Blessed to be a witness

Sunday, 4th September

Welcome to Middle Earth

Peter Jackson is a Kiwi, so one might accuse him of bias in choosing New Zealand to make Lord of the Rings. Now we're here though, I think that anyone who didn't use New Zealand for the backdrop would need their head examined. I haven't caught my breath like this, and so often, since the Himalayas.

After a few days in the Little Britain of Christchurch, we rented a car. A crappy Totota Corolla with more than 1,000 miles on the clock. There's a $2,500 damage excess on the car in the event of an accident. However, I was informed, if the accident involves another vehicle, the excess is only $1,500. "So if I'm crashing, I should aim for someone else to save myself a grand?" I asked the girl behind the counter. She wasn't amused. It's filthy inside, which is better than normal as we don't have to get paranoid when returning it like I usually do. It's also an automatic, something which leads me to very lazy driving habits - it's not really driving in my opinion, just pointing the car in the right direction and pressing 'go'. Good in cities, but not the open road in hilly country, which is where we were heading.

We set off south and the journey was fairly uneventful for the first 200 kilometres. In fact there was one stretch of road that was so straight that I didn't have to move the steering wheel once for about twenty minutes. The only diversion was Home Of The World's Biggest Cookie, which I screeched to a halt to investigate. I thought I'd be able to have my photo taken next to it, perhaps with my arm round it or something, but it was long eaten and photos in the shop indicate that it was the size of a football pitch.

Green European style farmland stretched either side of the road, with low cloud cover and drizzle obscuring everything beyond a few kilometres distance. It was when we left the main road and headed inland that things changed. As we started to ascend into hills, and crossed the Burkes Pass, I got the best birthday present I could wish for: a view of Middle Earth. My God, what an incredible sight. We left the clouds behind dramatically, and a blazing white sun shone on sawtoothed mountains ringing a vast green plain, wreathed with clouds, in that kind of manner that no photograph can do justice to. For the next day's driving, "bloody hell!" became a catchphrase, as yet another mindbending vista appeared round each corner.

I have to confess to not having been as excited about the Lord of the Rings movies as a lot of other people. I watched them all, but found them really rather overlong - as was the trilogy, which I gave up reading halfway through the second book out of boredom (sacrilege!). However, now we're here I must say I am totally entranced by the scenery and its role in the films, and have even browsed a couple of Lord of the Rings filming location books. I might even subject myself to watching them again just to see these astonishing landscapes in an epic setting.

A few more kilometres' drive brought us to Lake Tekapo, a glacial lake high on the plateau, ringed with snow-capped peaks. The lake is full of a suspension of 'glacial flour', fine-ground rocks that make the lake bright turquoise, just like Yamdrok-tso. It was amazingly Tibetan, and that night, as we watched the All Blacks defeat the Wallabies, a woman we got talking to said that several Tibetan lamas made pilgrimages there, and it seems they agree with my comparison.

The next day we drove through increasingly astonishing scenery, and a lake that was even bluer than the first one - I would say that it is quite possibly bluer than the Blue Stone of Galveston. It was so surreal that it was as though the Creator had subcontracted this part of the world's design to an idiot savant with a box of primary coloured crayons - and after a while into the tourist activity centre of Queenstown. A beautiful little place on the shore of a huge lake - not blue this time - ringed with astonishing jagged snow-capped peaks with a silly name. I am having a hard time remembering it - I keep on wanting to call them D'Unbelievables (they're actually called The Incredibles. I think. Or is it The Remarkables? Yes, that's it.) Though I've never done it before, I am seriously tempted to do a beginner's skiing lesson. With my clumsiness in mind, I am starting to be relieved that we have an automatic, as if needs be I can drive it with only one leg.


To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at