New Zealand is a geographical everyman — or, more accurately, everyplace. This small country — just a bit over one-and-a-half times the size of Oklahoma — is blessed with such diversity of scenery that it has become one of the world's favorite go-to spots for movie locations. Portions of the country have represented everything from the Himalayas to the great sand dunes of Turkey and countries from the U.S. to Japan. But no location has become more associated with New Zealand than the landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth and no population is more popular than the hairy-footed hobbits.
“The man who moves mountains” would be a fitting title for Sir Peter Jackson, the genius director responsible for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The second movie in the Hobbit trilogy, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” will be released on Dec. 13. The final film, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” will come out next year. Taking full advantage of the scenery of his native New Zealand, Jackson used, in addition to local studio space, almost 200 locations for the filming of the six films. Using movie magic, he shuffled landscapes to meet his needs.
Because the production company so carefully repaired any alteration and damage to the natural beauty of the land and because the films are a blend of reality and computer-generated effects, it is extremely difficult to discern actual locations. Fortunately for fans, there are several ways to get a fantasy fix and visit bits and pieces of Middle Earth. My husband Jack and I tried several of them.
Our adventure began near Hobbiton, about two hours south of Auckland. When we were there last fall — the New Zealand late spring/early summer — filming was taking place and the set was closed. The ten-acre site sits in the middle of the 1,250-acre Alexander Sheep Farm. We saw the gently rolling hills, rippling across the land like emerald velvet and hazy blue Kaimai Mountains in the distance. Today's visitor can see the actual set; tour the tiny Hobbit holes and visit the Green Dragon Inn and the Mill.
Although we didn't see the set, we did explore the farm. Shire's Rest Cafe there provided an excellent spot for lunch and we enjoyed bottle-feeding little lambs, seeing a shearing demonstration and watching a shepherd and sheepdogs working a flock of sheep.
Farther south on the North Island, Wellington, the country's capital, is home to a thriving film-making community. One of the premier members of this community is Weta Workshop, a conceptual design and manufacturing facility. I was in New Zealand for the Society of American Travel Writers' annual conference and we were fortunate to meet Richard Taylor, director of the Weta Workshop. He was not only the keynote speaker at our gala banquet, he brought actors, costumes and props from the “Lord of the Rings” films with him. The biggest surprise — the Black Tower of Isengard, so menacing and imposing on film — was only 14 feet tall.
This was a special event, but everyone can get an up-close view of some of these artifacts at the Weta Cave, a visitor center/mini-museum located at the Weta Workshop. It's free and worth a visit. And you can purchase your own Black Tower (this one about 17 inches tall) for only $275.
Coast to coast
New Zealand, although not large in landmass, stretches almost 1,000 miles from the northern tip of the North Island to the Southern tip of the South Island. It's about a 14-hour drive from Wellington, the southernmost city on the North Island, to Queenstown in the southern part of South Island. Having the time to explore New Zealand by car would be a great luxury. By plane, we covered the distance in less than two hours.
Queenstown sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, one of New Zealand's longest and deepest lakes. According to Maori legend, a giant once captured a chief's daughter. She was rescued by her lover who set the sleeping giant on fire. His curled up form melted a hole in the ice and snow creating the long, crooked lake. Oddly, the waters of the lake rise and fall about five inches every five minutes. Perhaps the giant didn't die and that's his beating heart.
Queenstown is an ideal headquarters for the area's adventure-seekers — bungee-jump from the Kawarau Bridge or swing out over Nevis Canyon at 90 miles an hour. Hang glide, paraglide or skydive, if you dare.
Helicopters, jet boats and safaris
If money is no object, fly over fjords and mountains with Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters. One of the tours flies over major filming locations for the “Lord of the Rings” movies. If you're lucky, your pilot will be Alfie Speight, the principal filming pilot for the trilogy and you'll get lots of inside info.
We opted for a jet boat tour with Dart River Safaris. The calendar might have said summer, but the wind in our faces was so cold it took our breath away. We gripped the heated handrail as we sped up the river. The Dart, which empties into Lake Wakatipu, is a braided river. From the air you can see the many strands winding and crossing each other over the stony riverbed. Our experienced captain swiftly swung from one stream to another. We zipped past mountains and waterfalls, pulling up into a brilliant blue backwater to explore a forest glade. Mount Earnslaw, part of the Misty Mountains in the movies, towered ahead of us as our guide pointed out several other sites that made appearances.
For a land-based tour, you can't beat Nomad Safaris. As we drove from Queenstown to Glenorchy — a drive rated by many as one of the most beautiful in the world — our guide indicated the site of the movies' Battle of the Oliphants and the pine forest where the Battle of Amon Hen were filmed. We stopped for tea in a beechwood forest at the spot where the Fellowship entered Lothlorien. Lunch was served al fresco at Kinloch Lodge, a hostelry and restaurant overlooking the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. Our spread included soup, several meats, local cheeses, Kinloch applesauce, home-baked bread, pate and New Zealand green-lipped mussels.
We ended the afternoon in the old gold-mining settlement of Arrowtown. The Arrow River flows through it and our drive took us along its banks and through the river itself, crossing once at the site depicted in the movies as the Ford of Bruinen.
More than a movie location
Are there Ringers who, like Trekkies, are obsessed with the details of the films? Absolutely! Am I one? I have to confess I'm not, but the scenery was so spectacular it didn't matter if I didn't know the difference between an orc and a warg.
New Zealand is so much more than just a movie location. It has vibrant cities, lush wine country, fabulous cheeses, beautiful gardens and creative energy. And it has some of the friendliest and most welcoming people on earth. It's 6,000 miles from here to there — a long trip but the journey of a lifetime.