New Zealand for Hobbit-hunters: how to visit Middle-earth

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Famed for dramatic scenery that has long-inspired writers, artists and dreamers, it was only a matter of time before New Zealand made a name for itself in the movies. Advancing its rise to stardom is Peter Jackson, the Kiwi film director who brought the blockbusting Lord of the Rings trilogy to the big screen. The Hobbit trilogy will once again put New Zealand’s beauty under the spotlight.

There are 44 Hobbit holes at Hobbiton Movie Set Tours. Image by Ian Brodie c/o Tourism New Zealand

JRR Tolkien set both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in ‘Middle-earth’, a mythical land inspired partly by the author’s childhood explorations of rural England. Jackson’s home turf, New Zealand, proved the perfect setting for Middle-earth’s re-creation, with more than 150 locations around the country featured in The Lord of the Rings (LoTR).

LoTR sets were dismantled when filming ended in 2000, while those for The Hobbit remain a closely guarded secret, in theory at least. One exception is the Hobbits’ village, Hobbiton. Nestled in green hills near Matamata two hours' drive south of Auckland, the set was rebuilt for The Hobbit in permanent materials so that fans can continue to visit it. Hobbiton Movie Set Tours (www.hobbitontours.com) take in sights such as the arched bridge, Party Tree, and a host of Hobbit holes including the home of Bilbo Baggins, Bag End.

The famous rolling hills of Matamata – where Hobbiton was filmed in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the upcoming The Hobbit film. Image by Ian Brodie c/o Tourism New Zealand

Little imagination is needed to conjure up scenes that unfolded elsewhere, such as Tongariro National Park near the resort town of Taupo. All three of its brute volcanoes starred, with Mount Ruapehu – the largest – taking the plum role of Sauron’s stronghold, Mordor. Varied hiking paths wend amid the peaks, with guidance available from the National Park visitor centre (www.doc.govt.nz). Much more filming occurred on Department of Conservation (www.doc.govt.nz) land throughout the country, freely accessible to visitors and threaded with walks, cycling trails and picnic spots.

Another LoTR location was Canaan Downs, a hilltop scenic reserve between Motueka and Golden Bay in the South Island’s Nelson Region. Stands of ancient beech trees bounded by rolling meadow scattered with eerie rock formations made for a magical Chetwood Forest (where Aragorn leads the Hobbits soon after they leave Bree). Canaan is a rewarding detour off the main road, and within a stone’s throw of three national parks – Abel Tasman, Kahurangi, and Nelson Lakes.

West from the town of Blenheim is the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve. Image by John Doogan c/o Tourism New Zealand

The vast, unpopulated landscapes of the South Island served LoTR well. In Mt Cook Mackenzie Country, three hours southwest of Christchurch, Sauron’s orcs clashed with the men of Gondor and Rohan on Pelennor Fields. While the battlefield is on private land, the incredible Mackenzie basin – golden grasslands, surreal blue lakes and backdrop of the Southern Alps – will give you a delectable taste of the action. The view from Tekapo’s Mt John Observatory (earthandskynz.com) is one of the grandest in the land, day or night.

The outdoor adventure mecca of Queenstown was a hotbed of LoTR activity. Among the many locations to be found in its ranges is the realm of Lothlorien near Glenorchy, and the Ford of Bruinen and Gladden Fields set in the surrounds of nuggetty Arrowtown. Picturesque Chard Farm (www.chardfarm.co.nz) winery affords views of Argonath on the Anduin River (The Pillar of Kings), digitally generated but easily re-imagined astride the spectacular Kawarau Gorge – home to the original AJ Hackett Bungy.

Glenorchy lies at the mouth of the Dart River, a filming location for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. Image by Miles Holden c/o Tourism New Zealand

The hub for LoTR and Hobbit fans, however, is Wellington – home not only to Peter Jackson’s studios but also the Weta Cave, the mini-museum of the team behind the films’ amazing special effects.

Joining them in the heart of ‘Wellywood’ is the extravagantly refurbished Roxy Cinema (www.roxycinema.co.nz) and the historic Embassy Theatre, which hosted the world premiere of LoTR: The Return of the King in 2003. The red carpet will be rolled out again for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on 28 November.

The most accessible Wellington film location is Mount Victoria in the middle of the city. Its forested slopes assumed the role of Hobbiton Woods, where the Hobbits hid from the Black Riders.

Numerous other locations are within easy driving distance, including the River Anduin, Gardens of Isengard, and Rivendell recast within Kaitoke Regional Park (www.gw.govt.nz/Kaitoke). In the wine-soaked Wairarapa, the spooky Putangirua Pinnacles (see here) are where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli sought the Paths of the Dead. These and LoTR locations nationwide can be explored independently or on tours. (NewZealand.com has details.)

This article was first published in October 2012 and was refreshed in February 2013.