I won’t pretend to be overly well versed in Lord of the Rings, but I’ve seen the first movie (and one of The Hobbit ones) and that’s enough for me to be able to say, with certainty, that we’re (quite literally) driving through The Shire right now.
Let me back up. After our wonderful night at the concert last night, we drove back to Wellington (and by “we,” I mean Lena, who is a saint and navigated us safely through the treacherous mountain pass while I slept in the backseat and Noel offered perhaps a little too much encouragement). Once home to Lena and Noel’s gorgeous downtown apartment, we set our alarms for the next morning and collapsed happily into bed. We were up early this morning to pack small overnight bags, chug coffee, and hit the road for Lake Taupo — an enormous volcanic lake in the center of New Zealand’s north island.
This all leads me back to my initial statement. While it’s not all rolling green hills and quaint country houses, a ton of it is, and every inch of it is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
The landscapes morphs dramatically around every curve. We take frequent coffee breaks (did I mention I’m in heaven?) and each time we stop it feels like we’re in a different world altogether.
The first part of our route takes us along a lonely winding road walled in by lush, green mountains. As we break out of the first pass, the low-hanging clouds — constantly threatening rain — drift off the hillsides like smoke, creating long, trailing sinews of fog that connect earth and sky.
The scenery morphs again after our first coffee break and we’re suddenly in sprawling flat farmland that goes on and on for miles, stopping only at the blue-tinted mountains in the distance. Lines of wind-bent trees break the monotony of soft green grass every ten miles or so, but they don’t seem to be the border of any of the estates, which are enormous. Every time we pass a labelled gate, I think that must be the edge of the farm, but then an hour later we passing another gate for the same place…and another!
More forest-encircled highways lead us out of the farmland and into small, proud little towns with cute, quirky names like Gumboots and Bulls — each with its own giant welcome sign and cheesy little catchphrase to match (“Kick off your gumboots and stay awhile!” “Bulls: a town like no udder”).
Farmland continues to whip past on the outskirts of each town, but the land has started to roll softly now, taking on the classic idyllic vibe of Hobbits’ country again. Sheep, belly deep in soft, spongy grass, munch on wildflowers as we blast past, oblivious of my awe over the beauty their home.
After a few hours, the endless stretch of soft, rolling countryside ebbs, chased away by sharp, angular hills that rise dramatically on either side of the road. The hilltops are peaked, as though folded into origami, and though each grassy slope is spotted with peacefully grazing horses, the hills take on an ominous, fantastical quality in the way the pastures drape over the jagged ridges like a coat of fur over sinew and bone. With each passing moment I’m beginning to realize more and more why the production company of Lord of the Rings chose to film in New Zealand.
Our path is set to take us through more than just The Shire and its more dramatic neighbors, however. In fact, much like Frodo and his pals, we’re headed straight for Mordor.
Now I know what you’re thinking…one does not simply drive into Mordor. But that’s exactly what we’re doing now.
It’s so foggy and dreary when we get into Mordor (which is actually Tongariro National Park), we don’t actually get to see much of the infamous region — just the stretches of desolate, scrubby plains and ominous low-lying cloud cover that surrounds the road. It’s too cloudy to even see Sauron (aka Mt Ngauruhoe), but it’s Sauron so I’m sure he saw us and that’s what really matters (…I think? To be quite honest, I need to go back and rewatch the movies, I don’t remember much of anything).
We roll out of Mordor without the fanfare one might expect from having survived such a famously dangerous place (I believe it went something along the lines of, “Well, that was it. We’re out of Mordor.” “Oh! Wow. Well that was cool.”). Reunited with the endless fields and resplendent mountains of Middle Earth’s less volatile regions, we carve our way up the last stretch of winding road before reaching Lake Taupo.
Lake Taupo (pronounced “toe-paw”) is enormous. It pops out of the cover of the forested mountains so suddenly and casually, you could almost overlook it…except that it stretches out to the horizon like an ocean, its far edge of mountains only just visible in the distance. The road traces the lake’s edge via a precipitous cliff that eventually deposits us along the lake’s southeastern bank. We pull off into the first available scenic lookout and are immediately blown away.
“Scenic” is an understatement.
Waves crash softly onto the rocky shores as the sky looms overhead with its usual dramatic flair. Black swans attempt to navigate the cascading troughs and peaks of the incoming surf, remaining both graceful and dry throughout the ordeal, despite their concerned expressions and frantic paddling.
A misty rain starts to fall from the sky and I sigh, assuming that’ll be our cue to get back in the car and head for town. Luckily, we stay just a little bit longer.
Right now — as we all stand together beside this enormous lake, watching the swans shake off the lake water and the wind gust through the nearby trees — everything is perfect.
Then again, just about everything here is.