Thursday, December 15, 2011

New Zealand a natural for Middle Earth

North and South islands of New Zealand personify Middle Earth.
From my first look at the Hawke's Bay region of New Zealand's North Island, J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth came to mind, as much because of the images evoked by the books as the films of his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Obviously, New Zealand native Peter Jackson agreed.

Hobbits and sheep have similar tastes in landscapes.
It is, at times, truly otherworldly with pastures of iridescent green, hills like dumplings formed by a giant child (perfect for hobbit holes) and flora unlike anything you'll see elsewhere in the world.

Occasionally you'll spot seriously large, chiseled men that remind you of a ranger. Unlike a Tolkein ranger, though, they are normally friendly and outgoing with a "Good on ya, luv," benediction after encounters.

Wellington from Mount Victoria.
In Wellington - the self-proclaimed "Coolest little capital in the world" - I took a Lord of the Rings tour of film locations given by a former extra with a penchant for the dramatic and yes, I'll say it, Ham with a capital "h".  Just what you need to make the cinematic moments live again.

Tip: The only part of my half-day tour that included any difficult walking was in Victoria Mountain park and it wasn't really that bad.  Looks worse than it is: Some elevation, some rocky, rooty and uneven pathways that could trip you up if not paying attention. If going on your own, do not even think about walking up Mt. Victoria; take a cab or a bus. It's so steep along this road that residents install their own trams and cog lines to get from street level to their homes!

Phil Mackie, our guide to the movies.
Phil Mackie, a former orc, Gandalf warrior, knight, member of the spectral army and an elephant warrior, let us in on a few tidbits as we headed up to Victoria Point and the park that served as the Forest of Buckland where the Hobbits first encountered the Nazgul.
Christopher Lee was the tallest in the cast, John Reese Davies at 6'1" was the tallest of the fellowship.
• Most of the Riders of Rohan were women wearing false beards.
Viggo Mortensen is a method actor and slept in his costume with his sword and horse, but Liv Tyler, who as Arwen was supposed to be a warrior, couldn't wield a sword convincingly enough and didn't like horses, so the Rohan princess' role was enlarged.

Frodo senses the Nazgul.
I think we should get off the road.

You would, too, if you had been on this path in the darkening dusk, with or without the spooky Nazgul looking for you. But then Frodo and crew had 1/2 million watts of light to catch the scenes.

Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith

Enormous sets were built in Dry Creek Quarry, which has been returned to business as usual.

Where Boromir's body washed up.
River Anduinar

Several scenes were shot along here including the finding of Boromir's body.


According to Mackie,  illustrator John Howe wept when he saw Kaitoka Regional Park because it so matched his vision of Rivendell.

Giant ferns and massive trees, especially the native rata and rimu, do give it an other-worldly look.

Because it was a national park, it took a ton of money and very specific restrictions for the filmmakers to use it. They could eliminate a plant but had to put a GPS tag on it so it could be replaced exactly as it had been pre-filming.

Mackie at Legolas's tree.

Legolas at the tree.

Isengard Gardens and Orc Tree

The gardens of Harcourt Park were in bloom when I walked there.
Gandalf and Saruman walk through Harcourt Park.
Gandalf's cart drove through Harcourt Park as he traveled to the Shire and he and Saruman walked along its gardens. It's also where the trees were felled to feed the fires of Isengard but no trees were harmed in the process.

Now you can play frisbee golf, watch jousting matches and let the kids loose in the playground.

Do it yourself
There are many Lord of the Rings Tours throughout New Zealand. The one I took in Wellington was a half-day tour but you can go for days and cover sites on both islands. is a good place to start. Just remember, while The Hobbit films are being shot there now, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot 12 years ago. Things change.


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