Journey Beyond the Screen

The things you do for that perfect movie location shot

There is only one way to get a close look at the Pillars of the Kings - by whitewater raft.

The things you do for that perfect movie location shot

By Stefan Roesch

Ever since my first visit to New Zealand in 2004, I wanted to raft down the Kawarau river in order to go past the awesome Pillars of the Kings movie location. I've done some rafting trips before in the European Alps and in Virginia in the States, so I felt pretty confident. In particular, as the Kawarau rafting trip has a maximum difficulty of grade 3 (out of 5). Piece of cake, or so I thought.

So I booked with Queenstown Rafting, who offer a half-day trip down this leg of the river. After we were outfitted at their base at Arthur's Point, we were driven by bus to our entry point high above the Kawarau. While our guides did a final check of our gear, the boats were hooked on to a kind of flying fox and zipped down into the river gorge below. We, on the other hand, had to walk down.

Our rafts queueing for the flying fox ride into the Kawarau gorge below.

Our rafts queueing for the flying fox ride into the Kawarau gorge below.

Before we got underway our guides Martijn, Sam, Ami and Chief, a local guy with over 20 years of rafting experience, gave us the obligatory safety briefing. 

So this is me (far left) with my five rafting buddies and our guide Martijn.

So this is me (far left) with my five rafting buddies and our guide Martijn.

Head guide Chief (in the white helmet) looking pretty confident.

Head guide Chief (in the white helmet) looking pretty confident.

After a few dry-run exercises, we took off. It was still early in the morning and the light falling into the gorge gave the water a lovely golden shimmer. I was nervous - not about the rafting itself, but I had no camera with me and had to rely on Martijn's helmet-mounted GoPro to get the perfect shot I was after. Would he be able to deliver?

Taking off.

Taking off.

The atmosphere on board was good and the first rapid we mastered set the right mood to make this an enjoyable experience. Martijn encouraged us to jump off and float along in the current. Given the water temperature of around ten degrees, I was curious to find out how the 10mm of Neoprene I had on my body would handle it. It was refreshing, but only on my face from jumping in. And my hands got a little cold, but it wasn't too bad.

My protective layers consisted of waterproof booties, a full length 5mm wetsuit, a 5mm spray jacket and a life jacket. 

My protective layers consisted of waterproof booties, a full length 5mm wetsuit, a 5mm spray jacket and a life jacket. 

Then it was time to head into Middle Earth country. As we came closer to the movie location, Martijn steered the raft towards the overhang on the left, which is visible in the scene, stopped the boat and let his GoPro do its work. You can check out the result here.

Rounding the corner past the location, the historic suspension bridge over the Kawarau came into view. This is the very spot, where AJ Hackett and Henry Van Ash started the world's first commercial bungy site back in 1988. It was great to watch the jumpers coming down from below.

It's a 43-metre jump towards the river.

It's a 43-metre jump towards the river.

We had more opportunities to float beside the rafts and conquered the Twin Bridges and the aptly named Do Little Do Nothing rapids, both of them rated as grade 2.

Needless to say that when Martijn started to practise evasive maneuvers to prepare for the last rapid on our trip (the Dog Leg - grade 3), we didn't take it that seriously. Martijn made a rather gloomy comment about Chief and his crew in the leading boat doing the traditional rafter's victory sign, raising the paddles and putting them together, before they'd even hit the oncoming rapid. You know the saying, 'don't count your chickens before they hatch'. Turns out Martijn had a pretty good inkling of what was to come.

Chief and his crew seconds before hitting the big hole. I'm in the second boat.

Chief and his crew seconds before hitting the big hole. I'm in the second boat.

We saw Chief's raft dive into a huge hole, and seconds later, the boat flipped and it was carnage.

Chief and his crew perform a fantastic face plant.

Chief and his crew perform a fantastic face plant.

When we hit the wave we missed his boat by an inch, but there was no time to contemplate what had just happened, as we were busy trying to pull people out of the rapids and into our raft. While we were rescuing our companions, Ami managed to flip her raft in the same hole. Suddenly, the water was teeming with people.

While we are pulling in people from Chief's boat, Ami's crew hits the water.

While we are pulling in people from Chief's boat, Ami's crew hits the water.

We managed to squeeze five people into our boat. It was pretty tight.

Thankfully, everyone was all right except perhaps for Chief's lost pride. Afterwards, he told me that they only had only two flips in the previous season, while this season they were at twelve.

He reckoned that the riverbed had changed slightly, which really seemed to please him: "You can't predict the forces of nature, mate."

Thanks to Queenstown Rafting for hosting me on this trip.

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The things you do for that perfect movie location shot

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