South Island: Dart Stables LOTR tour

(SPOILER ALERT: I talk a lot about the Lord of the Rings in this post! If you haven’t read the books or seen it then 1) go do it RIGHT NOW because you haven’t lived yet and 2) stop reading (you should be reading Tolkien not me) because I would hate to spoil it for you.)
Since so much happened on this day of the trip for me I’m going to split it up into 2 blogs. It will make it way easier for me to write and post and probably a lot easier for you to read!
Part 1 of Sunday the 15th

This was one of the days of the entire spring break trip that I was looking forward to the most. It was jam-packed but well planned and a ton of fun; definitely my favorite day in Queenstown. My first adventure was a horseback riding tour through the area where they filled a lot of the Lord of the Rings, X-men Origins, and most recently the Hobbit!!! As I’m sure you know, I am a HUGE LOTR fan. My Mom had to practically force me to watch it one night as a family and after that I was hooked; it wasn’t long until I owned all of the extended DVDs. I remember getting a really bad ear infection in high school that was really painful and took forever to heal. I put all of the DVDs in the player and watched all three movies on repeat until I could go back to school. I did the same thing when I got my wisdom teeth out. So yeah, I can pretty much speak elfish. Get on my level. Anyway… my friend Amanda also booked the tour but the funny part is we didn’t even do it together but managed to be on the same one! It was a morning ride for a little over two hours and it was incredible. I had no problem getting out of bed that morning! We were up, ready, and waiting for our van to pick us up and take us to the stables. It turned out by another awesome stroke of luck that Amanda and I were the only ones on our tour that day! We stopped on the way to the stables to take in out first bit of LOTR scenery. You know in the first movie when the fellowship is climbing up the snow-covered mountain and Frodo falls and the ring comes off his neck and Boromir picks it up and almost takes it? Yeah, I got to see those mountains! We pulled over to the side of the road so we could get out and take pictures. It was my first reality check that this was real and I got REALLY excited!
We met our guide Haley at the trail head and that is where we first met our horses. Back at the barn where we had gotten on our helmets, boots, and gloves, there was a list of all the horses’ names. There were some pretty creative ones but my eye immediately fell on Dooby and I just couldn’t stop giggling at the thought of what kind of horse fits a name like that. Well, I found out. Haley introduced us to our boys and Amanda was on Murphy and I, as more experienced rider, got Dooby. They were both beautiful but you could tell that Dooby was older than Murphy who definitely had a little chip on his shoulder (he was handsome and he knew it!). It felt so amazing to be back in a saddle after so long and I felt comfortable right away. Murphy figured out that Amanda wasn’t a seasoned rider and took every advantage he could to snack. It was pretty darn funny to look back and see him munching away completely ignoring her pulling on the rains and trying to tell him as nicely as she could to cut it out. I love the way that horses can have really human personalities.  Murphy was definitely a teenager, wearing his varsity jacket, and constantly looking for any kind of attention he could get. Dooby was more the tip that you would see hanging around the biker bar, leather jacket and sunglasses at midnight. But he was really a teddy bear under the tough guy act. It was so typically, since Dooby is older he was the “pack leader” and for the most part Murphy was ok with that. But every once in a while Murphy would want to challenge the authority figure and get a little too close to my boy. Dooby would immediately pin his ears to the pack of his head and start getting huffy. I think he was all show and wouldn’t really do anything to Murphy but I didn’t want to stick around to find out. So we danced around for a little while until all 4 of us figured each other out. It was fantastic.

Haley was a fantastic tour guide. She knew a TON about the land and its history as well as all kinds of cool tid-bits about the movies that were filled on it. Long story short, the land was bought by an American conservationist whose goal was to keep it exactly as it was for as long as possible. And he did a good job of it too. Unfortunately he was diagnosed with cancer at a relatively young age but had enough time to get is affairs in order. This included making sure nothing happened to his land. He put an ad out in the newspaper saying he would sell the whole lot of it to the right person for $1 as long as they went through an interview process. Of course, an incredible amount of people responded to the ad and he sifted through all of them until he eventually narrowed the field to a handful of hopefuls. After meeting each one in person he turned them all down. He wasn’t convinced that he could trust them not to turn a profit on the land.  So instead he created a trust made up of his closest friends, the head of which was his lawyer. There were a ton of stipulations but the short of it was that they couldn’t sell their piece of the property without the rest of the trust’s consent, they could use the land to make a profit, and there was to be no type of building on it, commercial or otherwise.
So, years later, when Peter Jackson stopped by after doing his surveying for places to film his movie The Lord of the Rings, the trust turned him down. They flat out said no, that it would be too detrimental to the land for the movie to be filmed there and they turned Jackson away. So, what did Jackson do? He went home, rewrote a brand new proposal and kept trying until he got the trust’s approval. The lengths he went to keep his word (including donating quite a bit of money out of his own pocket) were truly amazing and set the bar pretty high. He had teams of ecologists, environmentalists, and botanists working with him all the time, growing indigenous plants, photographing ever inch of land they were using and made sure that ever plant, tree, and rock were kept in its original place. They kept a greenhouse on set so that new plants could be grown to replace any that were damaged. He also kept the amount of takes done per scene to a minimum and did extra editing so as to do as little damage as possible. He is a very active conservationist, you know, in his spare time so keeping true to his word was very important to him. And he did it. I have a lot of respect for the man.

Here is an example of the lengths he went through: Lothlorien in the books is supposed to be the “golden forest” where Galadriel lives. Well, I got to ride through that forest and there is nothing particularly golden about it. So instead of spray-painting the trees to give them that “glow” he was looking for, Jackson employed the help of the local schools. He asked that the kids cut out little golden leaves. And they did. They made thousands of them. And Jackson had them safely adhered to the trees and once the filming of the forest was done, like everything else, every single one of those leaves was taken down. Impressive, right? I also got to see Fangorn forest where Treebeard lives. I thought that there was going to be lots of CGI involved because it seemed highly unlikely that the trees would be so big and so densely packed. Nope. It really is the most intense, thick, and rather intimidating forest I have ever seen. I also got to stand on the edges of Isengard. Yeah, I’m not going to lie, I got the chills more than once. I also got to see the whole area of the Fellowships first fight scene together in the first movie including where Aragorn beheads the leader of the Orcs and the exact tree that Boromir dies on. Yeah, I was totally geeking out. Did you know that Liv Tyler (Arwen) didn’t ride a horse at all in the making of the movies? She is terrified of them so all the shots of her riding are either her fantastic equestrian double or she is actually sitting on a saddle in the back of a truck. Also, her equestrian stunt double apparently became really attached to the horse she was riding so Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) bought it for her, as he did his own horse. He actually does that quite a lot. Do you remember the movie Hidalgo that came out quite a while ago about the race through the desert? Yup, he bought that horse too. It makes me REALLY want to meet Viggo Mortensen. A few of the horses and guides from the stable were in the films too. Most of them were Riders of Rohan and had to go through a really rigorous 3 stage audition to make it, including crazy stuff like stopping on a dime in the middle of a full gallop surrounded by stunt men in weird costumes screaming and making “battle noises”. One of the horses, named Elvis, became pretty famous for his audition. He refused to stop. He got so riled up that he just completely bolted and was racing all the other horse. So he didn’t make the cut even though he was the right size, color, and passed all the other tests. But, right before filming started one of the other horses got injured and couldn’t do the scene. So Elvis got his 15 minutes after all. One of the coolest facts Haley told us was about the Wraiths. So Jackson had these beautiful horses that had been super trained in all kinds of ways to come in for the chase scene between the Wraiths and Frodo and Arwen. But, when the horses got on site they found out something rather important; they wouldn’t cross the river. The poor horses were terrified of the water and after all that money and effort getting there couldn’t do the job. Luckily, the horses at the stable, like Murphy and Dooby, cross that river every day and are also highly trained. So, Jackson and his team picked nine horses that fit his vision and saved the day.
I could go on and on about that 2 hour ride. I was so much fun and I never wanted it to end. But it did. We got back to the barn and dismounted, gave the boys some lovin and a carrot, took a couple of pictures (Dooby and I had a cute little cuddle) and then got back in the van to come home. Amanda and I were on cloud nine for the rest of the day. The relaxing morning ride was the perfect set-up for what I had coming next.


Fun Fact: Peter Jackson (who, if you haven't figured it out yet, is a native Kiwi) was Knighted in Wellington in 2010 by the then Governer-General Anand Satyanand as a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Really Random Fact: The soundtrack for The Two Towers did not receive a nomination because of a rule prohibiting a soundtrack including music from a previous soundtrack to be eligible for nomination. This rule was overturned in time for The Return of the King to receive the Oscar for Best Music Score


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