October 1999 marked the beginning of the transformation of our quiet little country into a wild rumpus, a runaway marriage of literature and film technology which became Middle Earth. With the filming of the opening scenes of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Aotearoa New Zealand assumed a new persona as the land that filming forgot – until then. The unexpected international success of the trilogy, which won a total of 17 Academy Awards, turned Aotearoa into not only the ‘new black’ in film locations, but a destination for Tolkien fandom. With over 150 different locations in a relatively small country, fans are able to visit the sets while undertaking a tour of some of the finest landscape the world has to offer.
From Hamilton in the north to the deep south of Fiordland, hobbit holes and strongholds, mines and soaring castles, elven forests, dwarvish forges and a myriad of scenes of Tolkeinesque hell, towering gates, mountain fortresses and epic battlefields appeared, were filmed and vanished again.
(Weta Workshop, Wellington)
Mirkwood and Rivendell
While the whole country hosts middle-earthly locations, a south-western tour can incorporate some of the most thrilling Rings settings with stunning sight-seeing and some fabulous southern hospitality. The beautiful Waiau River, between Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, and the towering peaks surrounding it were the River Anduin near Lothlorien, and the surroundings of Mirkwood and Rivendell. Fangorn Forest is tucked away on the Takaro Road, where Aragon slipped silently through the trees.
East of our Lake Manapouri is the Kepler Mire or Dismal Swamp wetland, which doubles as the dread Dead Marshes, filled with the dead faces of the Dagorlad battlefields fallen soldiers. The scene where Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through the marsh is possibly one of the most haunting in the film.
(North Mavora Lake – © Jeff Hitchcock, Flickr)
Further inland from Te Anau lies the beautiful and secluded Mavora Lakes Park and greenstone Walkway. A number of scenes were shot around the lakes, including Nen Hithoel, Silverlode and Anduin rivers, and parts of Fangorn and the country south of Rivendell. The Lakes are part of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area and are worthy of a visit on their own merit, let alone for the hobbitish nostalgia that can be felt in them! Frodo was stabbed by the lord of the nazgul in Te Anau.
Mines of Moria
Queenstown, The Remarkables Mountain Range, Arrowtown and the surrounding area includes the escape route from the Mines of Moria, Skippers Gorge is where Arwin summoned the river to drown the nazgul after rescuing Frodo and, a bit further inland at the Kawarau Gorge is the spectacular site where the pillars of Anduin and Isildur were computer-generated. Rohan, the battle between the Rangers and the Oliphaunts and the “po-ta-toes” scene between Gollum and Frodo were all filmed through this area.
(The Remarkables, Queenstown)
Heading north of Queenstown past Glenorchy you will find the secluded Paradise, where Isengard once stood, Merry and Pippin were captured by the Urak-hai and the fellowship entered Lothlorien.
The length of the Southern Alps, which bisect the South Island, and the many glaciers became the Misty Mountains, where Gollum hid in the dark with his ring and the opening sequence of The Two towers was filmed.
The cast and crew, led by Sir Peter Jackson, worked hard to earn their flood of awards. Weta Workshop produced a thousand suits of armour, ten thousand prosthetic faces and eighteen hundred hobbit feet. The insane number of nominations and awards won by the trilogy set the world into Rings-fever, sparking a rush to New Zealand to match the gold rushes of over a century earlier. Since then, other highly acclaimed films made in the country include the Hobbit trilogy, Bridge to Terabithia and King Kong among many other favourites.
While the film crews have long gone, the sets are all but memories, and the countryside returns to its natural state, the echoes of elves and dwarves, of wizards and wraiths and battles and triumphs will ring out through the land for generations to come, as new crews move in to claim parts of Aotearoa New Zealand as the jewel in their caps.