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New Zealand

A Visit to Middle Earth

Even New Zealand’s Wellington airport has adopted a “Lord of the Rings” theme.

Even New Zealand’s Wellington airport has adopted a “Lord of the Rings” theme.

NEW ZEALAND -- Movie-goers, even occasional ones, cannot visit New Zealand without experiencing a keen sense of déjà vu. A haunting familiarity overcomes visitors as they explore the sharp-peaked mountains, braided rivers, primeval forests, volcanic mud-pots and plump, emerald hills dotted with snowy sheep. 

They can’t help but look for Hobbits.

This South Pacific Island nation is the setting for so many movies, it’s all but impossible not to recognize some of it. It is the venue for the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which has gained something of a cult following, as well as the subsequent “The Hobbit” in two parts. 

Producer Peter Jackson lives here in a lovely but modest (by Hollywood standards) house near the coast in Wellington. 

Ian Brodie, whose “Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook” sends tourists scurrying all over both North Island and South Island, tells this story about Jackson, his friend:

“Peter, then 18, was riding in a train across the North Island, reading ‘Rings’ and said to himself, ‘Wow, I’m looking at the pages of this book right out there.’ He realized then that New Zealand would be the perfect setting if it were made into a film.”  

But Tolkien had never visited the island nation.

“This IS Middle Earth,” says Robin Murphy, who has worked for Film New Zealand and served as the locations manager for the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Not only does New Zealand embody a striking diversity of landscapes, it has a quality of pure light that makes filming a delight, she says. 

It took many months of searching to find just the right locations for each shot – 156 of them are detailed in Brodie’s book, which is indispensable for “Rings” fans who want to search out the film sites for themselves. 

Murphy found the Alexander farm, not far from the North Island town of Matamata, with its deeply sculpted, intensely green hills as an ideal setting for The Shire – home of the Hobbits. Once “Rings” was filmed, Jackson and company removed every trace and restored the area to its former natural state. But so many tourists kept coming to see The Shire, farmer Alexander asked if the sets could remain after “The Hobbit” was filmed. They did, and can be visited. 

Long story short, “Ian Alexander is not a farmer anymore,” Murphy says. His farm is now a tourist attraction, where visitors can bottle-feed orphaned lambs, watch sheep-shearing and see sheep dogs at work and, of course, take a tour of The Shire.

Brodi manages the site now, and estimates that hundreds of thousands of tourists have come to see Hobbiton, as it’s called, since the ‘Rings’ movies began showing 16 years ago.  

Many movies have been made in New Zealand, but it seems that the ‘Rings’ are the big draw for tourists.

Many scenes were filmed around Queenstown, and the village of Glenorchy, just north of the city, on the South Island. Here, the nation’s signature “braided rivers” (exactly what they sound like) and the steep, sharp peaks that surround the city of Queenstown fit right into Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Get a closer look on a jet boat ride up the Dart River, where the winding and interwoven waterway looks like something a set director might concoct. Your guide from Dart River Safaris will point out spots like a range of mountains locally called “The Remarkables,” which became the Misty Peaks of Tolkien’s imagination. Or they might note spots where specific scenes were filmed. Many of the guides actually worked on the films, and can tell personal stories about the experience. 

Also in this area, you’ll see the setting of (the digitally inserted) Isengard castle and enter an old forest where Merry and Pippin were captured by Orcs. If you happen to hook up with Nomad Safaris in Queenstown and are lucky enough to get Fran O’Connor as your driver and guide, she’ll not only show you places where filming took place, but also some of the camera tricks used to make the Hobbits seem smaller than Gandalf the Wizard and other characters.  

O’Connor knows a lot about the filming of ‘Rings’ – “Viggo Mortensen did all his own stunts,” she recalls. “The fella who played Boromir (Sean Bean) was afraid to fly in a helicopter and it took forever to get him up to the filming site.”

As a grand finale to the day tour, Fearless Fran, as some call her, may take her passengers for a plunge in the nearby river, guiding her intrepid Land Rover across it a dozen or more times to give them a bit of a thrill before their day’s journey ends.

If she suggests: “Let’s go play in the river!” just nod your head and hang on for dear life. It’s a scream – quite literally. That snorkel tube on the side of the vehicle isn’t just for show!

“Rings” fans who visit Wellington should stop by the WETA Studios, where all the costumes and special effects were created for the trilogy. Here, the repellant Orcs were fashioned, and the character of Smeagol (Gollum) was born.

Film tourism has contributed to luring many new visitors to New Zealand, according to surveys done by the nation’s tourism office. 

“It may not be the main reason for most people to come here,” Murphy says. “But it certainly put us on the map.”