Great Drives: Be the Lord of the Road on a Ring Tour

Great Drives: Be the Lord of the Road on a Ring Tour

The hobbits are back! And they’re in New Zealand again.

Now that The Hobbit, the prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, is out New Zealand is once again Middle Earth. Not only because it’s Jackson’s home but because he believes it’s the best film location anywhere.

Since the release of The Return of the King in 2003, fans from the furthest reaches of the real middle earth are enthusiastically exploring the country’s locations, keen to relive a few choice Lord of the Rings’ moments. A thriving tourism industry has grown out of their accessibility. It doesn’t require a Tolkien-esque imagination to match New Zealand’s scenery with that used in the trilogy. No wonder Jackson let the Land of the Long White Cloud (Ao Tearoa) speak for itself. Could any other country have stood in for Middle Earth so effectively? Why not find out for yourselves? I dare you to prove Peter Jackson wrong.

Ring locations abound within easy distance of Auckland, Rotorua and Christchurch. Make the drive by beginning at either end, Auckland or Christchurch with a stop in Rotorua on the way. For instance, a short distance from Auckland’s airport is Port Waikato which became the hobbit’s campsite Weathertop Hollow where Frodo Baggins was stabbed by a mortal Nazgul blade. The ring’s power took hold of his life at Weathertop. Take a walk at the harbour or along a beach after the Weathertop sighting and be thankful that the Ringwraiths are absent.

Matamata near Rotorua looks just like The Shire. A working beef and sheep farm was rented by Jackson’s production company near Matamata and turned into Hobbiton. The farm is open for private visits and the surrounding countryside is still as bucolic as The Shire’s. Green and lush, Matamata is one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions. 17 of the original 37 hobbit holes remain on the farm and are visited during a two hour tour leaving from Matamata. See for details.

From Rotorua a fantastically scenic drive skirts Lake Taupo, where one of geo-history’s most cataclysmic volcanic explosions occurred eons ago creating the vast lake you see today. While you approach Tongariro National Park, Mount Ruapehu dominates the scenery. It’s the highest peak on the North Island. Surprisingly, Ruapehu is the home of New Zealand’s most extensive ski fields as well as being an active volcano. Mountainside villages Turoa and Whakapapa are packed with snow bunnies from June till October each year. If you’ve never skied down a lava tube before, this is the place in which to try it. The slopes of Ruapehu served as the Black Gates of Mordor, the barren lands of Emyn Muil, the plains of Gorgorath and the steep sides of Mount Doom. Picturesquely situated next to Ruapehu is Mount Ngauruhoe, its perfect volcanic cone was the stand-in for Mount Doom.

Tongariro National Park is one of New Zealand’s wildest. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Area with important Maori cultural links. All trekkers are required to register with the national park office before embarking on a walk. The scenery is free, dramatic and inspiring. Check before setting out as weather conditions or volcanic activity may disrupt travel plans.

Flowing from the Ruapehu highlands is the Rangitikei River. It became the River Anduin for the trilogy. A drive along it from Mangaweka to the South Taranaki Bight opens to wonderful vistas. The calming scenery provides counterpoint to the dramatic landscapes of Tongariro.

The South Island is a prolific Rings’ spotter’s paradise. Its magnificent alpine countryside is completely different from the North Island’s mix of verdant paddocks and volcanic peaks. Here Jackson set the kingdom of Rohan, the Plains of Pelennor at Gondor, Rohan’s capital of Edoras and the tall forests at Dimrill Dale.

Christchurch is a perfect base to use for further exploration into the Lord of the Rings locations. Since the earthquakes flattened much of downtown Christchurch in 2010 and then early 2011, the city has changed while rebuilding continues. The changes will undoubtedly be for the better.

Christchurch’s airport has always remained open. Roads are intact and open to all traffic apart from areas where reconstruction is at its most intense. Restaurants, hotels, cafes, museums, galleries, sporting grounds and parklands are all open. Christchurch’s infrastructure was severely damaged and lives were lost. But its contagious spirit for life is intact.

A short drive west brings you to Mount Gunn at Franz Joseph, where the lighting of the beacons warned Rohan that Gondor was under attack by the armies of the evil Lord Sauron. Though climbing Mount Gunn is a feat for the fittest, a look up to the surrounding peaks is enough to evoke the stupendous scene when the beacons lit the alpine ranges like sentinels guarding a whole mystical world. Jackson used these mountains to great effect while he recreated the vast spaces of Middle Earth.

A private location was used for Edoras, the home of King Theoden and his Riders of Rohan. The sheep station Mount Potts is remote, austere and stunningly beautiful, the landscape here will have you wanting to climb on a horse and ride off in search of orcs. Many of the tour guides who lead Lord of the Rings tours were extras in the films. In New Zealand, to scratch a local is to rub an orc. Check to book a tour of Mount Potts, oops, Edoras.

Near Twizel at Ben Ohou Station, a few hours drive south of Christchurch is the setting for Pelennor Fields at the base of the White Mountains of Gondor. Perhaps it’s enough to have reached this far in order to save time and energy to do a future The Hobbit tour. New Zealand’s film locations haven’t been exhausted yet, not by a long shot. There’s always another trip isn’t there? Bilbo Baggins wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lord of the Rings Trivia:

Did you know?

Principal photography took 274 days at over 150 outdoor locations around New Zealand.

Battle scenes filmed in Tongariro National Park required extensive restoration to the park’s vegetation, much to the Department of Conservation’s chagrin.

The Black Gates of Mordor scenes near Mount Ruapehu had to be swept for mines and armaments. It was a former army training area.

The Lord of the Rings employed over twenty thousand background actors.

Over 1,100 people and hundreds of horses were on set during the battle scenes at Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields.

Chances of meeting Kiwis who appeared in the films are excellent.

Curious Rings’ facts:

Stuart Townsend, 26, was originally set to play Aragorn but Jackson wanted someone distinguished and older. At 41 Viggo Mortensen won the coveted role. Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Crowe were also in the running.

The shriek of the spider-monster Shelob is the real sound made by a Tasmanian devil, quite a challenge for Jackson because he’s arachnaphobic.

Jackson didn’t see the final edit of his films until he attended the Wellington premiere.

Only one beacon was choppered to the top of Mount Gunn, the rest of the beacon lighting was computer generated.

The trilogy was filmed at once by the same director, a unique feat.

The trilogy secured a 1,408% profit on New Line Studio’s original investment.

Naked Facts:

Terrace Downs is an excellent base from which to explore the South Island’s natural sites. An hour’s drive from Christchurch, it’s a full service resort in a glorious location. See for more information and bookings.

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