Tag Archives: Peter jackson

Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie, magnificent but merciless country

This story was published on the Flight Centre blog in February 2015


Roughly half way down Te Waipounamu, the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, lies Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie. Running up to the Southern Alps in the west and down to the edge of the plains in the East, it’s a region with a handful of small towns, few people and vast isolated farms. It’s a place that is rich with legends and ripe for adventures, where the earth is spectacular and the sky sublime.

Burke's Pass
Burke’s Pass

These high, remote lands were known only to Maori who had hunted there for centuries, until, in 1855, James Mackenzie fled there with 1000 stolen sheep. His story became legend and the ancient Maori hunting ground became the Mackenzie Country, home to hardy graziers, their tireless collie dogs and tough Merino sheep.

We’ve traced Mackenzie’s trail up through peaceful Fairlie, then higher, through hills and bush, to Burke’s Pass.

Beyond the pass the land flattens, the sky lowers and the light brightens. Golden tussock stretches away to the horizon on one side. Thick clouds race across the sky and roll down the hills on the other. There’s nobody here, no other cars – just us, following a straight, undulating line across the empty landscape. There’s nothing here but earth and sky.

Earth and sky in the Mackenzie Country
Earth and sky in the Mackenzie Country

The road ends at Lake Tekapo. Framed by Mount John and the Southern Alps and   coloured an unbelievable blue by the glacial rock-powder suspended in its waters, it gleams in its mountain setting like an opal. On the foreshore stands the little stone Church of the Good Shepherd, a memorial to the Mackenzie Country’s pioneers. Nearby, the faithful collie is immortalised in bronze. It’s a scene that has inspired countless artists and untold photographers.

Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo

But Tekapo isn’t just a pretty face. In winter the skiing is superb on Roundhill and Mount Dobson. In summer the lakes are brilliant for water sports. The scenic walking, cycling and horse trails are stunning in any season. Most weather is fine for a round on the rugged golf course. Any time is a good time to luxuriate at Tekapo Springs. On the summit of Mount John, the Astro Cafe, is, according to Lonely Planet “the best place on earth for a coffee”. The Good Shepherd Church, with its altar window overlooking the lake, is always the perfect setting for a fairytale wedding.

On any clear night, though, the star attraction here is the sky. Above Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie are 4,367 square kilometre of pristine, Gold Status World Heritage Dark Sky Reserve, the largest, and one of only two, in the world.

It’s a rare and magical sight. From the lakeshore we gaze spellbound at the thick clusters of stars, clouds of silvery dust and trails of vivid light and wonder How did it begin? Is there anybody out there? Where does it end?

Mount John Observatory’s Earth and Sky Tours offer a closer look at the stars, through telescopes, with astronomers to address those big questions.

Next morning, we’re deep in the Mackenzie basin. Sometimes a lonely mailbox, or a driveway marks a farm. Merinos, dark with summer dust, watch as we pass. The land slopes upwards and clouds, backlit by a blazing sun, hang low above it.

Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki

The road leads to Pukaki, the Long Lake of Middle Earth and a “star” setting in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. The lake is surreal, rock-powder blue, the land is muted gold and the distant hills are hazy mauve. Away at the top of the lake Aoraki Mount Cook towers against the sky, his summit crowned with a circle of cloud. It’s a movie dream scene. But beneath it lies the cautionary legend of Aoraki who was exploring here with his brothers, when a vicious wind froze them forever into the peaks of the Southern Alps.

The land at the top of Lake Pukaki is Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It is a magnificent but merciless terrain of soaring mountains, swift rivers, shadowed valleys, glaciers and capricious skies, where Aoraki reigns supreme. To anyone, it’s compelling country but to adventurers, it’s irresistible. On Aoraki’s formidable heights, Edmund Hillary honed his skills for the conquest of Everest.

There are innumerable ways to adventure here. “Extreme” adventurers scale Aoraki and ski down. The extremely “soft” can enjoy views of Aoraki from the cafe at the Hermitage Hotel and adventure vicariously in the theatres of the Hillary Centre. We take a family tramp up the Tasman valley. It leaves us breathless on a high rock ledge, not because of the steep climb, but because the milky glacier lake below, with its floating icebergs, is breathtaking.

Tasman Glacier Lake
Tasman Glacier Lake

Leaving Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie, we pass through Twizel, once a booming Hydro town, now a quiet sanctuary and through country where canals spill into dams and pylons march across the land.

Our journey ends at Omarama, gateway to the Waitaki Valley. Here the sky is high and clear and paved with thermal pathways, where adventurers from far and near, including living All Black legend Ritchie McCaw, come to glide. Here, the earth begins to change from gold to green and to fill with dairy cows and sinister ranks of giant irrigators.



Miramar, the heart of Wellywood

When I first knew Wellington’s Miramar, way back in the 1980s, it was a sleepy suburb.

The Roxy
The Roxy

Miramar was a place where ordinary kiwi families lived, down on the flat enjoying sunny, sheltered pohutukawa-lined streets, or up in the hills drinking in the million dollar sea views which inspired that fanciful Spanish name. In the back streets, a bit of light industry whirred away and on the main drag, there was a straggle of service shops, a modest mall in a disused cinema and a library. Trolley buses whirled in and out carrying kids backwards and forwards from school and their parents to and from work. If you didn’t live or work in Miramar, you might well by-pass it.

But not anymore! Miramar is the epi-centre of Wellywood, the engine room of Aotearoa New Zealand’s film industry and the heart of the Middle Earth Empire.

The giant complex where Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk brought Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit to life dominates the old industrial area of Miramar.  The site of the former National Film Unit in Park Road is Park Road Post, a state of the art post production studio.  Eight acres of Stone Street are given over to the Stone Street sound studios. Just nearby, in Camperdown Road, there’s Weta Digital and in Manuka Street, is Weta Workshop, where all those magical special effects, masks and props are dreamed up and realised. It’s worthwhile taking a cruise around Park Road, Stone Street, Camperdown Road and Manuka Street to check the sheer scale of it all. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a distant set, a star or one of the big three. As Wellywood’s reach now extends across the globe, you might even spot some international movie mogul.

For dedicated LOTR and Hobbit fans, though, a visit to the Weta Cave in Weka Street is an absolute imperative.  The Cave, which is really a museum, backs onto the Weta Workshop, so you can see the team at work. You’ll hear about the creative process from crew members, using props, models and weapons they made. You’ll watch a behind the scenes video, featuring interviews with the Weta Workshop founders. Finally, they’ll let you loose in the Weta Cave shop, “a cavern of creativity” with the most amazing collection of LOTR and Hobbit memorabilia.

If you’re over Tolkien, but still into cinema, drop into the Roxy, if not to catch a film, then to steep yourself in movie world glamour. This Art Dec beauty first opened in 1928, as the Capitol. In the 60s it was converted into the Miramar shopping mall. Then, in 2011, Richard Taylor and friends reinvented it as the Roxy, with two theatres and an exhibition space.

The Roxy is also home to Coco licensed restaurant and a cocktail lounge, where, after your tour of Wellywood, you might want to sink into a vintage armchair with a Tom Collins, a Pims or some other fabulously refreshing concoction.

These days, there’s no way that anyone would by-pass Miramar