Below the road south of Wanaka lie the Fords of Bruinen, known to New Zealanders as Arrowtown, in South Island. Where the Nine Black Riders in pursuit of Frodo Baggins were repelled by the power of Rivendell, I picked up a traffic ticket for failing to keep to the left of the road: a $150 NZ fine.

Return to Middle-Earth (By Way of Hollywood)

No, Air New Zealand did not pay me to echo their marketing blitz, which rides upon the resounding triumph of Peter Jackson's seven-year, three-part cinematic adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

It is I who gladly gave the Kiwi national carrier my hard-earned money to board one of their jumbo jets, gleefully sporting the painted likenesses of Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom on their fuselages.

They'll probably still be at it long after the second release of LOTR: The Return of the King on DVD. After all, Tunisia has been begging -- successfully -- for tourists ever since its share of the majestic Sahara has appeared in Star Wars and The English Patient. In 1998, I was absolutely thrilled to walk for the first time in the Cuillins Hills at the isle of Skye in Scotland -- knowing this was the backdrop for another fantasy flick I relished in my youth, Dragonslayer.

Harcourt Park near Wellington: it was here that Gandalf the Grey sought the counsel of Saruman the White at the tower of Orthanc in Isengard. On the road next to Harcourt Park, automated cameras mounted atop intersection traffic lights took pictures of me exceeding the speed limit TWICE in a residential zone. The two tickets, amounting to $250 NZ, followed me all the way back home, where I paid the equivalent in US dollars.

Petra, the ancient Nabataean city carved straight into "the canyon of the crescent moon," steadily lured those enthralled by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Jordan, until the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared up three years ago. That film also did well for Venice, Italy (rat-infested, petroleum-laced sewers-cum-catacombs notwithstanding), and even Utah's Arches National Park in its opening sequence: The manic chase after River Phoenix was worthy of the surreal sandstone landscape that inspired Chuck Jones' Road Runner cartoons. Indy's director, Steven Spielberg, earlier made an universal icon out of the Devil's Tower in Wyoming with his Close Encounters of the Third Kind. To this day, the 1976 sci-fi classic is still shown there annually. 

Speaking of Utah, I can still get directions at Horseshoe Canyon State Park to reach the exact spot that Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis drove their Pontiac GTO convertible off the cliff in Thelma and Louise.

Tourist spots will go out of their way to associate themselves with popular cinema, even with instances that deservedly fade from our collective memory. Must my every visit to the sublime Jungfrau region of Switzerland be reminded of the fact that On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the most forgettable of all James Bond movies, was filmed at the Piz Gloria rotating restaurant atop Schilthorn?

Yes, Rivendell is that way, or at least it was. Just inside the woods here at Kaitoke Regional Park, 40km northeast of Wellington, the set for Elrond's House of Imradris was built. There Frodo rested after being grievously wounded by a Nazgl's blade at Weathertop.

Living near Los Angeles, it is certainly easy to become jaded by all the sights that have left their indelible impressions on the silver screen: the Hollywood Sign, Venice Beach, Sunset Boulevard. Aside from remembering what Richard Dreyfuss was doing with a pile of mashed potatoes to the dismay of Teri Garr in Close Encounters when I was actually there ten years ago (he was, of course, trying to sculpt the image of the Devils Tower that the aliens had burnt into his brain), I did not give much thought to be at the other side of where the movie camera has been. I did contemplate the plight of Elaine, Julia Lewis-Dreyfuss' character in Seinfeld, when she was ordered by her boss to fly to Tunisia for being the only sophisticated New Yorker who professed a dislike for The English Patient.

The Waiau River is seen here from the Rainbow Reach swing bridge, upon completing the 60-km walk of the Kepler Track in Fjordland National Park of South Island. The Waiau is one of many rivers that appeared as the great Anduin in The Fellowship of the Ring. The Nine Companions paddled here, as they took leave of Lady Galadriel from her enchanted forest of Lothlorien.

Then I saw Holly Hunter in The Piano, and Lucy Lawless in Xena: Warrior Princess. Ah, New Zealand: what a pretty place to make movies and TV shows, I said to myself. It became quite an understatement when I opened my eyes to LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring.

I am due to return to Queenstown, NZ this November, in time for austral summer in the South Island.

-- CW, 5 March 2004

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