We arrived in New Zealand not long after the world premiere showing of “The Hobbit” in Wellington’s Embassy Theatre.
Like the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit (which will also be stretched into a trilogy of 3-hour-long films….yikes!) was filmed in New Zealand. Peter Jackson’s films have helped make New Zealand the new tourist destination, especially for nature buffs. I have to admit that the scenery we saw in Lord of the Rings is one of the things that brought us to these islands. When we arrived at Wellington’s airport, it was apparent that New Zealand has fully embraced the films. Huge sculptures of characters from The Hobbit populate the Wellington airport.
Wellington’s most famous museum, Te Papa, displays gargantuan sculptures of the three trolls, who, because of their impeccable culinary knowledge of the proper herbs to use in cooking dwarves over a spit, turned out to be Lois’ favorite characters from The Hobbit. I liked them too, but only because I thought the dwarves deserved to be eaten.
Signs throughout Wellington, including one in the “backpacker style” hotel/house of ill repute where we stayed our first night, proclaim: “Welcome to the middle of Middle Earth.” Since Wellington is at the south end of New Zealand’s North Island, it’s as close as one gets to the middle of New Zealand. On our map of New Zealand, we found not only the names of cities, highways, and national parks, but also the locations where various scenes in the Lord of the Rings had been filmed. We had arranged a home-exchange in a house about an hour north of Wellington in a beach town named Otaki, which can only be understood by Kiwis (i.e. New Zealanders) when pronounced “Oh Tacky.”
Not far outside of Otaki lies the Otaki River Gorge where, as indicated on our map, one could find the location of a scene featuring the outskirts of the Shire. Apparently there are “Lord of the Rings/Hobbit” locale tours of New Zealand for the most serious Tolkien geeks (and I use this term with the utmost respect). Since I’m now retired I was thinking of returning to New Zealand at some point to make a few extra bucks by setting up a company called “Geek Tramps and Tracks.” If you think this would be a job pimping for nerd call girls on freight cars, you obviously aren’t familiar with Kiwi lingo. “Tramp” is Kiwi for hiking/backpacking, and “track” means trail or footpath…..sorry to mislead or cause any undue excitement or interest.
One of the more surprising realizations that we have had in New Zealand is how similar Middle Earth is to Northern California, our home….if indeed we have such a thing at the moment.
Actually there’s a bit of Ireland in New Zealand as well, given the brilliant green hillsides, the dragons, and the little halflings with furry feet and pointy ears…. not to mention the dead guys wielding swords.
Still, there are differences. One does not find these hues in the coastal waters of Northern California and Ireland.
And although this river valley may have the general look of a river valley in Northern California,
the proliferation of tree ferns was a dead give away that we’re not home yet.
The forests may look familiar, but you just don’t find tree species with names like rimu, pukatea, kahikatea, and rewarewa in Ireland or California.
Speaking of Kiwi lingo, many of the towns in New Zealand have Maori names — with which I’m having extreme difficulty. In the greater Wellington area, we encountered towns with names like Paekakariki, Waikanae, Paraparaumu, and Wanganui. The Kiwis were of little help here; we heard them pronounce Waikanae in three different ways, and they referred to Paraparaumu simply as Parapram. The Maoris were originally from Polynesia, and had begun settling the islands of New Zealand in the 13th Century….hence, the Polynesian names. Nonetheless, New Zealand is as far south of the equator as the southern border of Oregon is north of the equator. For me, having towns this far from the tropics with Polynesian names was like seeing Oregonian loggers wearing flowered sarongs with Tahitian Gardenias in their hair.
While on the North Island, like Bilbo Baggins, we decided to have “an adventure.” This consisted of a long drive to the Wanganui River, an evening’s camp-out, and a jetboat trip upriver, followed by a canoe trip downstream. The Wanganui River gorge had been described as one of the most beautiful places on the North Island. The drive up the canyon was breathtaking.
Although the idea of racing wildly upstream and disturbing the tranquility of pristine riparian habitat offended a number of my more naturalistic sensibilities, I got over it. It was a blast.
Our driver, Thomas, is Maori and had been raised in the Wanganui River canyon where his family had farmed for generations. As we slalomed upriver at breakneck speeds, he would occasionally bring the jetboat to a stop and treat us to some natural history, Maori lore, or family stories. He also would give us encouragement about canoeing the rapids. “Thees one heah we call Foofty-Foofty….cause you only got a foofty perceent chance of comin’ through the rapid uproight…..No worries, though…you can always chicken aout, and drag the canoe through that shalla section ovah theah….. If ya do troy ta run it…. well…. see that wayve theah with all the backwarsh? Just mayke suah ta hit it stright and you’ll be foine. No worries.”
The rapid was only a Class Two rapid, and I’d guided whitewater rafts on Class Four rivers. There was no way Lois and I were going to drag the freakin’ canoe through the shallows in order to avoid running “Fifty-fifty.”
The jetboat took us as far upstream as the trailhead leading up a 2-mile pathway to the Bridge to Nowhere.
The Bridge to Nowhere had been constructed in 1935 as part of a depression era program to encourage farming in the Wanganui River Valley. The main transportation in the valley had consisted of river boats (including steamboats), and there had been plans to construct several roads connecting these farming communities to the river transportation network. The bridge had been built in anticipation of the future construction of these roads.
It then became clear that the area was not especially suitable for farming, and the farmers began abandoning their farms, one by one. By 1942 only three farms remained. The government abandoned its plan to construct roads into the area, and the environment reverted back to rainforest. Only the bridge remained, and still stands as a monument to poor planning. We ate lunch on the bridge as Thomas filled us in on its history and pointed out the eels swirling in the currents of the Mangapurua Stream that flowed 125 feet below the bridge upon which we were standing, the bridge now known as the Bridge to Nowhere.
The jetboat dropped us off 10 miles upstream from our starting point on the Wanganui River. We were looking forward to the canoe trip, which would enable us to get a closer look at the canyon and take some photos, a few of which appear below.
If you do canoeing, kayaking or rafting, you’ll know that the fact that we were able to take the above photos from the canoe is an indication of the level of confidence we had that we would not experience any mishaps that might immerse our cameras. For the most part, the Wanganui River was rapid free. We paddled through miles of flatwater, and encountered only a riffle or two before we came upon Fifty-fifty. By then, Lois and I knew that it would be no problem for us to hit the wave straight. No worries. The canoe slipped into the tongue of the rapid perfectly, and Lois and I were a well-oiled machine, hitting the wave perfectly straight…..at which point I heard a shriek from Lois as the front of the canoe (Lois included) disappeared under the wave. Knowing that we had followed Thomas’ instructions to the letter, I had no doubt that the front of the canoe would re-emerge uneventfully from the waters. It emerged, but not uneventfully. Even though we’d hit the wave perfectly straight, the amount of water that had found its way into our canoe was beyond the capacity of this particular canoe to manage, and it began sloshing left and right until the canoe rather effortlessly capsized. I was astonished. After 15 minutes wrestling the canoe onto a midstream rock and dumping out the contents, we settled our moistened and bedraggled behinds back into the canoe and began assessing the damage. Two cameras had experienced full immersion, and my prescription sunglasses were nowhere to be seen. Lois described it as the price we paid for hubris. I think from now on I’m sticking with white-water rafting.
Modern fashion technology is the only reason I was able to post the above photos of the Wanganui River. I had never had good fortune with cameras while traveling, but thanks to an hour under Lois’ blow-dryer, my camera (and all the photos on it) survived. Lois’ camera survived as well. Like Bilbo, we returned to our village bruised, but just a little wiser….and humbler.