Blog | 30 October 2000 | Sir Edmund Hillary

I asked Peter Jackson the other day whether I would finish as was long since planned: he was confident that we would finish on schedule. I asked because I am beginning to need an end in sight. It's the same with a long job in the theatre. Judi Dench and I used to cross the days off on the dressing-room mirror at the Fortune Theatre — matinee days we did it twice. I'm feeling nothing like that. Indeed, my enthusiasm for the New Zealand I've seen beyond the movie's locations has been an added reward for a year's work away from home.

Of late I've flown over Milford Sound, that aweful fjord which Wordsworth would have loved; I've woken up to find a Right Whale cavorting in the shallows of Golden Bay below my digs at Golden Bay Lodge (with Mary and Ray Nelson), flapping its fin and waving its tail and snorting out of its barnacled head: and I've had supper with Edmund and June Hillary in Wellington.

Sir Ed is a star. Eighty years old and still revelling in it. After being lucky enough to have his chance, he has taken it to summit after summit. First Everest: then the all-conquering lecture tours and the books. The "race" to the South Pole in a farmer's tractor, the hunt for the non-existent Yeti and the source of the river Ganges. Above all soars the munificent work amongst the Nepalese and the Sherpa families for whom his fund-raising has built hospitals, schools and now a teachers' training college. The NZ High Commissioner (i.e. Ambassador) to India is the subject of a major documentary by Tom Scott, the Wellingtonian political cartoonist and filmmaker, which may not be seen outside New Zealand, as licensing the Everest Expedition footage is too expensive. I've seen it and read the accompanying autobiography. There is talk of a feature film — but who could play the hero? Daniel Day Lewis or Rupert Everett look alarmingly right and Kenneth Branagh would be a convincing John Hunt, the expedition's leader.

At Tom and Averil Scott's home amongst the trees of the capital's greenbelt, I waited like a fan for my first glimpse of Hillary. It is nearly 50 years since the headlines and that photograph of the lone conqueror on the summit. At the time we speculated whether it was Tenzing or Hillary in his oxygen mask, the union flag of the United Kingdom fluttering from the raised ice-pick. It was Tenzing. Hillary never thought to have his own snap. Instead he had a pee. "Well, we've knocked the bugger off" were his returning words to his colleagues on the south col. His smile is still wide, reminding me of my father, a keen rock-climber. Sir Edmund still responds to queries about Everest with enthusiasm. I stick to the fells but I am in awe of mountaineers, wanderers and explorers.

It is not surprising that Hillary should be from New Zealand, where the land is a challenge and an inspiration. These last months I have driven across it, flown over it, boated and tramped. For the first time, I wish my father had taught me to climb. It is in many places a wilderness, not rivalling the Himalayas but perfect for the Fellowship's journeyings. After all, not even Frodo and Sam could make it up Everest unaided.

Ian McKellen, New Zealand, 2000, Photo by Keith Stern

Chasing the Right Whale in Golden Bay, September, 2000

Tea time for a tramping party near Arthur's Pass, Photo by Keith Stern

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) lead the Fellowship through the mountains