The Lord of the Rings trilogy turned New Zealand’s landscapes into movie stars. Celebrate the release of The Hobbit, the first in a series of prequels, by searching for new adventures.

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.

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, alien colour.

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 swords.

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 them all’.

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.