I didn’t realize how much of a Lord of the Rings (LOTR) junkie I am until I arrived to New Zealand. I loved the movies and I’ve watched them a few times –extended edition and all– but that was about it for me. I had never dressed as a LOTR character and I had never greeted anyone in Elvish. Oh, how things changed there.
New Zealand slowly awoke my inner hobbit obsession as I stumbled upon random filming locations at the beginning of the trip. Well, at 5’6” (1.67m) I have the right height to start with. That stumbling somehow morphed into a mad race to visit as many LOTR locations as I could in my short 3 weeks in New Zealand. And here, I recount some of the best sightings and moments from “Middle-Earth.”
Lets Light the Beacons…
I remember the first location I saw from far was Ered Nimrais or the White Mountains where the beacons were lit from Gondor to Rohan. We were driving just out of Franz Josef Glacier when our Stray Travel bus driver pointed it to us. That was just the beginning. We were subsequently and inevitably taken to a few more spectacular filming locations along the south island, since, as you might know, the LOTR trilogy was filmed entirely in New Zealand. Actually, there’s a tiny bit of a lie there. Do you know how many scenes were actually shot outside New Zealand? Hint: It’s a small number… but I’ll tell you by the end of the post.
Also in this area are the Southern Alps, which is the highest and longest mountain range in New Zealand. This was the perfect location for the Misty Mountains, where the Fellowship had to walk under snowy conditions in the first movie. Without a doubt, it is a very dramatic setting!
We soon made our way to the beautiful town of Wanaka, passing through the famous Golden Plains, where the Black Riders searched for Frodo and the Orcs attacked the Fellowship.
Queenstown, a mishmash of Middle-earth.
Right before reaching Queenstown we passed through the Kawarau River, which was the location for the Argonath (the giant king statues) on the Anduin River. We stopped there for a bit, but honestly, I can’t say I pictured the setting like in the movie, sans the digitally made giant statues, of course. So, moving on…
I knew Queenstown and surrounding areas were used extensively for the films, but it wasn’t until I took my Nomad Safaris LOTR tour that I realized how big this area really was for the film, and how diverse it is. Just think of this; they spent 18 months filming in/around Queenstown alone so they captured it in all seasons and all perspectives to recreate several environments of Middle-earth.
Once in Queenstown, there was no way of avoiding one of the major backdrops and settings of the movies; the Misty Mountains! In real life, these are The Remarkables, but I learned from our Nomad Safaris guide that Peter Jackson “renamed” them The Expandables. Why? Those mountains are featured several times in the trilogy as part of Mordor, the backdrop for the exodus from Rohan, as the slopes of Dimrill Dale, from which Aragorn leads the fellowship to Lothlorien after the Mines of Moria, and several more scenes.
In front of the Remarkables is Deer Park Heights, which is Queenstown largest LOTR location. There you can see where Gandalf rode towards Gondor, where the refugees escaped from Rohan, where the attack of the Wargs occurred and Aragorn fell from the cliff, and where Eowyn provided Aragorn with his ‘tasty’ stew. It’s funny that while this is a “large location”, it is actually really small compared to all the scenes that were filmed there. So, while in the movie it looks like they walked for miles and days, in reality they were sort of walking in circles in that one location.
Following the tour we headed to Glenorchy. While it is a village of merely 320 people, at one point in its history it hosted thousands of Orcs. Glenorchy sits by Lake Wakatipu, just about 46km north of Queenstown. It served as our introduction to the Dead Marshes, through where Gollum lead Frodo and Sam to Mordor. This is just one of the filming locations for the Dead Marshes (the other being in Te Anau). I could picture it clearly since it looks almost like in the movie, just slightly less dead.
As we continued along the road, we came to a small village called Paradise, located in the Dart Valley. It literally looks like a huge farm with pinewood forests behind and snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. It’s not easy to see without a screenshot of the movie in place, but this was the setting of Isengard! Of course, the tower was created digitally, but the backdrops are here! Also here is Beorn’s House in The Hobbit films.
Heading back to Queenstown, we stopped at the Paradise Forest, which turned out to be Lothlorien; “prime Elvish real estate” and part of the land of the elf queen Galadriel. While it might be a fair place, this is where Boromir got killed by the Orcs. Also here is Amon Hen, where Merry and Pippin got captured by the Orcs – though the temple on the top of the hill is a few miles away in Closeburn and inaccessible since it is in private property. Bummer…
Still, we had a tea-stop in the woods of Lothlorien, which was well accompanied by cosplay! I obviously played with Frodo’s Sting and Aragorn’s Andúril!
Almost by the end of the tour, we stopped at the 12 Mile Delta, where Peter Jackson filmed the Ithilien Camp; where Frodo, Sam, and Gollum watched the battle between Faramir’s Rangers of Gondor and the men and Oliphaunts of Harad.
By the way, as you can see by my excitement on this post, I recommend you do the Nomad Safaris Glenorchy tour. It was very entertaining and I learned so many fun facts about the filming and locations, and I’m sure any Ringer (LOTR uber fan) and non-Ringer will love it.
Now, before leaving Queenstown, I want to share a somewhat hidden location made famous by these words, “If you want him, come and claim him”. Yes, that’s the Ford of Bruinen where Arwen sent the horse-shaped flood that defeats the Nazgûl. In real life, it is Skippers Canyon in the Shotover River – which I happened to experience on a thrilling jet boat ride!
The south, where the unspoiled nature is…
As we continued our two-week bus trip on the south island with Stray Travel, we headed further south to do a quick stop in Te Anau; where there are more Dead Marshes.
Then came the last of our LOTR locations on the south island, Milford Sound. I didn’t know it at the moment, but this is where Jackson filmed the Fangorn Forest; the deep, dark woodland full of Ents that grew beneath the Misty Mountains. In case you don’t remember, this is where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli met Gandalf the White for the first time. But, beyond any LOTR site, go to Milford Sound as it is an impressive and beautiful fjord on its own.
The north island, where good and evil lies…
While we did the south island on a Stray Tour, Leo and I decided to do the north island on our own to hunt for LOTR sites (and non-LOTR alike) at our own pace and will. Luckily, while we were in Queenstown we came across Ian Brodie’s Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, which we took a look at to plan our trip to the north. We were set!
We didn’t have much time on the north island, so we focused on two main places: Hobbiton and Mordor.
Located in the beautiful Alexander Farm near Matamata, Hobbiton is an easy 2 hours drive away from Auckland. The only way to enter the set is by paying for the tour, which costs $75NZD. It might sound expensive, but trust me, it is totally worth it. After the first trilogy was filmed, the sets were supposed to be demolished as per the contract stipulations. As the set was being demolished, a storm hit the farm, pausing the demolition process for a few months. During that time, fans came to know about the set location and asked the farm owners to enter their property to see it. Word spread and suddenly the farm was famous. When The Hobbit trilogy began production, Peter Jackson asked the Alexander Family permission to build the set again. They accepted, but this time they had one condition; the set had to be built with permanent material instead of Styrofoam and wood (as it is common for movie sets). Of course, they want to keep it as an attraction!
Walking the set felt so real and surreal at the same time. The scales of the hobbit holes go from hobbit size to human size, depending on the type of filming they were supposed to do, but in general, The Shire looked as real as any other village you might come across in New Zealand. Here we peeked inside Bag End and drank “Hobbit ale” at The Green Dragon! Of course, dressed as a hobbit!
Lastly, we visited the Tongariro National Park, which prior to Jackson’s influence, it was known as the 4th World Heritage Site ever established. Once you see its beauty you’ll know why. Now, it is popularly known as Mordor, the home of all evil and the seat of power of Sauron, and where Frodo and Sam went to destroy the One Ring to vanquish Sauron form Middle-earth.
You see in the movies how this place is all dark and full of fire and gloom. Well, it could be like that in real life. This is a place of extremes. On one side you have beautiful, delicate plants and fields, and on the other, you have three active volcanoes and dry, rocky plateaus. Or in our case, fully covered in snow plateaus since it was winter.
Here not only we saw Mount Doom (where the ring was forged and destroyed), which is really the volcano called Mt. Ngauruhoe, but we also saw the Plateau of Gorgoroth – where the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Rings happens; the battlefield on the slopes of Mount Doom, where an alliance of men and elves defeated the armies of Mordor and the ring was taken from Sauron by Isildur. This is located on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu in the Whakapapa Ski Field.
And finally, not too far from Ruapehu is a small waterfall that served as the setting to the scene where Gollum catches a fish. It is the Tawhai Falls and it’s only a 15 minutes hike, roundtrip.
It is undeniable the immense impact and influence LOTR and The Hobbit have had on New Zealand. These movies have not only showcased how beautiful and diverse this small country is, but also made it an overall must-go destination for fans and everyone else alike.
I, personally, was taken there and back again.
Oh, I almost forgot… the amount of scenes filmed outside of New Zealand is: ONE! It was the waterfall where Boromir fell after he died. Jackson didn’t think New Zealand had a waterfall big enough for the scene, so it was shot in South Africa.