By Simon Woodhouse.
The first of the Lord Of The Rings films may have been released nearly five years ago (Fellowship Of The Ring, December 2001), and we’ve all watched them numerous times on DVD since then, but they’re still just as good today as when they first arrived in cinemas. A combination of factors made them great – good acting, decent script, excellent special effects and spectacular scenery. The first three of these achievements are due in no small part to the people involved in the production; the scenery however, is pure New Zealand.
For those of you who might not know, New Zealand is spread across two islands – the North Island and the South Island. The Lord Of The Rings production visited various locations spread across the length of breadth of both islands. As the film crew stopped over in so many different places, I’ll start toward the top of the North Island and work my way gradually down the country.
A good hours drive south from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, is the tiny coastal town of Port Waikato. A few brief scenes were filmed in the rugged countryside around the town, most of them concerning the journey of Aragorn and the hobbits as they made their way to Weathertop. Carrying on south, the small town of Matamata lies a couple of hours from Port Waikato. Here a lot more filming took place, as it’s the location of the Hobbiton set. Guided tours are offered by the farmer on whose land the filming occured, but he’s not allowed to alter or repair anything the movie people left behind, and what is there has been affected by several years of New Zealand weather.
The middle of the North Island is home to one of New Zealand’s most active volcanoes – Mount Ruapehu. The desolate countryside surrounding the volcano doubled as the Gorgorath Plains, the Emyn Muil and the Black Gate of Mordor. The final battle at the end of Return Of The King was also filmed here. Mount Tongariro, near Ruapehu, played Mount Doom itself. The Rangitikei River flows away from the volcano, and part of it served as the River Anduin.
At the bottom of the North Island sits the New Zealand capital of Wellington. Seeing as the city is home to the production company who made the films, it’s not surprising a lot of the location work took place in and around this part of the country. In fact, Wellington probably makes the best base from which to visit as many locations as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Within the city itself, an old quarry was used first as the location for the Helms Deep set, which was then taken down and the same spot turned into Minas Tirith. Mount Victoria, a hillside park in the very centre of the city, became the location for the hobbits first encounter with a Black Rider, and also served as the area where they were chased to the Buckleberry Ferry. Outside of the city, but all within a radius of fifty miles, are the locations used for the Osgiliath Woodlands, the Hobbiton Woods, Rivendell, Isengard, Crossroads of Mordor, and the approach to the Paths of the Dead.
Take the ferry from Wellington across the Cook Strait, and you reach the top of the South Island. Head west from Nelson, the largest town in the area, and you’re in the Eregion Hills, landscape that served as the Rough Country south of Rivendell. Also in this area is Mount Olympus, and it was here that the Fellowship hid from Saruman’s crows in the first film.
The central South Island region of Canterbury played host to one of the most stunning outdoor locations used in any of the three films – the Edoras set. In the middle of a river valley called Rangitata, sits the lonely silhouette of Mount Sunday. At the top of this wind-swept outcrop of rock, the set builders worked for eleven months to build Edoras. Though only used for six weeks of filming, the location nonetheless shows some of New Zealand’s most impressive, if not a little bleak, countryside.
Landscape further south around Queenstown offered multiple locations, almost as many as dotted in and around Wellington. Within a fifty mile radius are the East Rd (scene of Frodo’s flight from the Black Riders aided by Arwen in the first film), the Ford of Bruin, Lothlorien Woods, Fangorn Forest, the Plains of Rohan, and the Dead Marshes. Now we’re nearly at the bottom of the South Island, and it’s here the filming of the Misty Mountain scenes took place.
Almost 500 miles separate the first and last locations, with almost every major region of New Zealand used to some extent during the filming. The country couldn’t ask for a better showcase of its scenery, and though many of the scenes were digitally enhanced, a lot of what appeared on the screen was totally un-spoilt. Organized tours are available of most of the major locations, but with a bit of planning and a hire car, you can see them all at your own pace. And if you’re a walker, taking the time to head out on foot offers even better rewards. So if you’ve a hankering to visit Middle Earth, it’s all here waiting for you.