There and Back Again: A Fan’s Guide to the Real Middle Earth: The Dart Stables Paradise Tour
The adventure continued as I left the heart of New Zealand’s film industry in Wellington and travelled into the beautiful South Island, arriving eventually in Queenstown. A haven for adrenaline junkies, it not only boasts terrifying bungee jumps and a huge number of extreme sports to try, but has the stunning scenery that dominates the backdrop of most of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. The dramatic landscape is the home of the real Misty Mountains, as well as the location for places such as Saruman’s fortress of Isengard and the lands of Rohan. It’s not difficult to see why this area was particularly favoured, even without the dramatic shots the landscape exhibits itself in all its finery. It was in Queenstown that I experienced my final two Lord of the Rings tours and deciding that first I should embrace an adrenaline-filled trip appropriate to the city, I settled on a horse-riding tour at Dart Stables to the famed film set of Paradise.
Dart Stables is a place well-used to catering for tourists, and as such has capitalised on the area’s more recent renown by titling each of the five different rides offered with Lord of the Rings themed names. Only one, called ‘The Hobbits’ Hack’, is specifically centred around the movies though, and at a walking pace was suitable for everyone, even if you’d never been on a horse before. The others are a little faster paced, and whilst much of the backdrop in the rides will be familiar to a fan as the Misty Mountains of the films, they aren’t really what I would term ‘fan tours’. The special film tour is great fun on its own, however, and boasted some impressive and exclusive access to locations.
Our small group was first driven out from the stables to their base by the area called Paradise, where our horses and guides were waiting. As someone who has grown up with a passion for horse riding, it was straightforward to tell that these horses were chosen specifically for this particular ride. Many were a little older and more sedate, making them both suitable for a slow ride and sympathetic to beginner riders. They were also generally a lot larger than the other horses at the stables, although that may just have been a coincidence. Still, despite my horse’s unflappable demeanour, its size meant that I felt as if I was perched on a battle horse -- rather appropriate to the tour I thought! It was handy on a filming location tour not to be too distracted by your mount as well. Although I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not totally comfortable. I managed easily to get some decent pictures on my camera whilst on horseback, which is something that isn’t always achievable when you’re focusing on staying in control of a 400 kilo animal! This was to come in very handy as we began our tour.
The hack took us through Paradise, the woodland farmland that became the home for settings like Lothlorien, home of Galadriel, and the forest in the conclusion of the Fellowship of the Ring. It also caused quite a stir when it was re-used in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug as the location for Beorn’s house -- a structure which they built from scratch. According to our guide, photographers hid in the bushes of a hill facing Paradise with long lens cameras, just to get those exclusive photos of one of Peter Jackson’s movie sets. Dart Stables boasts exclusive access granted by the landowner of the area, a privilege that seemingly isn’t afforded to any tours on foot, which means that if you want to see it you’ll have to be in the saddle. For that alone it’s well worth doing the ride.
As we made our way along, our young guide was keen to inform us of as much as possible about the location. Paradise has been used for other films like the The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but it was once you entered the forest that its presence in the Lord of the Rings became apparent. It was instantly recognisable as the location of Lothlorien, although we were told that they added thousands of additional painted gold leaves to the floor of the forest for just a couple takes of the hobbits walking through, no doubt to add mystical effect to the home of the elves. Part of the filmmakers’ contract had been to leave the area exactly how they had found it and it took the crew many hours after a very short time of filming to pick up every single tiny leaf from the ground. I must confess, all these tours continually served to remind me just how much a labour of love filmmaking is... That and exactly how much attention to detail was paid by Peter Jackson!
The tour continued past the famed tree where beloved son of Gondor Boromir met his untimely end at the conclusion of the Fellowship of the Ring. At this point I did halt my steed and take a moment to reflect on the scene and contain the heightened emotions involved in a fan pilgrimage. It really is a tear-jerker and I’ve included it here to jog your memories. Be prepared with tissues.
After a moment though my horse became rather impatient and I reluctantly caught up with the rest of the ride. Old Blackjack didn’t quite appreciate the significance of that particular spot to a devoted fan, and it was a bit like having the world’s (understandably) least interested tour guide taking you around. We then came out of the forest to stand on a small peak, which was a great photo opportunity with the mountains in the background. As you can see below, the horse was clearly not sharing in my enthusiasm but it still makes for a sufficiently dramatic pose. Despite Blackjack’s disinterest, our actual human tour guide was great, perhaps not equipped with as many facts as other tours but making up for it with a real passion for the movies. By the time the tour concluded, I really felt like I’d had the chance to see an important location.
The Dart Stables tour is definitely something a bit different for Lord of the Rings fans to do in New Zealand. Although it’s not as full of information as other tours are, it makes up for it in the exclusive access you get into Paradise, and those with an interest in taking part in slightly more challenging activities should enjoy the horse riding aspect. The tour benefitted as well from safe and quiet steeds making the tour suitable for all levels of rider, because although we’d all love to look as dashing as Viggo Mortensen on his battle horse, if you’ve never been on one before, that’s just probably not going to happen. However, it’s nice to believe, and nothing quite makes a ride through a filming location more atmospheric than being on the original living and breathing Lord of the Rings form of transport.
Perfect for… budding riders of Rohan!
Written by Jen Scouler
THE HOBBIT TRILOGY IS AVAILABLE NOW TO OWN ON BLU-RAY AND DVD