conservation Visitor’s Center for some advice on short local hikes. We find one which takes us through the town’s streets (and past a curious house with a grass roof; the mind is inevitably drawn to Hobbiton) and out into a lagoon fed by the Dart River. Here, again, the unbelievable amount of track maintenance done by the New Zealand government really shows; much of the walk is over the lagoon, on carefully-aligned boardwalks covered with slip-resistant wire mesh. Black swans and ducks paddle around the lagoon’s peaceful waters, while the breathtaking scenery provides the only real reason one could possibly lose the path and fall into the water. A bench is thoughtfully provided mid-walk, with one of the most dramatic views either of us have ever seen.

At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Back in town, we stop at the Glenorchy Hotel for a drink. Theresa has yet another in an endless series of excellent flat whites, while I cool down with a Tui – this time from cask, which adds a yeasty complexity to the otherwise tasty beer – and continue to admire the dramatic views in all directions.

[Glenorchy-Queenstown road]

The road goes ever on and on
[Theresa & Wakatipu]

Wood, woman, Wakatipu
[Thor, Wakatipu & palms]

Palms over Wakatipu
[reflection on Wakatipu]

Pause & reflect
[Amon Hen]

Amon Hen
[Kelvin Heights sunset]

“Well, I’m back”

The drive back to Queenstown is no less striking than its reverse, and since we now have the time to spare, we make dozens of stops along the way. More scenes from Middle Earth appear – Amon Hen among them – and it’s almost jarring to re-enter the busy commercial streets of Queenstown. Back home, dinner is a clearing out of leftovers, both culinary and vinous.

Peacock Ridge 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec/Merlot/Cabernet Franc (Waiheke Island) – More generous than the night before, showing a Bordeaux-like nose of leather, cedar, blackberry and cassis with a gorgeous aromatic presence. There’s still just a touch of chocolate and coffee on the palate, and it is perhaps a bit underfruited vs. the structure (which is impressive), but overall it’s unquestionably a firm, masculine and largely balanced wine with a great deal of potential. Look for great things from this winery in the future.

In search of a little extra post-prandial sustenance, I open a bottle secured a while back, in the first heady days of our vacation:

Passage Rock 2004 “Finé” (Waiheke Island) – A semi-dessert wine made from raisined cabernet sauvignon grapes. Like pinot noir/pinotage blends, I don’t foresee this as the next big wine trend, either. Hugely volatile (of course; it seem inevitable with sweet reds), with the baked red/black fruit and chocolate profile of warm-weather cabernets from pretty much everywhere. Aromatically (minus the VA) I might have pegged it as Chilean, or as some anonymous Southeastern Australian megacorp red, but of course the palate gives it away as something different almost instantly…there, it tastes more like a Central Coast pinot noir. No, I’m not really kidding; it’s only perfunctorily sweet, and reminds me a little of the Kosta Browne lineup. Thumbs up for uniqueness, I guess, but I’m sure there are better uses for cabernet grapes.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.