Tuesday 1 May 2018

Finding Fangorn

I’ve long been a Tolkien tragic. Since my teenage years I have probably read Tolkien’s trilogy more than ten times. Even though a few characters may have a dated, even stilted, feel to them, some of them still feel as real as people in my life. Heck, I even agreed to have “Gaffer” as my grandfather name!

So while my enthusiasm for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) long pre-dates the films, and New Zealand’s rebirth as Middle Earth, when we lived for a few months in New Zealand, I couldn’t resist buying a New Zealand atlas that had the locations of many scenes featured in Peter Jackson’s film version of the trilogy.

[Welcome to "Middle Earth", near Mavora Lakes] 
That’s all background to a recent episode from our autumn 2018 visit to the South Island of New Zealand. And it’s part explanation for how we came to find ourselves at Mavora Lakes. You’d be forgiven for asking “Where?”, as even many Kiwis we spoke to didn’t know much about the place. If I said it was somewhere between the Thomson and Livingstone Mountains, a valley or two east of Te Anau, that might not help much either. But given that we were spending Easter at Kingston, on the far southern shore of Lake Wakatipu, and less than two hours from the lakes, we were keen to explore them.

[On the shores of North Mavora Lake] 

Mavora Lakes – there’s a South Mavora Lake and a North Mavora Lake – fill part of the glacier-carved Mararoa River valley, which runs roughly north/south out of the Livingstone Mountains. The lakes are not obscure to South Island trampers, campers and hunters, given the range of activities they have to offer. And since the area became a hotspot for crucial LOTR scenes, they have also become part of the fabric of Middle Earth.

A certain amount of determination was required to reach our destination. With 40km of gravel road to traverse – after a longish drive on sealed roads – there would have been cries of “when are we gonna get there?” had there been any children in the car. As we got closer the valley tightened, and we started to see swathes of deep green beech forest. Our trusty atlas had forewarned us that some of the scenes of Fangorn Forest had been filmed here. This included one in which Aragorn and some of the hobbits had come to the place where the Riders of Rohan had slaughtered and burned a band of orcs.

The landscape, with open, buff-coloured tussock butting up against closed beech forest, looked so familiar that it was more like visiting an historic battlefield than a film location. Lynne and I were caught up in imagining two of the hobbits, Merry and Pippin, crawling away from the battle and into the dubious safety of the forest. 

[A deadly fly agaric mushroom might not be all that lurks in this forest!] 
Not for the first time I reflected on the peculiar genius of New Zealand to take something wholly borrowed, and turn it into something that seems entirely native to it. Think of kiwi fruit, merino wool, even the Australian possum (whose fur is blended with merino - originally Spanish – to become “merino mink”).

We parked our car and put on our day-packs for a wander up the shore of North Mavora Lake. A keen breeze blew across the lake making wavelets that shushed on the shingle shore. It also shushed the sand flies, which only made an appearance any time the wind drew breath. Being more relaxed about the bities left us free to lift our eyes to the hills. And what hills! Bush-clad near the shore; steeply rising to the tree line, tussock-covered above that, except where rain, snow and incline had conspired to bring the slope down: the classic land slip that Kiwis deal with all the time, and the rest of us seldom see.

We had no particular plan, except to stretch our legs and to take in the wonders of a beautiful place. Although there was a track north through the forest, we chose to walk along the shingle shore, the better to take in the wider scene. A little over 6km later we were at the end of the forest, and well up the lake on what some call the Mavora Walkway. We’d seen the other end of that multi-day track some years back when we stayed at Greenstone Hut, on the Greenstone/Caples Track. As we stopped for lunch on a convenient log, I looked wistfully up lake towards where I guessed Carey’s Hut – one of four huts along the track – must be located. There’s always next time, I thought, with the time-honoured optimism of the ageing tramper/bushwalker. Right now there was justice to be done to the lunch that Lynne had somehow conjured from leftovers.

[Lunching by North Mavora Lake] 
We were near the place which had become Nen Hithoel in the film. This was the lake into which the Anduin River flowed, and marked the location of the breaking of the “fellowship” after Boromir’s attempt to take the ring. Frodo – and eventually Sam – had taken a boat across the lake to make their own way towards Mount Doom.

But today any chance of long, reflective tranquility was broken, not by a troop of orcs, but a convoy of dirt bikes, which buzzed by on both beach and track. The group was friendly, and perfectly within their rights, and we were reminded that such places are shared and enjoyed by widely diverse groups of people. For all its beauty, this place is not wilderness.

Returning to the car we reflected on what the place itself had seen over recent millennia. Its Gondwanan forests had survived numerous ice ages, at times huddling precariously above the glaciers that carved out the lakes; at others taking advantage of warmer, wetter eras to clothe whole swathes of the valley. They’d seen the Maori come, passing through here in search of food and their precious pounamu/greenstone; and the pakeha/white settlers chasing gold, clearing and burning vast areas of forest, and bringing sheep and cattle to graze the opened land.

[Beech forest, Mavora Lakes] 
 All of this is a vastly more complex, and often more marvellous story than the fictional one that drew us here over Easter. In part it is a tragedy, given how much forest has gone, and how many birds have succumbed to introduced pests. But it’s also a story that continues. And given how long “Fangorn” has lasted, it’s a story that’s still filled with hope.

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