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.