Trekking in hobbit country

Channeling my inner hobbit on a trek through Lord of the Rings country in Glenorchy

(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)
(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)

Showing off New Zealand to a visiting English friend while indulging in our shared love of riding was a challenge I was up for. When I learned my friend Carol was also a big Tolkien fan, I found just the place to wow her. And nothing disappointed.

Dart River Stables’ trekking operation is based in Glenorchy, 45 minutes from Queenstown. Many films and advertisements have been shot in and around the beautiful little town but it was really put on the tourist map by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. The mountain backdrops are stunning, and the “Misty Mountains” were living up to their name.

(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)
(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)

Carol is involved in equestrian public relations, with a strong Kiwi connection through providing PR services to The Mark Todd Collection and Gatehouse helmets, used by many NZ squad riders, but it was her first time to our shores.

The tarsealed road to Glenorchy took longer to travel than anticipated, as we often had to stop for photos of the spectacular Lake Wakitupu. The Glenorchy café did a great breakfast, although I was unsuccessful at convincing Carol to try a local delicacy, cheese rolls.

Carol and I were well fitted out with oilskin raincoats provided by the stables
Carol and I were well fitted out with oilskin raincoats provided by the stables

The friendly staff at Dart River Stables sorted us out promptly, fitting us with good helmets, warm gloves and long oilskin raincoats. After the safety briefing we met our horses. Eden, a small but smart eight-year-old thoroughbred was a pleasant, uncomplicated fellow, and Carol’s steed was an interesting-looking Appaloosa aptly named Frodo, who looked grumpy but was very willing. Putting his ears forward for photos wasn’t in his reportoire, however.

Our guide Olivia, one of the team of 10, was also from England, having come to New Zealand for “a few months”. She has now worked for Dart River Stables for nearly five years. Staff numbers increase to 15 plus in the busy summer period. Olivia shared her extensive knowledge of the area and the history as we rode, including snippets about the Maori legends and even the height of the nearby mountains.    

The famous braided river from above (Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)
The famous braided river from above (Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)

Dart River Stables has its main base in Glenorchy, and it was a short walk along the road on the horses before we were riding alongside the Dart River. There was good ground for some faster-paced work but the highlight was wading through the braided river.    

The advice “don’t look down” proved valuable when crossing deeper parts: looking at the fast-flowing water, which was up to our boots, was disorientating – far better to have the bank in your sights. Olivia found the safe places to cross, guided very much by her water-loving horse who had the nickname of ‘The Boat’. With rain and melting snow from the mountains, the river changes constantly – so, where The Boat was reluctant to go in, we diverted to a safer crossing place.

Carol and I traverse the Dart River (Image: Jane Thompson)
Carol and I traverse the Dart River (Image: Jane Thompson)

The horses were all well behaved and very happy to mooch along or pick up the pace. At no time did either of us feel unsafe or out of control, and the horses enjoyed their work. Dart River Stables utilises 300 acres for trekking, and has recently acquired extra land. Future plans include developing an equestrian park, where people can bring their own horses to ride.

Currently there are more than 60 horses in the trekking operation. They are predominantly standardbreds who have proved to be quiet, with good feet, and adjust well to the lifestyle, being hardier than the thoroughbreds. Around four horses a year are purchased through contacts in racing and trotting stables, and there are a couple of locally-bred horses as well. Ten of the horses are in retirement, and will live out their days grazing in the most beautiful of locations. 

At one stage, about half of the Dart horses were involved in the film industry. Many were used because they were happy to canter through the rivers, whereas the stunt horses bought in from Australia wouldn’t do it.

(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)
(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)

After about three hours of riding in and around the river, having a knee-deep dip in Lake Wakatipu, and just as we were starting to feel the effects of the time in the saddle, we got to the stables’ main grazing area under Mt Alfred. Owner Peter Davies met us with a welcome cup of coffee and an huge Anzac biscuit. While our horses tucked into their lunch, we climbed aboard the nine-seater Land Rover to head further into the mountains to see more film location sites and visit Paradise, which is very well named.

Taking time to soack up the view (Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)
Taking time to soack up the view (Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)

Peter had been a steeplechase jockey in the UK, and came out to NZ to work in the racing industry, eventually ending up in Queenstown, working with Dart River Trekking. He bought into the business and eventually bought the others out. Like many of the locals, he did a lot of work with horses on film sets, including The Lord of The Rings. Peter still rides in the Glenorchy Races which are held annually in early January on the local golf course.   

Peter is fiercely protective of the area’s charm, with mixed views on the latest and proposed developments. While the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy was only recently sealed, the four-wheel drive was needed to traverse the rough gravel roads and streams on the way to Paradise. Peter didn’t want any change to these: “It means people have to go slow and it is worth going slow in this part of the world.”   

The two forms of transport were a superb way of seeing this truly beautiful region. I’ve driven into Glenorchy before, and even spent time in the quaint local pub, but still was blown away by the place this day.

Carol rated the day as one of the highlights of her trip. “It was the combination of the most incredible New Zealand landscape and having the opportunity to access it on a horse. Horseback is just so much more peaceful; I love being able to get so close to the birds and nature.  Riding through those rivers, wow, it was an opportunity I haven’t had before. Being a Lord of the Rings fan meant there were lots of added extras for me, but even without that, it was just fabulous.  I wouldn’t have thought of seeking out a trek to see this part of the world, but I am so glad I had the opportunity.”

Glenorchy was a highlight of Carol's visit to New Zealand (Image: Jane Thompson)
Glenorchy was a highlight of Carol’s visit to New Zealand (Image: Jane Thompson)

Fact file

There are various rides on offer. Inexperienced riders have a one-hour special: ‘The Hobbit’s Hack.’ The longest ride, ‘The Trilogy Loop’, is a three-hour trek. The two-hour trek named ‘The River Wild’ is very popular. The four-wheel drive tour up to Paradise, visiting locations used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Narnia and Wolverine can be added to any ride. Transport is available from Queenstown.  Helmets, weatherproof coats and warm riding gloves are provided. You can only go on the rides if you are under 95kg.

 www.dartstables.com

(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)
(Image: Vladka Kennett Photography)
  • This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony