Amanda Jones
Middle Earth At Middle Age

Los Angeles Times: Special Travel Issue | New Zealand
Shedding Years of Urban Sissyhood Among the 'Lord of the Rings' Scenery on the South Island of New Zealand.

There was, I'll admit, a certain amount of anxiety that surfaced when I turned 40. To combat this, I returned to New Zealand, my homeland, summoned two childhood friends and headed for the backcountry. The point was to prove that I hadn't lost the gumption required to be a Kiwi girl and that the onerous march of time hadn't rendered me a hopeless urban sissy. For real wilderness, we knew we had to go to the sparsely populated lands of the South Island, where the people are frighteningly hardy. I knew they had what it took to propel me over the midlife abyss.

The Lakes District of the south-central South Island is notorious for its great beauty and hairy-edge adrenaline sports. Almost half of all tourists to New Zealand visit Queenstown, the mountainous township on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Here they fling themselves off bridges while tied to industrial elastic, thrill to rocky near-misses on the Shotover Jet boat, boogie board the rapids of local rivers or, more sedately, drink wine or take a bus tour. But what most of them don't realize is that if you drive 30 minutes on any country road away from Queenstown, you're deep into the Middle Earth that awed moviegoers in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The bulk of visitors never actually get there.

Jackie, Sally and I had spent many teen holidays down south hiking, riding, rafting, skiing and flirting with the notoriously able Southern Men. Our flirting years over, we decided instead to hire our own southern man in the form of a private guide. The advantage of having a guide is he arranges all activities, he knows the remote areas, he tends to raise the fun factor, and he invariably has a "mate" somewhere who can bend the rules when the need arises.

South Islanders have never been good at rule following. In fact, they are supremely accomplished at rule ignoring, which is a large part of their charm. New Zealanders in general have tremendous respect for individualism and don't like to be told how to behave. The closest the authorities have come to this, I noticed, is their anti-drink driving campaign with billboards declaring, "Drive Drunk. Bloody Idiot."
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