New Zealand: A Visit to Middle Earth

November 2, 2014
Statue of Gollum (aka Smeagol) sits in the median on a busy street in Matamata – near where “The Hobbit” and the Rings trilogy were filmed.Credit PHOTOS: Rick DuVal
Statue of Gollum (aka Smeagol) sits in the median on a busy street in Matamata – near where “The Hobbit” and the Rings trilogy were filmed.

As winter creeps into Colorado, it’s spring in the southern hemisphere. Time to head south! Way south.

Movie-goers, even occasional ones, can not visit New Zealand without experiencing a keen sense of 

This old growth forest is where, in the films, Hobbits were captured by Orcs.Credit PHOTOS: Rick DuVal
This old growth forest is where, in the films, Hobbits were captured by Orcs.

  déjà  vu. A sense of 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.

You can’t help but look for Hobbits.

This South Pacific island nation is the setting for so many recent movies, it’s all but impossible not to recognize some of it. After all, it’s the venue for the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and “The Hobbit” currently being released, bit by bit.

Ian Brodie, who’s “Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook” sends tourists scurrying all over both North and South Islands, tells this story about his friend, producer Peter Jackson:

“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 my window.’ He realized even then that New Zealand would be the perfect setting if it ever were made into a film.” 

The mystery persists, however: How did “Rings’ author J.R.R. Tolkien so accurately depict New Zealand as Middle Earth when he had never visited the country?

“This IS Middle Earth,” says Robin Murphy, who works for Film New Zealand and served as locations manager for the entire “Rings” series.

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 months of searching to find the right locations for each shot –many detailed in Brodie’s book, which is indispensable for 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 

Credit PHOTOS: Rick DuVal

  sculpted, intensely green hills it’s the perfect setting for The Shire – home of the Hobbits. Once “Rings” was filmed, so many tourists kept coming to see The Shire, farmer Alexander asked if the sets could remain after “The Hobbit” filming was finished. They did, and now can be visited.

Ian Alexander is not a farmer any more. The farm is now a tourist attraction, where visitors bottle-feed lambs, watch sheep-shearing, and of course, take a tour of The Shire. Famer Alexander no longer gets up at 5 a.m. to milk cows.

It’s not just the Jackson films that have made New Zealand a familiar place to the world.  But, “Rings” and “Hobbit” are the big draws for tourists.

Many scenes were filmed around the village of Glenorchy, just north of the city of Queenstown, 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 wild 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.

If you happen to hook up with Nomad Safaris in Queenstown, try to get Fran O’Connor as your driver and guide. She’ll not only show you places where filming happened, but also reveal some camera tricks used to make the Hobbits seem smaller than Gandalf and other characters. 

As a grand finale, Fearless Fran may take her passengers for a plunge in the nearby river in her intrepid 

Credit PHOTOS: Rick DuVal

  Land Rover.

So if she suggests: “Let’s go play in the river!” hang on for dear life. That snorkel tube on the side of the 

  vehicle? It’s not just for show!

If you visit Wellington, stop by the WETA Studios, where costumes and special effects were created for the films. Here, the repellant Orcs were imagined, and the character of Smeagol (or Gollum) was born. It’s a fascinating look at possibly the most single creative spot in the country.

Look out, Hollywood.

WEB EXTRA

OTHER FILMS set in New Zealand include:

It’s not just the Jackson films that have made New Zealand a familiar place to the world.

Other movies filmed here, all or in part, include: “Avatar,” “King Kong” (the latest one), “The Lovely Bones,” “Waterhorse,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” (trilogy), “Whale Rider,” “The Piano,” and “The Last Samurai.”

READING: Ian Brodie’s book can be ordered from Amazon.com via THIS LINK.

INFORMATION: For a visitors’ guide to New Zealand, visit THIS LINK.

Linda DuVal
Linda DuVal

Linda DuVal is the former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance travel writer and winner of several Lowell Thomas awards. She is the co-author of Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs and writes a local Web site, Pikes Peak on the Cheap (www.pikespeakonthecheap.com).

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