River Deep, Mountain High: James Nesbitt in New Zealand
“It’s a country of contrasts, from its extraordinary, untamed landscapes to its modern cosmopolitan cities, from tribal warrior traditions to the world’s third most peaceful nation. And yet despite being so far away it feels surprisingly familiar.” James Nesbitt
James Nesbitt explores New Zealand, his adopted home for the last two years, in this brand-new factual documentary.
Travelling over 1,000 miles from the tip of the North Island down to the South, James visits areas of stunning natural beauty and learns about the history and traditions of this distant country. Along the way he immerses himself in culture and meets Kiwi legends; All Blacks star Jonah Lomu, film director Peter Jackson and actor Sam Neill.
James moved to New Zealand two years ago when he landed the role of Bofur in The Hobbit directed by Peter Jackson. Although the country has been his home during filming, he said it remained largely undiscovered to him. Eager to see more of the place he had been calling home, he takes the opportunity to guide viewers around this beautiful and diverse land.
His journey begins in high-octane fashion in Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. He has a go at base-jumping from the Sky Tower, which at 192 metres, is the tallest building in the city and in the Southern Hemisphere. After recovering from the jump, James learns more about the Haka, a traditional ancestral war cry and dance of the Maori people performed by the All Black rugby team at the beginning of matches. He also meets one of New Zealand’s most famous sportsmen, former All Blacks player Jonah Lomu. According to Jonah, Rugby is one of the most important parts of New Zealand life. He tells James: “If the All Blacks win, the economy is great, it’s fantastic. If the All Blacks lose the economy is terrible. There is no productivity at all because everybody is just so down on it.”
After rugby, New Zealand’s second most famous export is sheep, despite a huge decline in the number of sheep farmers over the last thirty years. In Waitomo, 120 miles south of Auckland, James meets farmer Billy Black, also known as ‘the Sheep Whisperer’, who teaches him traditional ways of working. James helps Billy shear one of his sheep with an old-fashioned hand cranked shearer and has a go at rounding up the flock.
After leaving the farming district, James travels to Rotorua where he meets Maori elder Nanny Chris and discovers more about the area’s hot springs. A third of the population in Rotorua are of Maori descent and Nanny Chris lives in a village where families still live in a traditional way. She tells James how important the hot springs are to the community and how important family and ancestry are to Maori culture. She says: “I don’t have a bathtub in my home, I don’t even have a hot water cylinder.
“If you can’t take the water you need, then you will come to it, so we bathe together in the evening and it’s great because it keeps our family community together.”
Following a lesson in traditional Maori warrior skills, James leaves Rotorua and travels to Wellington, the most southerly capital in the world and James’ home during The Hobbit. He says: “To me Wellington is a city for work, and for pleasure. I know, I’ve lived here. It’s vibrant and exciting, it’s always buzzing yet it never feels overcrowded. It’s multicultural yet it feels very unified. It’s amazingly easy to get around, it has that elusive work life balance just right.”
Wellington is on the bottom of the North Island with a population a twentieth the size of London’s and a surprising fascination with coffee culture. It is where the flat white was invented and home to the country’s champion barista Nick Clark who treats James to a session in coffee tasting.
Next James calls in on his ‘boss’ Sir Peter Jackson to talk to him about choosing the country as the setting for his Tolkien films. Sir Peter was inspired to set the films in New Zealand at just 18 years old after admiring the scenery on a 12-hour cross-country train journey. Sir Peter says: “I think that New Zealand was ideally suited for it because it’s a primitive European landscape. It’s not a desert or a strange, foreign landscape. There are lot of things here that are kind of European but in a very primeval, kind of primitive way and I think that is probably not too far from what Tolkien was imagining when he wrote the books.”
In order to get the best views of these breath-taking primeval landscapes, James takes to the sky over Nelson in a small plane called Roxanne. He even has a go at flying it himself.
As well as rainforests and glacial mountains, New Zealand is also home to super volcanoes which can make life unpredictable for its inhabitants. Residents of Christchurch, on the east coast of the south island, experienced this unpredictability when in 2011 an earthquake killed 185 people and caused widespread devastation. James travels to the city to see the damage caused and meets people trying to rebuild their lives, livelihoods and communities. In a unique attempt to restart the community, businesses have set up new homes in shipping containers. He says: “It’s almost impossible to imagine that right where we are was a thriving, sociable, vibrant, chic city centre. Now it’s like a war zone, a battle ground, but there is a real tangible feeling here, I suppose similar to a post war optimism, it’s about the fortitude and determination of the Christchurch people to resurrect their business, their lives and most importantly their city.”
From Christchurch, James heads to Central Otago where he meets women competing for the annual title of the perfect Kiwi woman. However in this competition, women are not judged on the way they look but on playing pool and darts, skinning rabbits, drinking beer and their DIY skills.
James’s final stop is Queenstown, down on the south island where he meets an old friend, Hollywood actor Sam Neill, and takes a trip round his vineyards. The climate in the region is the very similar to Burgundy in France so it is the perfect place to make wine. James is given a tour of the vineyard and hears about Sam’s family history. Sam says: “My father was a New Zealander and we came back here when I was seven years old but my family is entirely Irish and English on both sides. My family has been here for 150 years so we are really part of the soil here.”
Reflecting on his experiences, James says: “When I first embarked on this journey I was hoping to discover what makes New Zealand and the Kiwis tick, but funnily enough I think I’ve found out what makes me tick, perhaps what makes all of us tick.”