Thanks to Paul for the article!
Lord of the Rings Country: The complete guide
Where to see the enchanted world of Middle-earth, from Hobbiton’s grassy knolls to the sinister terrain of Mordor and Mount Doom, recreated by film director Peter Jackson in his native New Zealand. By Simon Cunliffe 13 October 2001 Lord of the Rings, let me see, is that the new Harry Potter story?
Where have you been? Not in Middle-earth evidently, nor in the far-flung reaches of the Antipodes. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s famous trilogy, comprising The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, was begun as a sequel to The Hobbit in 1936, but the first volume was not published until 1954.
The saga of a perilous quest by a small band of hobbits, elves, dwarves and men to save Middle-earth from dark forces may have begun with a cult following, but its subsequent trajectory is publishing history. Its evolution from fantastical fiction to postmodern cultural phenomenon complete with merchandising is about to be crowned with an ambitious movie trilogy filmed, at vast expense, in New Zealand.
Why New Zealand?
Putting aside the convoluted tale of Tolkien licensing rights, studio machinations, tax incentives and so on, New Zealand was chosen because the director Peter Jackson is, er, a New Zealander. In an early interview on his plans for the project, Jackson said: “New Zealand is the best country in the world to shoot this film, because of the variety of locations we have.
“A lot of our location shooting will be enhanced with a computer. We’ll add a different sky to some scenes, play around with cloud formations, use rays of sunlight, do a lot of subtle tweaks on the computer to give it a magical ambience. But I want it to feel real. The ideal scenario is that you get a sense that we have gone to Middle-earth, that the castles are all still there. We have done this by taking our camera crew and extras and filmed it in the real places Tolkien wrote about.” As Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo Baggins, says: “That’s actually the first thing I thought when Peter showed me the pictures and things of the locations… This is Middle-earth. I mean, it has every sort of geographical, geological formation and landscape; it’s got everything. So, it’s absolutely perfect.”
Is New Zealand one big film set, then?
No, not exactly. Tracts of the trilogy were shot in miniature with models and morphed into movie reality with digital wizardry. The “real-life” physical backdrops are there, but much of the project was filmed either on private property or Department of Conservation land, subsequently returned to its natural state. Fictional landmarks are often constructed from a number of locations, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart. Throw in the zealous measures taken by the film company to protect its intellectual property and licensing rights, and you have to know where to look.
Lead on then, Bilbo
November is a great month to go. Besides being early summer in NZ, the leading airlines Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand and Qantas have cut London-Auckland fares to below £600. Let’s assume you have flown into New Zealand’s largest city with vivid cinematic images of The Fellowship of the Ring interfering with your sleep patterns, the standard guidebook in your suitcase and a loosely formed plan to head south. Let’s also assume that, for economy’s sake,you are equally interested in locations that are “in the can” but will not appear in your local cinema until the release of Rings II and III, at Christmas 2002 and 2003 respectively.
Starting at Hobbiton, of course
Rent a car and head south-east to the picturesque and relaxing Coromandel Peninsula to slough off the jet lag for a day or so. Turning back inland on your quest proper, head for the grassy Waikato plains. Not exactly on the tourist route, Matamata is a small farming centre hitherto famous for the odd sporting hero, some nearby hot pools, the butterfat yields of its dairy industry and not a lot else. Still, it was in these environs that the village of Hobbiton, with its famous hobbit-hole Bag End, was built and filmed. Whether Matamata is ready for an influx of hobbit-spotters is another matter. Locals are reputedly puzzled by all the fuss. Tourism Coromandel: 00 64 7 868 5985; www.thecoromandel.com.
Head south through the Waikato towards Lake Taupo and beyond to Tongariro National Park; Destination Lake Taupo (00 64 7 376 0403, www.laketauponz.com) can help. Encompassing the mountains of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and the still-live volcano of Ruapehu, the park provided footage for Mordor, the slopes of Mount Doom and the plains of Gorgoroth.
One of New Zealand’s better-known and popular day-long hikes, the Tongariro Crossing traverses the lunar landscapes, crater lakes and sulphurous geothermal crevices of the region. On an overcast day, with the mist closing in, shut your eyes and you’ll smell the Black Riders at your back. Time to make tracks to the capital.
Correct. Home of Peter Jackson’s burgeoning cinematic empire, including the renowned Weta Digital effects studio, the capital city and its environs provided set and studio locations for numerous scenes in the trilogy. Outer Shire, Chetwood forest, the Weathertop hillside, Bree streets, Bree Gate, Helm’s Deep, the Black Gate of Mordor and Minas Tirith; all were shot here.
Wellington fancies itself as the new home of LOTR; a big rebranding exercise around the Tolkien project has been envisaged. That initiative appears to have fallen foul of the limitless legal tentacles of the project’s intellectual property right provisions. But Totally Wellington Tourism (00 64 4 916 1208; www.wellingtonnz.com) will offer pointers and anecdotes to Rings fanatics on an informal basis.
While in the capital you will want to visit Te Papa (our place), the national museum of New Zealand. Regarded, alternately, as a multi-million-dollar amusement arcade or the very model of a major postmodern museum, Te Papa is thought to be negotiating for the rights to mount a travelling Lord of the Rings exhibition. Stroll along the waterfront from Te Papa and into the heart of the city’s café culture. Until recently Spot The Cast Member was a favourite sport among Wellington patrons. “Isn’t that Sean Bean over there?” “Look, there goes Liv Tyler.” “No, silly, that’s Cate Blanchett.”
Come December onwards you’ll probably find yourself spotting fellow Rings enthusiasts contemplating their next move.
So where to now?
Pop your seasickness pills and take the ferry to the South Island. Cook Strait is not exactly the Great Sea of Middle-earth, but it can cut up pretty rough. Sometimes, though, the two to three-hour trip can be as smooth as glass. You are heading for the Nelson/Golden Bay region, but as your journey brings you to Marlborough, you should linger for a day or so among the vineyards. This is prime sauvignon blanc country, but don’t pass up the chardonnays and pinot noirs by Cloudy Bay, Montana, Allan Scott, Hunters, Seresin Wine Estate, Oyster Bay and many other first-rate producers.
Nelson is no slouch in the wine department either, but to get back on the trail, you need to head for Takaka Hill and Golden Bay. This massive, mountainous outcrop topped by limestone and granite formations overlooks the Abel Tasman National Park, which offers one of the most beautiful shoreline walking tracks in New Zealand. The hill, which in less dramatic country would surely classify as a mountain, has made a name for itself with an annual New Year rave called The Gathering (more from Latitude Nelson; 00 64 3 546 6228; www.nelsonnz .com).
The road over it is sufficiently steep and winding to discourage visitors, which makes Golden Bay on the other side all the more enticing. Chetwood forest was filmed on the hill, and beyond on Mount Olympus not easily accessible the Eregion Hills and rough country south of Rivendell.
You could turn back from the biblically named Canaan Downs near the top, but as you have come this far it would be a shame not to explore the region further. Walk into the Mussel Inn at Onekaka, a few kilometres beyond Takaka, for instance, and you could be entering the Prancing Pony Inn at Bree. Try a home-brewed Pale Whale Ale, Golden Goose lager or Strong Dark Ox and enjoy the company of local artists, farmers, alternative lifestylers and holidaymakers, while enjoying a bowl of mussel chowder and planning the next leg.
For the purist, a trip down the rugged West Coast may be more pain than gain, and they may decided to bypass the west, head for Christchurch and take a rail trip south on the TranzAlpine Express. But they will miss out on the striking beauty of the mountain passes and wild coastlines, plus the Franz Joseph glacier area, which has a cameo in the trilogy. A visit to the glacier itself, regarded by many as a highlight of any trip to NZ, should more than make up for the paucity of hobbit sightings. Never fear, richer pickings not to mention some hair-raising adventures are to be had to the south-east.
Bungee jumping, sport of hobbits?
Probably not, since by repute and contrary to the deeds of Frodo and his pals the little people discouraged excessive or adventurous behaviour.
Nonetheless, the road south from the glaciers through the Haast Pass to the Wanaka area (home to the East Road where the Black Riders chase Frodo and Arwen), eventually brings you to Queenstown, adventure capital of the south. If hurling yourself off bridges attached to this good life only by a pair of giant rubber bands is not your thing, how about a spot of tandem parapenting (a cross between hang-gliding and parachuting)?
High above Lake Wakatipu, in the face of the Remarkables mountains, would be an excellent vantage point to spot the locations that hosted scenes from the West Road, the White Mountains, the Pillars of Argonath, Osgiliath hilltop and the Ford of Bruinen. At Glenorchy, up the lake a little, Lothlorien woods, the slopes of Amon Hen and the outskirts of Fangorn forest took celluloid shape.
At nearby Arrowtown Recreational Reserve, an old goldmining town, more footage of the Ford of Bruinen was shot, and further south near Te Anau, staging post for a trip to the famous Milford Sound, are the scenes at the Dead and Midgewater marshes. But it’s time to head north again.
North by Northwest
Heading back in the direction of Christchurch, with the magnificent Alps on your left, you pass through the township of Twizel. A nearby sheep station, Ben Ohau, was the site for the battle of Pelennor Fields, one of the most important clashes in the saga of Middle-earth. The area also pops up as the foothills of the White Mountains.
Further north still, near Mount Somers in the Rangitata Valley, Edoras in Middle-earth’s Rohan rose off a peak in the foothills of the range. It looked spectacular at the time, but like most other sets has since been dismantled.
Back-track across the Rangitata river, head up the valley on the south side, and you will eventually find a sheep station called Mesopotamia. This was the run founded by a young Samuel Butler in the 1860s after he arrived in the infant colony eager to seek his fortune. It was amid these spectacular backdrops that he conceived his own imaginary world of Erewhon.
Samuel Butler had set out from Christchurch, and although Wellington lays claim to Peter Jackson, arguably it was as much from Christchurch that the director embarked on his own quest to helm one of the most ambitious movie projects ever. Much of his critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures (the tale of the Parker-Hulme murder that scandalised Christchurch in the 1950s, and even now makes it blush), was filmed in the vicinity of the city. And just over the sun-seared Port Hills, there’s the harbour town of Lyttelton, where the colony’s “first four ships” landed in 1850. Here, in the mid-1990s, Peter Jackson produced his special effects bonanza, The Frighteners, starring Michael J Fox.
Take a stroll, or a punt, along the Avon, the shallow river that meanders through the city, step into the cathedral that dominates the central square, or wander through the Botanic Gardens . Christchurch and Canterbury Marketing (00 64 3 353 1188; www.christchurchnz.net) can help you feel at home. It’s easy to imagine J R R Tolkien being comfortable here.
Was Tolkein a Kiwi?
No, I’m afraid not. South Africa can lay some claim to the young man born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State in 1892, but that’s probably as close as he came to the land of the long white cloud. The New Zealand phone books stubbornly resist blandishments to produce Tolkien heirs or relatives, the closest being one or two namesakes who turn up in Australia. Still, if atom-splitter Ernest Rutherford can be passed off as a Pom and Sir Edmund Hillary can be the figurehead of the “British” expedition that conquered Mount Everest, there will be those who are only too willing to suggest that it is merely an accident of history that Tolkien is not a Kiwi. At the very least, as The Fellowship of the Ring hits the big screen in December, and all those magnificent locations are evident for all to see, he will duly be accorded honorary Kiwi status.
Meanwhile, back in Oxford…
… where Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon, the Tolkien Society (18 Howard Street, Oxford OX4 3BE, www.tolkiensociety.org) can provide background on the man who made the hobbit.
What it means for New Zealand
The filming of The Lord of the Rings and its impending release is anticipated to be the biggest thing for New Zealand since the America’s Cup came to Auckland “an unparallelled opportunity to promote New Zealand to the world”, in government-speak. Film New Zealand, the New Zealand Film Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tourism New Zealand, Creative New Zealand, Trade New Zealand and Investment New Zealand are all hoping to hitch a ride on Gandalf’s cloak-tails.
Paul Voigt, of Investment New Zealand, says his agency has a lead role in “developing appropriate strategies to maximise the opportunities” arising out of the trilogy’s production and release. This involves promoting the film’s locations, profiling NZ talent and creativity, and media profiling of NZ globally.
To iron out potential roadblocks in this ambitious quest, Pete Hodgson, the Associate Minister of Economic Development, who also handles the portfolios of Technology and Trade, has been unofficially designated Minister for Lord of the Rings. “If this movie is going to be as big as people are saying, then presumably we have to see some marketing opportunities for New Zealand Inc,” says a spokesman. “Mr Hodgson has simply been identified by cabinet as the person best placed to take charge of co-ordinating those efforts.”
While no one is prepared to put figures on the potential returns, tourism operatives are anticipating the film’s release with a certain frustrated excitement. Tourism is one of New Zealand’s biggest foreign-exchange earners. At local levels, people are already fielding interest, but find themselves hamstrung. Everyone involved in the production of the trilogy was required to sign a confidentiality form preventing them from talking to the media, or from revealing details of the film’s production. A Wellington newspaper, which produced a poster of local sets to give away to readers, was prevented from doing so in the courts. The production company is evidently keeping its powder dry for a co-ordinated roll-out.
Nonetheless, excitement at the prospect of release is rising. New Zealand, which bobs about on the high seas of world economic trends, is expecting the current downturn to have an effect. It will take a magic wand to avoid a serious buffeting.
Helen Clark’s Labour government, grappling with fallout from the US terrorist attacks, and having to repurchase the national airline to save it, will be hoping The Fellowship of the Ring will do the business.