The Land of the Rings 

New Zealand’s South Island: the beauty and battles of Middle Earth

By K-L Grant

New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, is the southernmost capital city in the world. Many tourists stop here, feeling they have seen enough and gone far enough. But when it takes hours of flying to reach New Zealand, it is well worth taking a ferry across Cook Strait to the South Island. Less than 25 per cent of the population lives on this colder island, and the sparse population gives the landscape its raw, untouched feel.

The top of the South Island, Marlborough, is wine country and artisan country. The Lord of the Rings film crew came to Nelson, home to more than 300 artisans, to find many of the props needed for the movies – including the beer drank at Hobbiton and the Prancing Pony.

Harrington Brewers in Richmond had the honour of providing this important prop. Extensive testing was performed by the film crew before they could determine which beer tasted, looked and smelled most like a Middle Earth brew, and they eventually settled on Harrington’s Stout. Due to the number of takes required to shoot a scene, the stout was brewed with only 1 per cent alcohol content, but there is a beefed up version with regular 5 per cent content available for the general public. The brewery, like most good breweries in NZ, is open to the public, so you can take a tour, watch the process of beer-making, and crown the afternoon with a sampling of your own.

But beer was not the only prop created in this region. The ring, arguably the most important prop of all, was made by local jeweler Jans Hansen, of Jans Hansen Gold and Silversmith, in Nelson. After winning the contract to design the ring, Hansen made over 40 rings, including one 15 cm in diameter. He never saw his design on the big screen, dying before the movies came out. But his son, Thorkild, is carrying on his work and it is possible to buy your own ring in either 9 ct or 18 ct gold.

The South Island is home to one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world, the Southern Alps. Stretching 550 kilometres, the mountains form the spine of the island, with the great Canterbury plains on one side and rainforest on the other. These majestic mountains became the Misty Mountains during filming and inspired some of the most breathtaking cinematography in the films.

The Southern Alps create the dominant weather patterns in the South Island, winds sweep in from the west, hit the mountains and drop their rain loads on the west coast forest, before rising and sweeping down and over the plains in a hot, dry wind known as the "nor’wester". It’s a similar weather effect to that of the Misty Mountains in Middle Earth. Many different locations were used up and down the mountain range, and the best way to absorb the magic is to take a helicopter ride on a clear day.

Hidden away in a basin surrounded by mountains is Mackenzie Country, named after a sheep-stealing Scotsman who charmed locals in the mid-1800s with his capture, escape and subsequent pardon. This is where the largest battle scene in Lord of the Rings was filmed, the battle of Pelennor Fields.

Twizel, a tiny town once home to hydro dam workers, is now a summer getaway for Canterburians, and provided the support needed to stage the Pelennor battle scene. Most everybody in town participated in the movie, and tours to the filming area (located on private land) can be booked through Twizel’s Information Centre.

While heading out to check out barren, brown tussock land doesn’t sound like the most fun way to spend an afternoon, your guide will probably have participated in the film and the tour includes explanations of the difficulties in organizing and training over 200 warriors on horseback, plus information on the realities of high-country farming and living in such a harsh environment.

Lakes and rivers dot the middle of the South Island, and the majority of towns are situated on lakeshores. Wanaka and Queenstown are the most tourist-orientated, both are big summer destinations due to the hot, dry summer weather, but both are now also winter resorts and are located close to several ski mountains. (Queenstown, population 11,000, boasts over one million tourist visits a year.) From either town, it is possible to experience many filming locations, whether it’s rafting down Kawarau River, which became Anduin River in the movies, exploring Arrow River, which provided the back drop for the Ford of Bruinen, or climbing Deer Park Heights, an 800 metre conical hill with panoramic landscape views used to film several scenes from The Two Towers.

Whether you want to spend time on a rugged, deserted beach, hike through native bush or enjoy a wine tour, it is possible to plan an extensive trip just by visiting places that were featured in the Lord of the Rings series. Many of the people you meet will be only too happy to share their experiences of working on the films until you too feel like you were part of the most ambitious, creative epic film undertaking to date.

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