We drove directly to Twizel the next morning, after a well deserved long lie and hearty breakfast. The night before I had found a Lord of the Rings tour in Twizel, to be honest it looked horrible, but it mentioned replica swords so I booked it for Aaron. This was our last day on the road where we could stop and do stuff, I wanted him to have a final memory. I just hoped it wasn’t as bad as I was dreading. I reserved a place online for the full 2 hour experience at noon, however I received a call from the tour operator in the morning saying that her son was ill and she couldn’t do the tour today. We certainly couldn’t stay another night in Twizel as the camper was due back tomorrow at 3pm, so we negotiated. We would do the 1 hour tour at 2pm today and she would refund me with the difference. At least it was something and she seemed happy to do so. I kept it a secret from Aaron as we drove to Twizel.
The road was straight without many bends, so we tore along in cruise mode for the first time in about a week. To our left, in the distance, lay the “other side” of the Southern Alps and on the right were gentle undulating hills covered in golden grass, which the low sun made shine. This was Rohan, it could be no other place, perfect for horses and only the sporadic smattering of trees.
As we drove into Twizel at around 11am, we still had a few hours to kill before the tour so we drove another 50k North to the Edmund Hillary Mountaineering Museum at the base of Mount Cook. The road to the mountain was stunning, made even more dramatic by the weather, thunder clouds rolled in and the heavens opened. Occasionally, I could make out high peaks farther down the valley road, but they were instantly swallowed up again. A grey lake lay to our right, as we wove around its edge, it would momentarily sparkle as the sun battled with the nimbus army high above. I was used to these flashes of rock and water in Scotland and didn’t become down hearted by not seeing much. They were tantalising, like the flash of a garter laced leg.
We reached the museum and visitors centre during a particularly heavy torrent of falling water, so we raced inside for cover, getting instantly soaked. Compared to Scottish rain, this was more like a warm shower, so we didn’t mind that much.
Inside we wandered around the various exhibits, journeying through the history of mountaineering and climbing New Zealand’s biggest mountain. Hillary had come here to train before his successful Everest summit bid in the 50’s. It was a really interesting (for me anyway) exhibition, but suffered as many of these mountain museums do with a lack of content. Once you have covered the basic, geological, weather, flora, fauna and human interference aspects of the mountains, there is little else. Very few species inhabit mountain terrains, only a handful of specialists, NZ mountaineering is relatively new compared to Europe and the geology isn’t much different to most other mountains. The Hillary angle was played out to it fullest and they managed to pad it all out. The centre itself was perhaps the most impressive aspect of the experience. It was Mauri-esque in its interior design and architecturally designed to make the most of the views, however today was not the best to test that.
While I watched a very hard hitting documentary on the regions mountain rescue team, Aaron found a kids area and set about completing a jigsaw. We then bought a couple of trinkets from the shop and returned to the van. As we left the wide plain, where several mountains converged to meet, the sun won through, cast aside the defeated clouds and gave us a glimpse of Mount Cook. We had seen it from Franz Josef the other day and instantly recognised the majestic shape. With few exceptions, nearly all mountains are impressive if they are dressed in the correct light and Cook was no exception. It was a proper pointy mountain, black and white granite and snow. The clouds wisped and caressed it’s flanks, paying it service as the master.
The lake, now on our left, went from silvery grey to an impossible CGI azure. as we travelled along the transformation completed and it really did succeed in taking your breath, even Aaron commented on it. I stopped to take some pictures, after a downfall, when the sun wins, the clouds act erratically as they try to flee. They break up and scatter, only to run into each other in confusion, while the sun continues to rip them apart. This is the best time for photographs, as the contrasts are the most dynamic. The azure lake gave the composition an ethereal quality, it didn’t look real, more like an over enthusiastic Photoshop job.
We got back to Twizel and met up with the tour guide eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing. She was a big bubbly sort who obviously believes in faeries and enjoys their company on a regular basis. I think she went by the name of Heidi, but her enthusiasm swept her name away to a land far, far away. This was going to be good for kids I thought.
We jumped into her mini-bus and as we bounced and bobbed along, the vehicle was obviously being fuelled solely using Heidi power, she told us all about Twizel and it’s connection to the trilogy. It had been the location where they filmed Osgiliath and Pelennor fields and several other important scenes. The 4000 or so company had camped in the town for 72 days, the longest shoot on the entire project and had utilised most of the town and a local army barracks to man the Orc army. We drove into a field, that was chosen for its lack of modern protrusions and along the “famed” movie track, left by the production on the farmers request. This was unusual as Jackson demands that the areas he uses be returned exactly as they left them, without exception. Hobbiton obviously being a massive exception.
In the back of her bus, Heidi had DVD screens and showed how the landscape we were sitting in was used in the films. She would pause the footage and then point out the backgrounds outside our windows. The most obvious being the bit where grandad rides to Osgiliath, across the field we were sitting in and his staff lights up, as he speeds forward. She also provided poorly printed sheets that showed how the various backgrounds were composited at a Weta Digital, explaining the basics of digital compositing. Some of her facts were wrong, but I bit my lip, Aaron seemed enthralled by it all though. While I was silently, correcting her lack of technical coherence in my head, Aaron was marching across the fields of Pellenor, against the Witch King of Angmar and his vast army. He was striding forward, wearing the armour of Gondor, rallying his men to stand up against the fearsome fell beasts, shields and spears shining in the sun. He was starting to run, drawing his sword as he did, giving out a battle cry and imagining the great tales of his deeds that he would tell his mate Alan when he got back home.
He was also telling Hiedi all about the subtle plot nuances in the particular scenes she was pointing out. She seemed impressed by his knowledge, as was I. He had even brought the one ring to show her… We jumped out of her minibus and she opened her boot to an assortment of weapons and costumes, Aaron’s eyes went as big as Gollum’s. At first he seemed resistant to the costumes, but after we planted a Gondorian steel helmet on his bonce, he was soon trying on everything, striking poses and taking on the characters. He even got me to take part. The highlight seemed to be the Witch Kings sword though, he donned the mask and cloak (ridiculously big on him) and wielded the massive sword in a autumn collection of catalogue poses. Finally, he popped his wee head into the massive Gollum mask and produced the one ring from his pocket, his overall sincerity and seriousness made the whole escape even more comical, but I played along as this was his hour.
On the way back Heidi asked him if he could keep a secret and announced she was going to be in the Hobbit. Aaron’s jaw dropped once he realised that he was in the presence of a “real” hobbit. I could definitely see her as one. We left Heidi the Hobbit and went into Twizel to find some pizza, we happened to find Shawty’s Cafe and the best pizza’s in the Southern hemisphere. Aaron had an amazing Hawaiian while I had one topped with lamb and yoghurt. Stuffed, we drove to a nearby holiday park and rented out The Dark Knight for our evenings entertainment. It was dark early, being Autumn and not much to do, so I cracked open a bottle of wine and Aaron cracked open a carton of orange and mango juice and settled down to our last night in the camper. I was going to miss The Great White Shark and all it’s trappings.
Aaron mentioned that today had been the second best bit about the whole trip, Hobbiton was still his favourite.