A return to Middle-earth
Aoraki Mount Cook, part of the country’s Southern Alps range, is New Zealand’s highest mountain. (Matt Munro)
In New Zealand, there is a peculiar clarity to the sunlight. On a bright day, everything is thrown into high contrast. Highlights blaze; shadows are cast very, very dark. The effect makes the grass that covers the hills of North Island appear greener than grass anywhere else in the world. It looks almost like AstroTurf, or a golf course, though it is perfectly natural.
When director Peter Jackson decided to set The Lord of the Rings films in New Zealand, he knew that his native land could provide landscapes so spectacular that in many cases they would need little camera trickery to become the fantastical Middle-earth locations described by JRR Tolkien. They already looked just right.
In the author’s classic series of fantasy adventure books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, most adventures begin in Hobbiton – home to a diminutive humanoid race, the hobbits. For the first films, set builders spent nine months recreating the village on farmland near the small town of Matamata, and returned to spend two and a half years expanding it for Jackson’s new trilogy, based on The Hobbit. Forty-four separate hobbit-holes were constructed at different scales, to make the human actors playing wizards, dwarves and hobbits look different sizes. The hobbit-holes came complete with carved woodwork bearing the emblems of different hobbit families, real vegetable patches, working shutters, honeysuckle bushes, dinky pewter jugs, crocheted curtains and hanging baskets brimming with primroses. Now, the set – maintained by local farmers – is open to the public.
Hobbiton feels utterly real, only the sharpest-eyed visitor will notice that the oak tree spreading over Bag End, the home of Bilbo Baggins and later his nephew Frodo, is made of fibreglass. After a high wind, its immaculately detailed plastic foliage must be collected up and stapled back on. ‘We’ve asked the effects company to make us an all-weather version with retractable leaves,’ jokes Henry, the guide, who was a dairy farmer until The Lord of the Rings came along and transformed his backyard into Middle-earth.
Tolkien’s hobbits are home-loving creatures of habit, with a comfortable daily routine: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper, but they are never allowed to tarry long in Hobbiton before an adventure comes their way. For those wishing to follow in their footsteps, there are abundant opportunities to embark on their own unexpected journey through Middle-earth.
The fastest way to get around Middleearth is to be scooped up in the talons of the Lord of the Eagles, a gigantic bird indebted to the wizard Gandalf. In the real world, the closest experience is to go up in Toby Reid’s helicopter. Toby and his father Bill acted as scouts and pilots on both film trilogies, and now offer aerial tours of the Nelson region’s The Lord of the Rings locations. ‘We’re just coming into Rivendell now,’ Toby shouts through the intercom as the little helicopter flies through a tree-lined pass between the mountains that precisely resembles the Elven city in the films.
This is the Kahurangi National Park, one million acres of snowcapped peaks, rainforest creeks and sandy beaches on the remote northwest edge of South Island. It was Bill who found the striking location known as South of Rivendell here for the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring. ‘Dad found this place a couple of weeks after the scouts had finalised the film locations,’ says Toby. ‘He rang them and said, “You’ve got to see this.” They said, “No, we’ve already sorted it out.” He said, “No, really. You have got to see this.”’
The helicopter comes to rest on the slope of a peak called Mount Olympus, covered with sparkling white limestone gravel, thorny bushes, and some of the weirdest rock formations imaginable. The huge outcrops of rock strewn down the mountainside are worn perfectly smooth, taking on rounded shapes. There are natural menhirs and spheres, but the strangest thing of all is a cluster of rocks in the shape of a giant grasping hand, palm up. One rock juts out like a jointed thumb, appearing to move towards three raised fingers. It looks far too good to be real – but it is real.