New Zealand’s cinematic output has been a mixed bag. After all, we’re a long way from Hollywood – geographically, socially, financially, you name the yardstick. In spite of this, we do have a history of making mostly good, sometimes excellent movies. My take is that all those degrees of separation from the showbiz capital have been to our artistic advantage. Without a guaranteed market for our endeavours, the uninteresting, unoriginal, untalented or unappealing are less likely to get financial backing for their projects. Writers, actors, and technical crews need to be on their game to stay employed, there just isn’t enough work to support mediocre talents. In short, there’s less filler in the Kiwi movie business.
So not only have the big-time US film crews been using us, some of our best directors have headed overseas, lured by, or seeking, fame and fortune. Roger Donaldson (Smash Palace), Geoff Murphy (Goodbye Pork Pie), Niki Caro (Whale Rider), Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) all entertained offers from Hollywood as a result of directing outstanding movies in New Zealand on comparatively low budgets, with local talent. They went on to work on films like Dante’s Peak (Donaldson), Freejack (Murphy), North Country (Caro), Die Another Day (Tamahori). But as successful as they have been, they’re still small potatoes, because if you ask almost anyone in the western world to name a Kiwi director, chances are they’ll simply say Peter Jackson.
Sir Peter Jackson is unique in that he has achieved a kind of ultimate success in modern cinema, but still kept his New Zealand identity. His shaggy appearance, not exactly red-carpet-ready, his preference for using special effects masters Weta Studios in his hometown of Wellington, and the inclusion of large swathes of NZ landscape in his movies has made him a tourism ambassador. Without a doubt he has put NZ on the map as a Tolkein-esque nether-world, and planted seeds in the minds of thousands daydreaming of overseas vacations.
Although his locally produced beginnings drew attention mainly for their irreverent gore/comedy (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Brain Dead), the drama Heavenly Creatures (for which he also co-wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay) earned him credibility and a more mainstream recognition.
The recognition gave him the clout to take on a 21st-century realisation of JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings novel, an epic trek through the fantasy wilderness of Middle Earth, depicted in spectacular depth over three movies with a total running time of nearly ten hours: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003). This gargantuan project, and more recently The Hobbit trilogy, were the big game changers for Sir Peter and New Zealand, and the impact on both has been tremendous.
In today’s post we seek out some of the locations you can still visit from the Lord of the Rings series. These and The Hobbit movies were filmed entirely in New Zealand, by as many as nine film units operating simultaneously, so this is not a complete archive for the hardcore Tolkein-ite. We’ve selected what we think are the most worthwhile out of dozens of documented sites and grouped them by region, rather than trying to follow their chronological appearance in the movies. It’s interesting to note that north of Waikato the Middle-Earth trail goes cold; it seems the location scouts found everything they needed in the southern regions.
Note that GPS co-ordinates, where given, are approximations only, based on information gleaned from The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook: Extended Edition by Ian Brodie (HarperCollins, ISBN 1-86950-530-1) and various online sources.
We begin where Fellowship of the Ring began, in the deep south. Home to Fiordland National Park, the largest of its kind in NZ, and the breathtaking fiords of Milford Sound. Hike the Milford Track between the sound and Lake Te Anau, or maybe explore the underground catacombs nearby, with their glowworms and subterranean waterfalls. This is mother nature at her flamboyant finest, bejewelled and beatific, and demanding of our praise.
River Anduin: The first movie opens with aerial shots of the Anduin River, which in this instance is the Waiau River. By car just head south from Te Anau on SH95 for about 10 minutes, and turn right onto Rainbow Beach Rd. You will also see the Waiau if you hike the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s best walks. At various times the Anduin was also depicted by the Rangitikei and Moawhango Rivers near Taihape, and the Hutt River northeast of Wellington.
Dead Marshes: Backtrack to SH95 and you will also find the Dead Marshes, actually a large area of wetlands called Kepler Mire, where Gollum cautioned Frodo and Sam, “Don’t follow the lights”.
Fangorn Forest: On the northern side of Te Anau cameras ran on zip-lines along Takaro Rd to track Aragorn moving through the trees, and Bog Pine Paddock was where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli met Gandalf the White..
Mavora Lakes: Amid a naturally cinematic landscape of tussock grassland, forests and mountains, North Mavora and South Mavora Lakes provided Jackson with several notable backdrops. More of Fangorn Forest was filmed at 45° 19.968’S 168° 10.404’E, and The Fellowship beach their boats on the shore of North Mavora. Merry and Pippin hide in the forest from the Uruk-hai very nearby, here. On South Mavora Lake, a swingbridge crosses the entrance to the Mararoa River, and this appears in the scene where the Fellowship leave Lothlorien on the Silverlode River.
Access to the lakes area is via Mavora Lakes Road, off SH94 about 71km away from Te Anau. It is a popular camping area during summer, with opportunities for fishing, boating, four-wheel driving, hunting, horse trekking, mountain biking, or tramping the 50km Mavora-Greenstone walkway. See the Department of Conservation website for more details.
Otago needs little introduction, the small lakeside town of Queenstown attracts about 2 million tourists every year. World-class ski fields, bungy jumping, vineyards and jaw-dropping surroundings are the headline acts here, but a crackerjack local industry lays on all the goodies too. It’s also an ideal home base for the LOTR location hunter, as Jackson’s crews shot many scenes in this vicinity. For a taste of what Queenstown has to offer, there’s this.
Pillars of Kings/Gate of Argonath: The Fellowship paddled up the Anduin, passing between two towering statues flanking the river. This scene took place in Kawarau Gorge, known for its gold mining heritage and latterly the world’s first commercial bungy jumping operation. From the old Kawarau suspension bridge and AJ Hackett’s pioneering enterprise, you can walk along the gorge. Don’t expect to see the statues though, they were a post-production addition.
Ithilien Camp: In reality the Twelve Mile Delta on the shores of Lake Wakatipu is where Sam and Gollum consider the versatility of potatoes: “Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew!” The location is on the Bob’s Cove Track.
Isengard: North of Lake Wakatipu and Glenorchy is an area appropriately named Paradise, and it is part of the Mount Aspiring National Park. This location is where Gandalf approaches the Saruman’s Tower. If you like walks in the wilderness, check out the Rees-Dart Track, there are lots of options for both serious and casual trampers.
Ford of Bruinen: The Ford of Bruinen is located in Arrowtown, which is 20km from Queenstown. From Arrowtown’s main street walk to the river and meander about 200m upstream. The scene where Arwen conjures up a flood was filmed in the Shotover River at Skippers Canyon, famous for its jet boat excursions.
Canterbury is NZ’s biggest region, and unsurprisingly it boasts some big scenery to match. It takes in 42,000 square kilometres of the eastern south island. It has vast, desolate sheep stations. It has Christchurch, Kaikoura, the MacKenzie Basin’s Dark Sky Reserve, the Mt Hutt ski slopes and countless other attractions both natural and man-made. We wrote about South Canterbury in a post almost two years ago, a browse of which will set the scene for anyone planning to travel through it. Of course there are some Lord of the Rings locations to lead you off the beaten path, just a little. Both these locations are on private land, so you’ll need to take an authorised tour to have legal access.Remember that the guides on these tours will have plenty of interesting movie trivia to enhance your experience, too.
Edoras: The capital city of Rohan was constructed over nine months on Mount Sunday in the Rangitata Valley, then de-constructed and removed once filming was over. The production team even went to the extremes of mapping and numbering plants and shrubs, repotting them in a nursery during shooting, then replanting them to leave the spot exactly as they found it. Although the set is gone, the valley is spectacular and the packages offered by Hassle Free Tours are well worth considering. If you don’t want to take a tour you but are driving in the area, you should be able to see Mt Sunday from Hakatere Potts Rd. Mount Potts Station offers accommodation and a restaurant nearby.
Pelennor Fields: On a privately owned sheep station near Twizel are the almost boundless grasslands where Peter Jackson filmed the epic battle of the Pelennor Fields (some close ups were filmed at Queen Elizabeth Park in Paraparaumu). To visit the site you can book this authorised tour in Twizel.
White Mountains (Ered Nimrais): Where beacons were lit as a warning to Gondor in Return of the King. Mt Gunn was chosen to represent Tolkein’s fictional mountain ranges in the movies. It can be viewed from the Fanz Josef Glacier Valley access track – turn off SH6 about half a kilometre south of Franz Josef Village and continue until you reach the carpark. Take the glacier access track on foot. Remote but rewarding.
Franz Josef Glacier itself is a tourist must, anyway, and for those who would like to see the work of centuries of moving ice up close there are a number of walks and cycle tracks. Commercial operators also offer scenic helicopter and light aircraft flights in the area. See the Department of Conservation website for more info.
Nelson & Marlborough
Now we reach the top of the south island, where there are a couple of significant links to the movie series. Jeweller Jens Hansen created the 40-something rings used in the films, and he lives and works in Nelson. You can buy replicas directly from him if you wish, through his website. Nelson is supposed to be New Zealand’s sunniest region, and the township has an arty vibe with galleries, museums, wineries and Saturday markets to indulge yourself in.
Chetwood Forest: A short drive from Nelson is Takaka Hill with its striking marble rock formations, which served as Chetwood Forest for the movie series. Near the top of Takaka Hill, there’s a signpost for Canaan Road. Follow Canaan Rd (unsealed) for about 8kms. Soon after the cattle-stop you can see where Aragorn led the Hobbits into the forest after leaving Bree, as well as a scene of the Hobbits leaving the Shire. If you continue to the Takaka Hill summit, you will be rewarded with expansive views of Golden Bay, all the way to Farewell Spit.
Dimrill Dale: Mt Owen is the place where the Fellowship escaped Moria. Although it is accessible on foot, the film crew arrived by helicopter, and so should you. The tramp is long and difficult – more mountaineering than a family stroll. Although the doors you see in the movie were added in post-production, the steps were real and built for the occasion.
New Zealand’s capital, with a political heritage offset by an artistic one, and there is plenty to do: peruse the bohemian shops on Cuba St, take a selfie with the Beehive, ride the cable car, or perhaps pay a fond tribute to Paddy the Wanderer. If you’re any kind of movie fan, you will also have heard of
Weta Workshop: Well, it’s here in Wellington. And while you can’t just turn up on their doorstep, they do run a variety of tours and they are an absolute must if you are on a LOTR pilgrimage. This is the effects studio of choice for Sir Peter Jackson, as well as screeds of other Hollywood heavyweights, and their displays of movie memorabilia are jaw-dropping.
Dimholt Road: Where Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn came face to face with the Army of the Dead in Return of the King. Filmed at a geological phenomenon known as the Putangirua Pinnacles, you can find them to the south east of Wellington, here in Palliser Bay. You can walk in from Whatarangi Rd, or make the most of this area by exploring the Department of Conservation walks.
Lothlorien/Gladden Fields: Some Lothlorien scenes were filmed in the gardens and lake of Fernside Lodge, on SH2 just north of Featherston. Visiting this is only possible through either Flat Earth Tours or Red Carpet Tours. A spellbinding property with an interesting history.
Hobbiton Woods: One of the most accessible filming locations is Mount Victoria, which is within walking distance of the central city. The forested parts of the mountain were used to depict Hobbiton Woods, where the hobbits hid under tree roots from the black riders.
River Anduin: As mentioned in the Southland section, the Anduin sequences were filmed using four different rivers around New Zealand. Another of these was the Hutt River between Moonshine and Totara Park.
Gardens of Isengard: Filmed in Harcourt Park in Upper Hutt, about 20 minutes drive from Wellington.
Rivendell: Frodo recovered from a knife attack at Kaitoke Regional Park, 2500 hectares of mature forest, and rivers ideal for swimming or kayaking. The exact spot is signposted from the carpark.
Tongariro & Taupo
Mordor: Whakapapa Ski Fields on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, and numerous other sites around Tongariro National Park, were used to represent the snowbound Mordor. Some are only reachable by helicopter, others are of neglible interest anyway, however the Tongariro National Park has a wealth of walking paths, biking tracks, camp sites, lakes and bridges to explore. Isildur forcibly removes The Ring (and a finger!) from Sauron here, and Frodo and Sam catch Gollum here. The gates of Mordor were just inside the entrance to the Tukino Skifield, here.
You can also take a short walk from Ohakune Mountain Rd to reach the spot where Frodo and Sam pass a ruined column in a clearing, and Gollum catches a fish on the Mangawhero River here. There are a few marked walks around this area so access should be relatively straightforward.
Mount Doom: Mt Ruapehu’s neighbour, Mt Ngauruhoe, stars as Mt Doom in the series. Although obviously enhanced on screen, it is still considered active, and erupted as recently as 1975. If you are very keen it is possible to hike up the mountain itself, however you will get photo-worthy views of it when you walk the Tongariro Crossing.
This area of New Zealand is one of the richest agricultural and pastoral areas in the world is fed by the Waikato River, the longest in the country. The extremely green and fertile landscape proved to be the ideal backdrop for Hobbiton.
Hobbiton: This is the Holy Grail for visiting Lord of the Rings fans, and a very entertaining diversion even if you are not. As one of the few sets that were preserved after the movies wrapped, the town of Matamata has embraced the spirit of The Ring and, no doubt, the economic rewards too. As well as visiting the set, with its expert tour guides and souvenirs, you can also chose from Tolkein-themed menus at The Green Dragon Inn or The Shires Rest Cafe.
For more movie locations, see our article on Pete’s Dragon, due for release in August.