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
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
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.
Wandering among table-like rocks – one of which provided a
hiding place for ranger Aragorn and the hobbit Frodo in the film – I spot the
remains of a long-extinguished fire that featured in the same scene. It’s a
strange, tangible reminder of the legacy Middle-earth has left on New Zealand’s
land, but sometimes it works the other way round – with reality intruding on
fiction. ‘On the DVD of the film, there’s a bit of a blooper,’ says Toby. ‘Dad
accidentally flew the helicopter into the back of the shot when they were
filming up here.’
The helicopter lifts off again and speeds over fields of
snowdrifts, punctuated by glassy pools of black water. Toby steers it into a
steep, eerie crevasse called Ghost Valley, and up to the roof of the world: the
peak of stark, rugged Mount Owen. Gently, he lands on the soft snow, the
helicopter’s tracks sinking into the powder. ‘Welcome to Dimrill Dale,’ he says,
using the name given to this place in The Fellowship of the Ring. Miles and
miles from anything resembling civilisation, it is perfectly silent – though a
little line of hare tracks in the snow indicates that at least one other being
has been up here today.
The crew spent 10 days filming on Mount Owen, and did not
travel light. Four helicopters transported cameras, sound and lighting
equipment, technicians, wizards, elves and dwarves, keeping Reid Helicopters in
constant service. ‘The actors playing hobbits wanted to go upside down in the
helicopters, and loop the loop,’ Toby says. Did he let them? ‘No,’ he replies
sternly, ‘Helicopters can’t really do that.’ For some tricks, only a giant
eagle will do.
At dawn, the mist hangs low in the valleys of the Kahurangi
National Park. Fat drops of dew dangle from the fronds of tree ferns glittering
in the morning light like strewn jewels, while wispy trails of pale green moss
lace between high pines. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbits are chased
through Middle-earth’s forests by terrifying orcs, the monstrous slaves of the
Dark Lord Sauron. This morning, though, everything seems peaceful – until a
snapping branch shatters the quiet. Fortunately, the culprit turns out to be
one of New Zealand’s less terrifying real-life inhabitants: a sheep.
One of the best ways to experience this strange and
beautiful northwest corner of South Island is on the back of a horse. The
horse-lords of Rohan are Middle-earth’s most accomplished cavalry and several
of the films’ actors learned bareback riding for their parts – including
Orlando Bloom and Liv Tyler. Today, thankfully, my steed is safely saddled for
a gentle trot along this stretch of wild and windswept coastline.
We emerge into a field of long grass, reaching up to the
beasts’ bellies. The horses follow the lead rider through the billowing reeds
towards the lonely stretch of Wharariki beach. Wind races across the sand,
whipping it into white arabesques that surge over the ground like smoke, and
creating rippled fern patterns on the surfaces of rock pools. Ahead, colossal
rocks loom out of the ocean, eroded by the sandstorms into natural arches large
enough to sail a ship through.
A baby fur seal flops
off its rock into the sea as our horses canter towards a series of caverns.
They are willing to walk into even the darkest passages, emerging minutes later
into the light. Though Wharariki beach feels like the edge of the world, there
are still more dramatic landscapes to explore. The lofty peaks of the Southern
Alps promise further adventures.
The approach to Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest
mountain and part of the Southern Alps range, is one of the most spectacular
drives in New Zealand – and that is saying a lot. Just like Tolkien’s Lonely
Mountain, it looks across a marshy plain, which lies around 750 metres above
sea level. Aoraki rises a further 3,000 metres above that. From the road, it
can be seen entirely, from its shrubby base to its distinctive double peak,
covered all year round with gleaming white snow. The waters of nearby lakes
Pukaki and Tekapo are a vivid turquoise. Tiny particles of rock ground fine by
the glaciers that feed it turn the water milky and give it this astonishing,
On a clear, blue day, gusts of wind buffet down from the
peaks, picking up the fresh chill of the snow. In the silence, the occasional
growling, crumbling sound of an avalanche may be heard. It sounds like the
bellow of a Balrog, a demon from beneath Middle-earth’s mountains.
Along the sweep of the Southern Alps, beyond Aoraki, is
Twizel. Normally a small town of around 1,000 people, its population doubled or
trebled during the filming of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as cast and
crew poured into local farmsteads and guesthouses. Almost everyone in Twizel
had a job on the films, whether as a driver, a porter or an extra. One of the
town’s prettiest girls was upset to find that her silver screen debut would be
under a heavy latex mask, playing an orc.
Twizel’s golden meadows, leading up to violet-grey mountains,
were the location for the most memorable sequence in the third film, The Return
of the King: the battle of Pelennor Fields, and the assault on the city of
Minas Tirith. The city itself was created in a studio and placed here by the
magic of visual effects, but even without it the battlefield is unmistakable.
Local tours now offer visitors the chance to dress up as the Witch-king of
Angmar or the wizard Gandalf, and run around in the sea of grass waving replica
No gimmicks are required to appreciate the beauty of the
scenery, nor the startling purity of the mountain air, but the hobbits’ quest,
and mine, must come to its conclusion in a very different place – a place where
the mountains shake and the earth is alive to its core.
Most of New Zealand’s spectacular mountain scenery is on the
South Island, but it was the North Island – specifically, the Tongariro
National Park – that was chosen to be Mordor, lair of the Dark Lord Sauron. On
the road up from sea level, signs of volcanic activity are everywhere. Thermal
vents among the trees on the hillsides let off jets of hot steam from
underground caverns. Then, beyond a lake populated by flocks of black swans,
there is the first sight of the Tongariro mountain range.
The beginning of the Tongariro Crossing, one of New
Zealand’s most remarkable hikes, lies across a high, flat plain. It looks like
something from another planet, dotted with flax bushes that grow triffid-like
flowering spikes. Green groves are hidden among the rocky outcrops. It takes
seven or eight hours and strong legs to hike the whole crossing, past ice-blue
crater lakes, over snow-covered ridges and through windswept mountain deserts,
where totara trees cling to the soft black volcanic sand.
The trees grow small and stunted, their living branches
bleached bone-white by wind and dust. Human inhabitants, too, are at the mercy
of nature; the last major eruption in the Tongariro area was in 1995–1996, and
there is a constant bubbling of minor volcanic activity. Occasionally I catch
the rotten-egg stink of sulphur lingering in the air.
Ahead, rising into the stormy clouds, is Mount Ngauruhoe,
the massive volcano better known in the films as Mount Doom. It was at its peak
that hobbit hero Frodo Baggins, played on screen by Elijah Wood, finally
succeeded in his quest to save Middle-earth by destroying the ‘one ring to rule
The ring was made for Peter Jackson by Jens Hansen, a
jeweller in the South Island town of Nelson. His son Halfdan Hansen carries on
the family tradition in his modest workshop, making popular editions of the
tactile, heavy design in silver and gold plate as well as the 18-carat yellow
gold one used in the films.
For the true fanatic, a quality souvenir and a couple of
weeks exploring New Zealand’s cinematic landscapes just don’t cut it as a
Middle-earth adventure. ‘Some fans take it very seriously,’ Halfdan says. ‘An
18-year-old girl came here and bought our solid gold ring, costing nearly
£2,000. Then she went up in a helicopter over Mount Doom, and threw that ring
right into the volcano.’
The article 'A return to Middle-earth' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.