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Our Middle Earth

Into Middle Earth - our writer was inspired by the LOTR trilogy to explore the South Island. Photo: Matthew Cattin
Tolkien geek Matthew Cattin shares how The Lord of the Rings shaped his first real adventure in the South Island.

We were two 20-something lads, with a penchant for walking barefoot and a Took-ish sense of adventure.

I’d just finished a lucrative summer job, and my friend Jared had found himself the star of an ad campaign – also lucrative.

With money to burn, we found ourselves on the verge of a rare life chapter with zero responsibilities; no jobs, mortgages, kids, rent, or anything to keep us from exploring.

But for a few trips with family, neither of us had experienced much of the South Island, so with my hatchback stacked to the roof with tents, guitars, clothes and food, we watched the lights of Auckland disappear in the rearview.

Like most Kiwi males who hit puberty in the early 2000s, we were abso-bloody-lutely obsessed with The Lord of the Rings – the battles, the mythology, the heroes and scenery.

But underneath that was something far greater – a newfound connection to home.

Through the films, and in turn, the soundtrack and book, the landscapes of Aotearoa grew a second skin of Middle Earth.

To two geeky fanboys, every copse of beech trees became Fangorn Forest, every solitary peak the Lonely Mountain and every historic pub The Prancing Pony.

Naturally, I had the soundtrack in my car – bought especially for our journey. We’d held out on playing it until we found some real mountains, but by the time we reached Lewis Pass, it all became too much.

Wispy clouds shrouded the peaks, and two hearts burst with the instrumental flourishes as we headed west – our adventure had begun.

Thunder cracked the skies as we set off on our first overnight tramp to Welcome Flat Hut, and anxiety over the ominous weather weighed heavy as I locked an army of sandflies inside the car.

We crossed the swollen Karangarua River, committing to the 18km track with wet boots as deliberate rain pelted our nervous faces.

I was outside of my comfort zone already. DOC had advised we’d be okay in the clearing weather, but we had to be out as quick as possible the following day to escape the next wave of West Coast temperament. 

This was the adventure we had dreamed of, and though nervous, we took it step by step with many a quote from Frodo and Sam to keep us inspired.

Later, in Queenstown, we picked up a second-hand hardcover of the trilogy, and from then on it never left our packs – despite its hefty weight.

We took turns lugging it into the mountains of Fiordland and Nelson Lakes National Park, reading chapters aloud by the fire, and committing fully to the book’s many songs – which readers will know often stretch indulgently across many pages.

Jared read to me on every long car journey, doing his best to capture the accents and timbre of the many characters and creatures – often with the soundtrack accompanying on the car stereo.

Though some of the older trampers gave us a bit of cheek, tourists of our demographic shared our nerdy enthusiasm for Tolkien.

In every hostel TV room, we found a scratched copy of the DVD, and on many bunk beds a tattered edition of The Hobbit or LOTR lay on the pillow – a sign we were amongst kindred spirits.

Young travellers from Germany, USA, Japan or the UK kept busy ticking off locations from the films, and I’ll never forget the childish exhilaration hitchhikers experienced hopping into our car to hear the soundtrack playing loud and proud – they couldn’t believe they’d been picked up by two barefoot hobbits.

That wonderful trip was five years ago now – and given the current lockdown, it’s hard to believe how much freedom I took for granted.

My heart yearns to get back on the road and experience the adventure of our Middle Earth, but if the trilogy taught us anything, it’s that the actions of everyday people – no matter how seemingly insignificant – can make all the difference.

In the words of Samwise Gamgee: “But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer,” Samwise Gamgee.