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SLK’S XENALOGUE TRAVEL SCROLLS

By Sheryl-Lee Kerr
slkx@hotmail.com

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If you’re going to have a New Zealand holiday, why not take in the sights of Ancient Greece? Not to mention Chin, Britannia and Rome. Didn’t spot India, but I might have turned left instead of right at the fern. Still, anyone fancying a crucifixion, well, have we got the beach for you....

The first thing one must realise, dear Xenite travellers, is that when going to New Zealand you are required to love sheep. They will try to sell them to you in every store. I, myself, could not leave this fair nation of my birth until I had purchased the requisite bungy-jumping sheep which attaches to a window with a suction cap and an elastic rope and "baa’s" mournfully the entire way down. The customs officer checked my sheep was in order before I left home for Australia, having initially suspected cruelty to my animal as it continued baa-ing balefully all the way through the airport X-ray scanner. So, just so you know: Leave room in your bag for a sheep.

The second thing you must know if you plan to do an unofficial Xena holiday is it can be handy to acquire your very own local Wild Man of Borneo. In our case, my pal Darren and I found John Paice, a kind, shaggy-haired, hippie version of Farmer Hogget from Babe. He’s a builder who does occasional building jobs for Xena and Hercules and is a back-up driver for them as well. Not having your very own native Wild Man of Borneo will mean you won’t get to all the sites I list below (but you can certainly get to a lot on your own). But then again, nor will you be considered stark raving mad in the standard bemused way of laidback local wildmen. John, it should be noted, has yet to see an episode of either Hercules or Xena, which makes him almost hip in an endearing way. There’s always one dear, lost petal out there somewhere.

If you want, you can track down John Paice and his wife, Trude Bethell-Paice (overseas phone: 0064 9 810 9581) at Bethells Beach Cottages, which overlook the famed-thanks-to-Xena (FTTX) Bethells Beach - the ideal place to crucify anyone you dang well want with both impunity and Auckland City Council approval. This may or may not have something to do with the fact Lucy Lawless’s Dad was once mayor, and it could also explain the Council’s somewhat unorthodox policy on traffic offenders (eg. You will be sentenced to hang by a stake and moan really unrealistically). It’s a genetics thing, you understand.

By the way, if you stay at John and Trude’s big cottage (they have two; we took the little one) you can say you slept in Kevin Sorbo’s bed. He stayed there once. John tells us one morning he saw Kevin amble by and thought he’d stop and say gidday. Halfway there he stopped dead. He saw another Kevin Sorbo walk by and then another. Seems the stunt doubles were having a meeting. And from behind, well, one hardbodied son of a god is hard to pick from another...

If you want to go it alone, Bethells Beach (Te Henga) is about a 50 minute drive (add a lot more for peak hour) from the centre of Auckland. Get your supplies before you go, as, in four days, we were yet to spot the local convenience store (or "dairy" as they call them there). From the Auckland suburb of Henderson, take Swanson Road, then the magnificent Scenic Drive North, then Te Henga Road, then Bethells Road. It is advised not to enter Bethells Valley shouting "Kill ‘em all" from your open car window. For some reason locals can get thingy about that. Not that I’d know anything about that. (SLK looks away guiltily.)

MASTERING THE XENAVERSE

Otherwise known as Darren and SLK’s 101 ways to get lost in the most ridiculous ways.

So you want to sample an honest to goodness Famous Thanks To Xena view? First you must pass the following rabid fan test:

WOULD you be willing to roll about, hugging and crying, fully clothed in the surf with the first stranger passing by who doesn’t volunteer, just to get a grass-roots feel for Bitter Suite’s hidden emotional power?

WOULD you be prepared to sneak on set, past the electric fence (it really is, you know), the guardhouse (I am not making this up) and vicious attack, er, pup stationed cleverly at a neighboring house by the gate? Would you then scale the massive plywood set under the cover of darkness, having dodged (by lying in a fetid, muddy ditch), the four-wheel drive vehicles passing by every minute or so?

If your answer is yes to either, get back on that plane at once, you’re just way too rabid, and you’re giving the rest of us fun lovin’ we-do-realise-it’s-only-a-show Xena fans a ba-ad name. And just so you know, the set is closed, security is tight, only dinkum card-carrying New Zealanders are allowed to be extras, and you’d have more chance of getting beyond the gates and staying two minutes than talking Lucy into making Xena a handbag-totin’, gum chewin’ blonde.

As for everyone else: Right, here’s what you need. One pair of over-the-ankle walking/hiking boots - that mud gets deep and gluggy; a lightweight rain coat (it rains a lot) and some warm clothes with lots of pockets. Pack a camera, spare film and your local Wild Man of Borneo into said pockets. If he complains, tell him it’s all the rage in Invercargill.

BETHELLS BEACH

As I have mentioned before, people with a crucifixion complex should treat this panoramic place as one would the Horde. No, no, put down that water. I meant stay away.

Now this is the sort of beach where one can stop to smell the daisies, fight off pirates, chase Callisto’s chariot, hang about from crosses, watch fleeing beauty pageant contestants and roll around with the friend you tried to kill the day before. That beach.

This beach is just the right size - long enough to take a hearty constitutional for an hour, enchantingly isolated, with straw-grass sand dunes behind them, and jutting cliffs book-ending it into the ocean to the left and right. It gets cold where the wind rockets off the ocean and yet curiously lacks all smell - no bracing lungfuls of salty sea air here. If your eyes didn’t tell you you were in front of a beach, your nose would tell you you were still strolling the green paddocks just behind it.

The only thing to shatter the Xena illusion is towards the Ulysses pirate attacking end (that’s to the right; the Callisto cave exit (Return of Callisto) end is at the left). There is a lone lifesaver’s tower; its white paint peeling from the years. It sits there, a little bit back off the beach watching ... no one. The beach is deserted for the most part. One local man walking his loping dog shuffled a path across the creamy dunes and that was it for the entire morning. I suspect it’s the locals’ best secret.

However, John tells us that the Xena folks long ago learned their lesson never to film on the beach in the weekend and during summer. That’s when the beachgoers arrive in their droves (by NZ standards, that’s like 50) and on one day stood lining the dunes like shadowed sentinels as the crew shot below them. Talk about performance pressure.

The dunes, by the way, have signs up warning visitors not to walk over them - they are trying to limit the environmental damage. There are several winding sandy pathways to get to the beach, but it pays to take note of exactly where you come out.

Personally, the fact Darren and I ended up hopelessly crawling about some dune higher than a house until we found ourselves with grass up to our knees, skirting a paddock with affectionate horses stalking us, does not prove that we are navigationally challenged. We were merely illustrating for our fellow touring Xenites in NZ the down-side of not remembering where one has entered. I trust our humiliating sacrifice will not have been in vain.

At the right, at the far end of the beach, a shallow stream (Waiti Stream) feeds down into the sea and if you want to cross and continue along the beach it’s a shoes-off, pants-rolled-up affair. If you were to follow this stream back to its source (a muddy but possible venture - keep the stream on your right for a direct route), you’ll find yourself, in under an hour, crossing a little white bridge across the road and suddenly standing at the entrance to Lake Wainamu. The area, that is, not the lake itself. Here, there are walking tracks to explore and more Xena sites than you could poke a Joxer at.

Waiti Stream, when it widens out beyond this point becomes the riverbed we see in the opening credits when Xena is in a chariot race with a warlord. That snippet was taken from Chariots of War. It runs moat-like halfway around the base of an enormous sand dune, until it reaches the lake at the far end of the dune.

WAITI STREAM

This is a tributary of Lake Wainamu and it is beautiful. After all, it commemorates the first time Xena saves a shell-shocked Gabrielle at full gallop via chariot, the bard-to-be’s long skirts flapping comically. Hey, what’s not to love? Anyone who has admired the textures of photos of sand dunes in the middle of the desert will be quite taken with the natural beauty of it. As so little water runs along it, rivulets surge and ebb, cutting tubular shapes into its sandy bed. It snakes around sudden outcroppings of river weed and stalky reedy bushes. It varies greatly in width and is shallow enough to walk across barefoot at places. Four-wheel drives could easily traverse it and John’s white diesel-powered beast took to it with gusto, swaying slightly as currents under us shifted and lifted us about across the sand in places. But if you have any aversion to being bogged, and have little practise in such serious off-road motoring, footpower is by far the best option. Besides, then you can walk further on to the reportedly spectacular waterfalls which are NFTTXBJGTT (Not Famous Thanks To Xena But Just Give Them Time).

The greys and blues of this area at dusk are remarkable. And the scene is helped somewhat by the natural phenomenon that dwarfs it....

THE BIG MOMMA SAND DUNE:

Okay so that’s just my name for it (what gave it away?). This is the dune where Callisto meets her very timely death in Return of Callisto, as Xena sits back and watches with a sick look on her face - probably silently pondering how she could get the sand out of her unmentionable places. They shot a really tight up close up in the show, as befitting the moment, but I also remember thinking, poor suckers probably had three metres squares of dirt to film with and needed to cut it tight or we’d see the sand-dumping truck and city square beside them. Oh how wrong I was. This big momma sand dune is so huge it reminds me of Uluru (Ayers Rock) albeit without the heat, wind updrafts, cultural taboos, sheer climb, people plunging to their deaths or... ah never mind. OK this sand dune reminds me of nothing else I’ve ever seen. You can’t even see it from the road as giant pine trees crowd around it and shroud it like curtains on three sides. It is so wide and omnipresent, it brings to mind a creeping dark lava flow slowly encroaching on all in its path. It will one day, surely, take our favorite lake to its bosom and eat that up too.

Presently, when you reach the very edge of it, it drops sharply away and the lake begins about 3-5m almost directly below. If you are standing in the stream looking up at it, with the sky above you and the pines behind, it feels like you really are at the dawn of time. It becomes immediately clear why Renaissance Pictures took one look and signed up NZ. That and the el cheapo production rates...

The dune is remarkably flat, with only a few undulations, so you can easily walk straight across the top. If you have your back to the beach (which you can see from up there) and face forward, the lake will be dead in front and below (not that you’ll see it until you almost fall off the end of the dune). Anyway, by aiming for the top right hand corner of this dune, you will be heading for a special cove indeed. I’ll come to that in a minute.

 

LAKE WAINAMU

Hercules and Xena use this lake extensively. So much so they are running out of fresh ways to show narrow slices of it without giving away they’ve used it 54 times already. Frankly this should be an Emmy category all it’s own: Best use of recycled scenery in a third world country. (Hey don’t look at me like that - I am quoting Ted in The Xena Scrolls.)

Anyway, the second you clap eyes on this lake you’ll know it. Instantly. It’s a place which made Fins, Femmes & Gems the joy that it was. And virtually any fishing shot from the show seems to be taken from there. The reeds have that familiar, "Oh, look ma, another floating Horde body" feel. And I kept waiting to hear God on the megaphone ala Altared States. It’s also the place to wait for friends visiting old lovers in the underworld (Mortal Beloved) - as one does. Sadly no wet, leather-clad warrior princesses waded out while I was there. It is really a pretty place, but there is not much in the way of sitting-down space thanks to that whopping great sandbank at your back. Well except for that darlin’ little cove to the far right...

XENA COVE

Again, I just named that myself - so shoot me. Walk down off the sand dune at the extreme right, and there, right there, is the cove of Fins, Femmes & Gems fame. The place where a sodden Xena plonks a half drowned Gabrielle down for resuscitation purposes and discovers whom Gabrielle really loves. Two things are immediately noticeable: One, Xena Cove is really tiny - only about 4m x 3m. Even then you have to dodge the horse droppings which scream "Argo waz here". Suddenly those tight intimate close ups made a lot of sense. They were working with maximum space available and even then the camera men were probably virtually standing on top of the actors.

Also noticeable, but by its absence, was the little wooden pier where Gabrielle gazes at her reflection and falls for her own perfection. John told us that the pier was portable and they take it with them. In fact, he says, they like to leave everything in its natural state as much as possible "if not better than they found it". Good move. Way to get welcomed back. That said, it’s clear that not all the locals are impressed with having Xena and Herc filmed on their doorstep. Something to do with convoys of trucks trundling past their bedroom windows in the wee hours...

Anyway, also recognisable at the cove was the path coming down from the brush that Joxer as Atis the apeman uses on several occasions to try and sweep his Jane off her feet. Rumor has it I may or may not have done a chest-beating, brush crashing Joxer impression down this path for the camera, but I will deny this adamantly, once the bribes are paid and the last photographic evidence is destroyed.

[Editor's Note: Contact Darren (DarrenP@PlanTech.com.au) for free copies of SLK's Joxer / Atis impersonation.]

NOTE: All of these places are easily accessible by members of the public and are on public land. The following are on private property and could not be accessed without approval from the people who own the land. Even with approval, you actually have to know where you’re going. Come to think of it, even though I went there thanks to John, I sure as heck wouldn’t be able to remember how to do it again. Also, four-wheel drive access was vital. This is where your local Wild Man of Borneo or nearest substitute will come in handy. Remove him from your pocket and beg him sweetly to drive you to the following destinations when he has his neighbor’s approval:

THE AMAZON VILLAGE

I didn’t recognise this at all but Darren sure did and he kept saying deep stuff like: "Over there, that’s where Queen Melosa stood in Hooves & Harlots". This may have also been the Amazon village used in Hercules and the Amazon Women. A spiral wooden staircase to nowhere remains. It’s entirely possible that’s where Gabrielle was crowned Queen of the Amazons. What surprises everyone is that it’s still standing after five years. The Xena builders clearly know a thing or two about engineering. It’s a bit wobbly up top and you shouldn’t probably climb it without taking out a life insurance policy and a team of medics. Still, it is the weirdest feeling to see these odd little props at the top of a farmer’s paddock, halfway up a hill in the middle of nowhere.

The ground up here was extremely sodden, so boots were essential.

My biggest disappointment was there were no left over Amazons to be found, despite being assured by John this was indeed an honest to goodness Amazon village. Sheesh. That’s like going to a candy store that doesn’t sell candy.

THE BACCHAE/BANSHEES FOREST

I didn’t see any wolves, or worse luck, bacchaes, but the trees were unmistakeable. There’s something creepy about the trees in that Girls Just Wanna Have Fun episode and I was never able to put my finger on what was weird until I saw the trees up close. The whiteish bark is more papery than usual and flaking and looks very surreal under the late afternoon sun. The light glints off it and makes it feel you are standing in a ghost forest. I could certainly picture wailing banshees chasing a pregnant Gabrielle around trying to get her to sample the latest in sack maternity wear in Britannia.

In the centre of one tiny thatch of trees I came upon a long dead fire, a few logs, horse hoof marks, and then a 2m-wide moat of trampled grass about film-crew sized. Gee. Now there’s a surprise.

A WORKING SET

Okay so we did actually get to a real-life working Xena set. This required knowing X:WP was having a night-shoot session on a particular piece of private property -- information that required neck pinches on a number of locals and promises to keep where it was to ourselves before they fessed up. Of course it would have been more effective if my neckpinches had the same effect as Xena’s. As it was they just looked at me weird and said: "Who dya think you are? Spock?"

As John relies on RenPic for some of his work he had to politely give us the "you’re on your own tonight, guys" speech. Guiding Xena fans around operational sets would be the surest way we could think of for RenPic to tell him to go to Tartarus for any future work. To say their sets are closed operations is quite the understatement.

It was dusk and raining lightly by the time we got ourselves there. You’d never see the set from the road. It is at the end of a long, falsely signposted drive with a number of Trespassers will be Prosecuted signs to greet you. The first thing to note is there is no way to approach this set unobserved. Farm houses line the drive with windows facing you and their Neighborhood Watch signs liberally posted. A small, wiry dog sits on the porch of one house, it’s ears pricked, haunches tense, with that "Go ahead, make my day..." look on its face.

There’s a guard house at the end of this drive and, due to the rain I suspect, it was unmanned. Beyond it we could see a huge set, possibly of a village, and lots of vehicles and huge containers stacked to one side. In all paddocks containing Xena buildings, an electric fence rings it. There was some castle-looking set up to our right as we walked down and that’s all on its lonesome in a field - with zap-wire around it too, of course.

Every few minutes a four wheel drive or hire passenger van trundles past to or from the set, its occupants eyeing us with reactions ranging from suspicion and curiousness to downright amusement. One suspects it’s not half obvious why we’re there doing bunny-rabbit-caught-in-headlight impressions outside a Xena set.

By this time, Darren and I were dripping wet, feeling like convicted felons (and we were still on the legal side of all those signs) and having that unloved feeling you get when you’re being threatened with criminal charges in the pouring rain. It was more than a little frustrating knowing that at that very moment, just beyond all that plywood, was a cast and crew making your fave show, while you’re about as welcome as senile Aunty Edna with the molehair at Grandma’s Christmas party. We skulked around the perimeter a bit, looking for another way in, feeling more and more like a security guard would fasten thumb and forefinger onto our earlobes at any second.

Let me be real clear here: this was NOT fun. Fun would be testing the volts in that electric fence by comparison. This was a downright uncomfortable way to spend one’s evening. Every time we got close to the property, a local man on an adjoining one would appear and we felt so guilty, we nochalantly dived for the trees - well, as nochalantly as one can do such a thing.

Just as pneumonia was setting in, and I was wondering whether my home newspaper would think my arrest on Xena-set trespassing charges would be better as an amusing page one story or a page three story, Darren and I found ourselves standing at the front gate again. We looked at each other ... deciding whether to risk it, although our explusion would be both imminent and unpleasant. Then we both smiled and together said: NAH, snapped a few pics and turned away. James Bonds we were not. Law-abiding wusses with no love of burly escorts, yeah that would be us, man.

(Insert Wonder Years voiceover dude, here:) That night, as we stood at the top of the road once more, very ready to go home, shivering and marvelling at a full semi-circle rainbow that had formed overhead, we realised something about ourselves. One: We are not the nutty-to-the-max Xena fans we always thought we were. We were just a pair of regular joes who like a good show - but to a limit. And two: We realised that when discovering such deep things about yourself, wear warmer underwear.

LAND OF CHIN

Later that night, we were on the road from somewhere to nowhere and suddenly there it was. Yeah, yeah, I’m not the most navigationally minded, so sue me. I’d like to be more precise but the glimpse of Chin wasn’t on our list of things to do and suddenly it appeared from nowhere beyond a sweeping bend in the road, stretching far, far out below us. John casually mentioned, "Sometimes they do filming down there". Though we hurtled past, it was unmistakeable. It was from the early scenes of The Debt 1, as feral Xena and Borias rode the plains and took on fleeing Chinese soldiers. The landscape is as vast as it is beautiful. I had always assumed it was a smoke and mirrors trick, a pink filter and some way, way distant location. But there lay this plain, in the most beautiful pastelly hues (thanks to some bright flora), surprising for its warm orange colors and deep, rich soil. They may well have used that pink filter to enhance the scene, but their location spotter had done their job well. What astounds me is this incredible scenery is just lying around parts of New Zealand, waiting to be discovered.

But that’s just New Zealand for you. Now as a final note, for non-Southern Hemisphere dwellers, here are some parting tips:

New Zealand is pronounced Nyou Xee-na-land. And it is vital that you add the word "eh" to the end of every sentence in an upward inflection as though you’re asking a question. Thus, you would correctly answer: "Thet’s jist tirrible, eh?" if someone tells you your car is on fire.

Fentestic. OK, lastly fellow Xenites, remember, the most important thing; even more important than the boots: leave room in your bag for that sheep.

And have fun traversing the Xenaverse.

 


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