For our last weekend before the final exam period, my friends and I decided to have one last soiree in Queenstown. I knew this trip was meant to be because The Great Gatsby was opening in theatres (methinks half the budget for that spectacular movie was spent on glitter) and – while walking along the boardwalk – I spied a green light across the water. Little moments like that make me happy. Other things that make me happy: going on a nighttime adventure to Wanaka, hunting down the quirky indie movie theatre ‘Paradiso Cinema,’ sitting in a vintage car to watch the film (before moving to a couch when I got tired of looking through the windshield), and being served mouth-watering, fresh-baked cookies and a glass of milk at intermission. This is the way all theatres should operate.
I grabbed a meal in Queenstown before running off to my favorite gem of a town, Glenorchy. The drive between Queenstown and Glenorchy is stunning, a God-must’ve-been-huffing-some-serious-amounts-of-happy-gas-when-He-made-it kind of stunning.
My friend and I wandered around Glenorchy, took in the glorious views, sipped some tea, chatted up locals, and pined after the cats we kept seeing in the small-town stores. If I ever own a business, I’m going to have some sort of animal mascot, preferably a sloth. Seriously, this can be a lucrative business decision (except for restaurant owners). I remember, when I was a wee one and my mother would say, “I need to pick up some beauty supplies,” I’d come in with: “GO TO THE PLACE WITH THE FAT GRAY KITTY!” Or, “I need to order some shirts”…. “THE CORGI PLACE!!!” The lesson of this story: Who gets the most business (and/or the business of anyone with an easily excitable child)? The businesswomen who brings a fluffy animal to work.
I eventually made my way over to the Dart Stables and suited up for a horse trek. My friend was ditching me to walk around or something, and I was a little nervous about making new friends. At the very least, I took comfort from the fact that I – naturally beloved by all animals except that one Rottweiler – was sure to bond with my pony. I needn’t have worried. I exercised my rusty social skills (Mom, you’d have been so proud) and quickly got to know two lovely girls who happened to be recent USC grads, Lord of the Rings junkies, and fans of Stephen Colbert – basically the exact people you want to be spending a few hours with on a horse trek in New Zealand.
The trek was through the aptly named Paradise. I ended up in the small group of five with the USC girls and an adorable guide who was full of entertaining stories. And now I shall share some of those stories….
- The whole of Paradise (an significant amount of land, let me tell you) was owned by one man. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness and knew he would soon die, he thought to himself, “Hmm, only a worthy fellow must inherit and care for this land.” Instead of sticking a sword in a stone, he put out an ad saying he would sell Paradise for $1 NZD. That’s right: one dollar. Naturally, many people responded to the ad. The man interviewed them all, but no one fit with his vision. In the end, the Willy Wonka of Paradise was unable to find his Charlie Bucket amongst the interested buyers. He gave the land to a group of his friends and Paradise remains a natural and pristine beauty to this day.
- Our groups were assigned horses based on our level of experience and level of nervousness. Partway through the ride I learned that my new friends had good reason to be nervous: they’d done trek earlier that day and the horses had, um, “bolted.” In other words, the group – high upon the back of large, hoofed beasts – had been plodding gently along when suddenly the horses broke into a wild, galloping frenzy. One person fell off. This story did little to instill confidence in me. I’d been paired with a sassy horse named Elvis. He was third in the pecking order (horse bro-herds are very particular about their hierarchies of dominance) and had a history of, uh, erratic behavior.
- The Tale of Elvis: I was actually very lucky to be paired with Elvis. Why? Well, during the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy a casting call went out for Rohirrim extras. Horses had to pass two tests, and then they and their rider would be in the films. Elvis made it through the first round like a pro. Then, during the second round, he was overcome with stage fright: going crazy, bucking, wreaking havoc, and being chased until he was eventually subdued by a human wall. He was ordered off the set and departed in shame. Another woman had been accepted, but, right before filming, her horse threw a shoe. Not wanting to miss out, the woman asked the owner of Dart Stables if he had a horse she could borrow for filming. The owner, who had a well-developed sense of humor and irony, said: “Sure, take Elvis.” And thus it was that Elvis snuck back on set and performed his role admirably. He knows he is a star and has become quite the little diva. Also, he is a horse of Rohan – and that (by my sound logic) makes me a Rider of Rohan. This is one of the prouder moments of my life.
- Elvis and I were behind pony with the worst gas I’ve ever witnessed. This is the sort of gross factor that I would never bring up, but it deserved mention because of its absolute absurdity. I swear that thing blew a gasket with every hoofstep. I applaud Elvis’s stamina. I was paralyzed with laughter, but I doubt I would have been laughing if my face was down at horse-head level.
- Paradise has been used as a location for many films such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Wolverine, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lovely Bones, so the rest of stories will largely involve a film nerd’s cataloging of shots….
- Paradise = Lothlorien. Haldir (that elf who makes fun of Gimli’s breathing) steps out from behind that mossy tree (I know people who snore when they’re awake; sometimes I pop out from behind plants and mock them).
- Aragorn was pushed against that chubby tree whilst fighting an orc. I think I am standing on hallowed ground.
- The trek passes by the spot where Boromir dies. The scene involved a multitude of orcs running down the hill. Those orcs happened to be a few hefty rugby players, one of whom was hit in the head with a moving film camera and spent the rest of the shoot in the hospital. On the bright side, dude probably has the best “how I got knocked out” story ever.
- These Dart Stable ponies are badasses. In both Narnia and LOTR films, the stout and shaggy ponies got to lead some charges because the majestic movie stallions were too fussy to gallop across the rivers on their own.
- Beorn’s house for The Hobbit was built in this field. It became one of the most expensive sets ever built after a storm blew over one of the trees and, for continuity’s sake, the filmmakers had order a ridiculously expensive custom-built tree.
- So, turns out Liv Tyler (Arwen) is deathly afraid of ponies. For Arwen’s horseback chase scene, shots were intermixed of Liv being pulled around on a furry barrel in a field (the close-ups) and the stunt woman doing some serious moves (the long shots). By the end of shooting, the stunt lady had fallen in love with the horse. Viggo (Aragorn), a fellow pony enthusiast, apparently has a heart of gold: he bought the horse and gifted to her. Speaking of Viggo and ponies – man is a dedicated actor. Remember that touching scene with Aragorn after he washed down the river? And his horse knelt down to help Aragorn get on his back? Well, Jackson thought the stunt wouldn’t work, but Viggo slept for three nights in the stall with his horse to build up trust.
- Supposedly LOTR fanatic Stephen Colbert is going to be an extra in one of the Hobbit films. I am beyond stoked.
- If you’ve seen the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film, you undoubtedly remember the scene where Hugh Jackman is running through a field naked. Guess what? That field is in Paradise. I walked right by it. During filming, horse treks are ongoing, so some lucky tourists got to get a nice eye-full of Hugh. Can you imagine? Thinking you’re going to just go ride some horses and see a few natural wonders – and then you’re presented with a whole other kind of natural wonder….. Around this time, I also had to pee, and figured it would be a good idea to go strip down in that same field – ya know, so I could send Hugh a letter: “Hey Hugh. We have a lot in common. We were both nakey in the same field.”
At the end of all this, my hindquarters were sore in places I never would have imagined.