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The Land of the Rings

New Zealand’s North Island: from the Shire to Mordor

By K-L Grant

Uninhabited until the expert sea-faring Maori navigated across the vastness of the South Pacific at the end of the first millennium AD, New Zealand still retains its sense of isolation from the rest of the world. It declared itself nuclear free in the mid-1980s, much to the consternation of its military treaty partner, the United States, and New Zealand prides itself on its pristine natural environment. It is a country of microscapes – from vast plains to hulking mountains, lush rainforest to iron sand beaches, rolling pastures and green paddocks to sleepy towns and vibrant cities – New Zealand is another world.

It was this diversity of landscapes that made the country perfect for its most important cinematic role to date, as Middle Earth. The magic and mystery that inspired the Maori to name it Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, made NZ perfect for hometown boy Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic movie series. Tourism New Zealand could not have engineered a better campaign for the country and the world-wide success of the film has sparked a new branch of tourism, location-seeing.

New Zealand is only 268,680 square kilometres, or approximately the same size as Colorado, which makes it the perfect driving destination. Fly into Auckland, rent a car, remind yourself over and over again that NZers drive on the left side of the road, purchase a good guidebook like The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook by Ian Brodie and you’re ready to drive from the Shire location to Mordor.

Top of the list must be Hobbiton. One of the few sets left standing after filming was completed; Hobbiton is located on a sheep farm just out of Matamata. An easy drive south from Auckland on state highway one (SH1), Matamata is nestled in the prime-farming province of the Waikato. With its rolling, lush green hills reminiscent of England, the Waikato was a hotly contested land during the New Zealand wars of the 1860s. Now a quiet, sleepy little town, Matamata has capitalized on its proximity to Hobbiton with daily tours booked only through the Matamata Visitor Information Centre. It takes two hours, including the drive, to journey out to Hobbiton and step back inside the magic of the films.

From Matamata, the best route to take is south on SH1 to Lake Taupo. Centred in one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, Lake Taupo is a crater born of an eruption in AD 181. The eruption was so powerful it produced a column 50 km high, which was seen as far away as China. Continue around the lake on SH1 to Tongariro National Park and nestled at the foot of Mount Ruapehu is one of NZ’s best-known hotels, Grand Chateau. This is where the Lord of the Rings team stayed for a number of weeks, and it is only 15 minutes from what was to become the heart of Mordor – Whakapapa Ski Field.

Whakapapa is not ideally situated for a ski area as Mount Ruapehu is still active, and eruptions in the 1990s often closed the ski fields. But it is the ideal place for Mordor. The area was used to film parts of the Hobbit’s epic journey through Mordor to Mount Doom. The best time to visit is in summer and good walking shoes are recommended, as the land is rocky and uneven. With attention to detail and a sharp eye, it is possible to locate the rocky outcrop that stood in for Meads Wall – the place where Sam and Frodo confront Gollum.

Otaki and Otaki Gorge, one hour north of Wellington, is the perfect example of the diversity of landscapes NZ boasts in tiny areas. Used to film the Hobbits’ journey to the Shire’s borders, the area is a bedroom community for Wellington but still retains its market gardening and farming industries. A trip up the Gorge takes you from rolling farm country into New Zealand bush, and at the end of the road; there are many places to soak up the sun beside stunning Otaki River. For those with energy to burn, a four-day hike starts at the end of this road and travels through areas used to film Rivendell.

Scattered from one end of the island to the other, there are many other places in the North Island used in filming the Lord of the Rings and connecting the dots is the perfect way to take in the diversity and magnificence of New Zealand landscapes. Many of the locations are not otherwise tourist destinations, and it makes for an eclectic road trip. With a little imagination, Middle Earth can come alive again right in front of your eyes.