Friday, January 17, 2003
The LOTR Locations Tour: Ben's Report. Pt. I - Tehanu @ 02:41 PST
This is part of a Tour Diary from Ben, who included a the recent 'Premiere' Red Carpet Tour of NZ LOTR locations in his extended world trip.

Day 83 - The Day I Started My "Pilgrimage" ------ Things I learned today: 1) My budget is not infinite 2) Hotmail is as bad as I have always believed 3) Themed tours are the way to go

Today begins the tour that I have been most looking forward to, and in a way most apprehensive about because it could easily go either way from very good to very bad. Back when I first decided to go travelling I knew I wanted to go to New Zealand because of the stunning scenery. When the first film of Lord of the Rings came out it kindled this desire because it showed the landscape all over New Zealand in its best light. I thought that since a film would use the best locations possible then anyone wanting to see the best New Zealand offered would go to the same locations as the film was shot in. It was also an appealing idea to go see the locations for a film I really enjoy in real life (kind of like a soap fan making a pilgrimage to Coronation Street, Albert Square or Ramsey Street, or a football fan visiting the home ground when there isn't a match being played).

When I was researching travelling options I found a few tours that offered visits to some of the locations (usually one or two) until I stumbled on the one trip that seemed to offer dozens of different locations along with lots of activities and a long tour that would give me chance to get to know the group I was travelling with. I realised I had the perfect opportunity to go on a special, once-in-a-lifetime tour with the operator (Red Carpet Tours) that took in the premier of the 2nd Lord of the Rings film called The Two Towers (of by now you are unaware of this film you must have been living with your eyes and ears covered underneath a very large rock that has just been dropped on you from a very great height!)

The tour runs for 12 days over the Christmas period which has the very important added benefit of allowing me to spend the Christmas period with a group of people (hopefully friends) I've had the chance to get to know for several days instead of being in some hostel somewhere with a group of people I've only known for a couple of days (if not hours). It was always going to be a strange first Christmas away from home but being with a group who probably had similar interests would make it a whole lot more enjoyable (I hoped).

The tour officially begins tomorrow but this afternoon I was picked up by Vic, the organiser of our tour, this afternoon along with a couple of other people who I'd met just a few minutes before when they came up and introduced themselves (somehow they picked me out from a group of random people as someone else who might be on the tour; this concerned me a little! :P )

The hotel we were dropped at seems palatial compared to all of the hostels I have been in. Just to have nice, soft, white towels provided was a luxury I'd rarely had over the last 3 months! I had a while to use the rooftop swimming pool with its view of the skyscrapers in the CBD of the city on the horizon and some of the other hotel facilities before nervously going down to the bar to meet the rest of the tour group for drinks and dinner.

I was nervous because I'd never been on anything like this before; no roadshows, no conventions, no movie premieres and certainly no themed tours like this one was. I (naively) kind of expected the people on the tour to be all very similar and a lot like the stereotyped sci-fi or fantasy geek. I'm very pleased to be able to say (especially because a lot of them may be reading this) that I was proved very, very wrong. I always try not to pay attention to stereotypes since I've been stereotyped before and know how wrong they can be. A very good friend (and unofficial teacher) of mine keeps pulling me up whenever I do it to other people and was I'm always glad for more proof that stereotypes are usually inaccurate.

Instead of the group being largely male, late twenties and very pale as expected, I was thrilled to discover that there were people from all over the world, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages and there was actually a lot more women on the tour than men. It's also a much larger group than I was picturing with just under 40 people joining us for the first half of the tour around the North Island and around 20 of them staying on for the second half of the tour which continues on to the South Island over Christmas.

Now I've been a fan of Lord of the Rings for many, many years along with the whole Fantasy genre as a whole and would say that I know my stuff but talking to a lot of the people on this tour reminded me of the rule 'there's always someone who's better than you." On this tour I think a lot of people knew their stuff better than me. In fact the only people who didn't were probably the friend who didn't like Lord of the Rings and was just accompanying his friends and the husband who'd been dragged along under some unknown threat! :P This was good though for me as it gives me the opportunity to learn more from the people around me rather than us all knowing the same things and having nothing to talk about.

Before we sat down to the very, very appealing smelling buffet dinner in the hotel Vic introduced us to a Kiwi actor called Bruce Hopkins who plays Gamling, King Theoden's aide in the film. Since I'd been avoiding any and all publicity for the film so as not to ruin it for myself, I actually didn't know at the time who he was (I definitely do now though Bruce! :P ) but it was still extremely entertaining listening to his stories about being on set and hearing a different viewpoint from the publicity materials that are the staple diet of the general public. He had a great repertoire of anecdotes from on set, none of which I'd heard before, and it was clear he loved talking about his time working on the film. It was also very good for us to get chance to ask questions about specific areas of interest.

Some of us got more time to talk to Bruce during and after dinner (I think he was really good putting up with us all and like almost all Kiwis I've met very open and easy to get along with). He'd also brought along a "little" souvenir of his time on set: a book of which only 100 copies were ever made containing mainly unreleased production photos that was given to a lot of the people who worked on the film. Many photos were of the actors playing around on set or had joke comments underneath them for in-jokes within the film. Something that must have been very special to Bruce were the personal messages in the front of the book from the main cast and crew working on the film. The book is a unique piece of history of the film, and probably something that's quite special to Bruce as well, so we are all extremely grateful to him for bringing it and letting us view it.

After dinner things gradually broke up as the weary and jetlagged retired to bed to save up some energy for the upcoming trip but a small group of us remained in the hotel lounge to get to know each other better, the excitement about the upcoming trip keeping us awake until the early hours.

Day 84 - The Day I Saw a Hobbit's Hole ------ Things I learned today: 1) Beware stampeding hobbit fans 2) A common interest will bring people together 3) Book massages way in advance (why does that sound dodgy?!?)

After a great start to the tour last night we headed out along the highway from Auckland through scenery which is startlingly like that in the South West of England with rolling hills and hedgerows with accompanying cows. The goal of this morning has actually been described as the jewel in the crown of the tour so in a way it seems strange that it should be the first destination but since Matamata, otherwise known as Hobbiton, is the first location on our route through the two islands of New Zealand it makes a very good starting point.

As the bus nears the site you can feel the anticipation aboard the bus grow. The surrounding countryside is looking more and more like The Shire. We're all craning out necks out of the window in the hope of a glance at the film location itself, myself at least being unaware that they deliberately located the sets out of sight from the road to prevent spying by the newspapers.

Like almost all of the film locations, this site is on private land and we need permission to get onto just about every one of them. That's another good thing about this tour in that Vic has managed to get us permission to go onto a lot of the sites where we wouldn't normally have permission to go. Hobbiton though is an exception to this rule in that it is the only site to have been turned into a small tourist attraction. Again, being in the tour group has an advantage because we ahve exclusive access to it this morning and are given a guided tour around the site by the farmer who has a lot of great stories to tell about the times when they were building and filming onsite.

So the bus pulls up into the old "car park" and the doors open. Several of the members of the tour begin a stampede towards the sign that says "Welcome to Hobbiton" but curiosly, after the essential photos by the sign, everyone is a little nervous about walking towards the site itself which is still hidden over the brow of the hill. This is the first site we've been to, in theory the most recognisable of all of the filming locations and if this doesn't live up to expectations and it proves hard to recognise the place from the film then the whole tour will have a dark cloud looming over it.

But, in keeping with the sunshine of the day, we're all knocked back as we come over the hill to gaze into Hobbiton itself. It's all there... Bag End, the party tree, bagshot row and over a dozen Hobbit holes still in the hillsides. Although there's none of the set dressing left, no gardens or frontages to the holes, there's still so much more than we were expecting. One thing we've always been warned by Vic is that there are no sets left anywhere and we're just going to look for the scenery itself but with Hobbiton there is still a significant amount of the structural work left behind (saved from the bulldozer only a few hours before it was all about to be levelled) The photo boards near some of the most familiar locations comparing film shots to the actual views we are looking at are just not necessary because we all know exactly what we are looking at without any problems.

Across the lake we can see where the bridge was (all scaffolding and polystyrene in truth) and the pub is clear by a sculpted curve in the hill. Over to the side there's the section of land where Frodo jumps into Gandalf's cart, and a bit further on the path where Gandalf sets of fireworks for the children.

Bag End itself with its rows of windows is the easiest to recognise of all. The inside is made from construction with just a basic hollow in there (the inside was actually shot in a studio) but you can still clamber in and out and pose for photos.

I could go on for pages about the details of the place, facts and figures we've learnt and above all, I could repeat so many of the stories we've been told from construction and filming ...

Choosing specific members of the tour group to film was a TV crew from New Zealand television's Holmes show. I'm quite pleased to say they weren't interested in filming me (I hate giving interviews and seeing myself on camera) but it'll be great to be able to watch the recording of it to see everything again, although I'm a little worried about how they are all going to portray us (it's pretty predictable really).

We got a couple of hours to explore the site and run off rolls of film but eventually had to drag several people away and headed off for lunch at a deer park. Several people marvelled at the irony of looking at all the cute deer and even hand feeding a few of them by bottle shortly before eating some of their relatives who had been barbequed to perfection. This is turning into not so much a world tour for me and instead is a gradual sampling of half the animal kingdom.

We had a few small stop offs at a geothermal power plant and some waterfalls before heading off to Taupo to check into our hotel and get some food. A few of us treated ourselves to a soak in the natural hot spas and I'd hoped to be able to get a massage to try and straighten out the knots in my shoulders from lugging around 30kg of backpack. As in the few previous times I'd tried to book a massage at short notice I didnt' have any luck because they were all full. I should have taken it as a bad sign when I opened the door to the room and one of the three female masseuses immediately threw an entire bucket of nuts all over the room. It was like walking in to a room filled with flying shrapnel. Personally I think it was her fear at the thought of giving me a massage that caused it although for my own sense of pride I'm telling myself it was excitement and anger at being fully booked (although it falls down when I realise they can't have been that busy to have been sat around in reception eating nuts!)

The evening was spent with a lot of us all crowding into a hotel room to try and watch the first film to spot locations but even the most resilient of us only made it half way through before giving into the desire for sleep. It was amazing to see exactly where we had been walking around today in the film.

Day 85 - The Day I Used Gandalf's Toilet ------ Things I learned today: 1) Clouds can roll in very fast on a volcano 2) Gandalf uses a toilet like any man 3) Some women get too excited being on an actor's bed

We woke today with fantastic views out over Lake Taupo, among the largest in New Zealand, and the massive snow capped mountains on the far side. Our first place to visit today is the Tongariro National Park where many scenes from all three Lord of the Rings films were made. Mount Doom lies within this park as do many of the shots used for Mordor because of the bleak, desolate volcanic slopes (when they're not covered in snow during the ski season).

We drove right up to the top of the road, near the start of a large relay of ski lifts and the bottom of the snow field at this time of year then walked a few hundred metres to a sheer cliff that plummets down into the clouds below. We know that several parts of this immediate area were used in the second film but since no one has seen it yet it's hard to place at the moment. We can make guesses but I'm not particularly concerned because it's very dramatic scenery even without the film references.

One very recognisable area just down the hill from the cliff's edge is the site of the big battle at the start of the first movie. Although most of the battle was computer generated the landscape itself seems to have been shot up here. We were hoping to take a close look but clouds rolled in very quickly and we had to head back to the bus when visibility went to less than a few meters. All I could see was Vic's very concerned face because he hadn't a clue where his tour group had gone!! I guess it would be pretty easy to stumble off a precipice with that kind of white cloud surrounding everything. As far as I know we didn't lose anyone.

(I know after having watched the film that this location was used for several scenes, including those where Sam and Frodo are lost at the beginning of the film. The lines "We've been here before" and "This all seems very familiar" getting a big laugh from our group because we had actually been there earlier on in the week and it did all look very familair!. There was also the scene where Sam and Frodo capture Gollum and there's a photo of me stood right below the cliff without even knowing it.)

On the way down from the mountain we stopped for food near a replica of a French Chateau that is used during the ski season. For the third time in a few days I spotted a Kiwi Experience bus. I was getting a little worried that I'm going to be following a very similar route on this tour as I will be when I join Kiwi in a few weeks' time. I've decided not to let it bother me though since I'll be doing different things on each tour and the scenery is so dramatic I don't mind seeing it again.

Next stop was Mangawhero Falls, which run over stone cobbles for a hundred meters before plunging at least 40m off an overhanging rock layer into a deep pool. You can stand at the top of the falls and look out for tens of kilometeres into the valleys or you can walk around the cliff to a promontary that looks back on the front of the falls as they fall ice white into the pool kicking up spray into the air. Several of the Ithilian camp scenes from the second movie were shot here (and now that we have seen the film we all recognise the top of the falls as the places where Gollum chases a fish along the stream bed as Sam and Frodo look on).

Ohakune is our stop for the night. The group stays in two hotels: My hotel, The Hobbit Lodge (named long before the crew shooting the film actually stayed there) and the Powederhorn Chateau. Built purely from red timber many of the cast stayed here during filming. Several members of the tour got rooms and beds used by the cast including Elijah Wood (Frodo), Ian McKellan (Gandalf) and ... *scream* ... Orlando Bloom (Legolas). I can't honestly see the attraction myself but several of the girls were going crazy when they got to bounce on his bed. (Amusing blackmail photos to follow I am sure, and as for the video tape... ;P ) I don't know who was actually in that room that night but am avoiding any and all slander as to possible strange acitvities...

Not that I was totally immune from acting bizarrely. I've gotten to know many people on the tour very quickly (it feels like a lot of us have known each other for months already) and had a chance to nosey around Ian McKellan's bedroom as I visited the girl staying in there. Having just been to the bathroom she pointed out to me that I'd just used Gandalf's toilet. Very wierd!! Had to take a photo to complete the bizarreness. No... I don't plan on framing it but I wanted proof I'd actually seen Gandalf's porcelin throne and no... no photo proof that I'd actually used it.

There's also a guest book in the hotel signed by many of the cast and crew plus photos in the bar of when they were there mixed in with the other customer photos. A long day but one in which we got to explore terrain I'd never been in before and go where no photographer had been before.

Day 86 - The Day I Went to My First Premier ------ Things I learned today: 1) Bungee jumpers are crazy 2) Autograph hunters are crazier 3) Women after actor autographs are crazier still

Tonight was the night the tour has been building to. Seeing Hobbiton might have been the Holy Grail of location visits but what many people have been looking forward to most, in most cases for the last 12 months, is the first showing of the second film in the trilogy. Last night we (well mostly me to be honest) kept annoying each other by reminding each other exactly how long it was till we were to be sat in the theater watching the continuation of the story that was put on hold 12 months ago..

We were up early this morning for the race into Wellington and the wrestle to the front of the viewing corridor to try and get the best positions to spot the stars as they went down the red carpet. Star spotting has never really been anything I've been into but since I'd never been to a film premier before I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

On the drive down to Wellington we stopped off at one of the locations for the River Anduin montage and a couple of members of the group decided to throw themselves off the bridge on a tattered bit of elastic. Strangely out of character I was suddenly overcome with a desire to maintain my overstretched budget and didn't volunteer to risk overstretching the elastic itself. I'm saving myself for later I think.

Had a quick lunchstop to literally shovel food in as phone calls kept coming in from contacts in Wellington warning us that there were already big crowds at the premier (10 hours before the start) and that the city council had screwed us over by not holding a special section for our tour, going against what they had preagreed. I can't really bitch when they gave those seats to charity and the most deserving cause of all: the corporate sponsors.

Dashed into the hotel for little more than throwing the bag onto the bed then rushed out to meet everyone in the lobby. A few members of the group were really getting into the spirit of things wearing intricate and stunning costumes. Two of the girls in particular looked so much like Arwen and Eowyn it was pretty unnerving. I've never seen anyone get stopped so much for photos as when they walked down the street. I think it was all a cunning plan to attract the TV cameras really though... media hogs ;P

Walking along to the premier itself there were crowds of people everywhere, all heading towards the same place and you could see straight away when we'd got to the right place because suddenly there was a solid wall of people forming a horseshoe around the carpet itself.

Now comes the unpleasant bit of the afternoon, the jostling for position around the carpet. I'm probably a little bitter because I lost out. I just didn't have the motivation to throw small children out of my way (or even to stop myself stepping back to let them through) in order to get a position nearer the fence, and I didn't have the anatomy to be able to shriek crazily to get the stars' attention.

I found myself stood, quite by accident, by the gateway through which all of the other guests were entering the red carpet. This meant I didn't get chance to relaly see any of the major stars but I did talk or see a lot of the other actors (including a particularly embarassing incident where the actors for Lurtz and Sauron where stood side by side and my lack of knowledge showed me up by calling them by each other's name.... oh the shame!). The highlight had to be meeting up with Bruce again and getting to chat with him for a while. He actually offered to try and sneak myself and another guy onto the red carpet to see how far we could get but the security was vice-tight and we kind of stood out from all the tuxedoes guests (for reasons that shall go unmentioned).

After they had all entered it was time for the rest of the cast to turn up in the cars. Since they were all being let out close to where I was stood I got glimpses of heads but couldn't relaly recognise a thing but they spent so long signing autographs and responding to crazed fans (I'm not naming anyone ladies (and gent! :P )) that I had time to walk down to nearer the cinema to try and find a different spot to see them all pick their way over a mockup of Mordor into the cinema.

Once the stars had entrered the cinema (and quickly ducked out a back door, unwilling to watch their own film it seems) the crowds quickly broke up and the group reassembled itself. One good thing about having such a large group is that there ended up being people all around the area so we got photos from different places and of each other meeting the stars. Some girls had scored big time by perfecting the screaming technique and got autographs from Elijah Wood and Peter Jackson plus some fantastic photos of them with the stars. Good for you girls! :)

Still several hours to go till our showing of the film at 12.01 precisely and the excitement of many is flowing strong. Mine is beginning to rise again after the disenchantment of the red carpet ceremony (definately not for me) and I'm really looking forward to getting in to see the film.

The body calls though and a small group of us find a packed little Italian restaurant on the main street to eat dinner in. We find ourselves sat around a table made for half our number with a slightly strange version of Frodo, the beautiful Arwen and Eowyn, 2 people who are brave enoguh to be sat around a table with people in costume and some fool dressed in a vague parody of a ranger. The funny thing (well, one of a great many really) was that we didn't draw a single obvious look from everyone else in the restaurant, even when the girls asked for a non-sloppy sauce for their pasta to protect their costumes and tried in vain to work out how to eat food whilst wearing medieval sleeves which droop 6 inches from the wrist.

Tension is building all through the meal. Can the second film possibly live up to our expectations? Can they catch lighting twice? We can only hope and wait as the seconds tick away.

We meet up with more of the group and someone suggests coffee... a very bad idea given how keyed up we all are anyway. We end up back at the cinema half an hour early to watch the people come out from the New Zealand premier. Cries of "it's very good" and "I didn't understand it" come from some of the people few lucky enough to get in there before us.

Then it's our turn. We've got allocated seats but still get in as soon as we are able. The cinema theatre is alike an old victorian theatre inside, all marble, gilt and dado coving. It makes everything seem much more of an event than going down to the local UCI box. The sound system in the cinema has been set up especially for Lord of the Rings too so we're expecting big things from the music.

By this stage I can't sit still. My fingers are going crazy, drumming against just about anything around me (Frodo in front of me would have been losing his rag had he not been in a similar state as the rest of us!) Then the lights fade and a round of applause rings out. We wait expectantly for the film company logos. As each one comes up the bursts of applause finally gets louder and louder. Everyone can feel the rush of excitement as we get closer and closer. The so familiar music wells and the Lord of the Rings logo comes up... even louder applause and finally we see the opening shots to the movie. Everyone sits there.. stunned it's finally happening.

I can honestly say that I've never been in a cinema showing like it, and fear I never will again. Films are always better when there is an audience enjoying it (think of comedy movies you've watched alone compared to with friends) and this audience was totally into it. Imagine a football crowd cheering the home team and you've got something like how we felt (with the odd exception of the squeels when Orlando Bloom first appears onscreen... men cold never quite reach that pitch without pressure in delicate areas).

There were times when you could feel the whole audience holding its breath, like in the first battle scene at Helm's Deep, and everyone releasing it when they cut to the tranquility of the Ent meet afterwards. Cheers rang out when the giant siege ladder falls onto the crowd, laughs when the injokes are spotted and cringes when the cheesy moves are made. The bset reaction for me though was when our group spotted locations we had been to earlier in the week and people spared a split second to glance at each other to share the wierdness of seeing places we had visited on screen.

I thought I'd get though the film premier in one paragraph, but have ended up using half a dozen and bad ones at that. It's just impossible to describe the buzz in words to someone who has not been there, especially to people who might apply a stereotype and look down on the whole thing, but it is something I'm going to try very hard to recapture again because the feeling of enjoying something so much with a group of friends who are as into it as I am is a rare thing and is worth the effort and expense of doing again.

Those 4 hours in the cinema have nearly made the whole trip worthwhile on their own.

Day 87 - The Day I Saw the Fellowship Broken ------ Things I learned today: 1) Saying goodbye to friends does not get easier with practice 2) I'e never been dreading Christmas more than this year 3) I'm very relieved I get to spend it with my new friends

Because the tour spans Christmas it's always been split into two distinct sections, the North Island tour and the South Island tour. This allows those people who don't want to (or can't) stay on the tour over Christmas to only do the North Island portion, which finishes today. Once again I found myself saying goodbye to people I've only known a few days but I count among my friends. It doesn't get any easier with practice and no matter how well you brace yourself for it coming up it still hits you. I'm very glad though that at least half of the tour group is staying on for the Christmas leg of the tour because it means I will be with friends, even if I have to spend the holiday period away from home.

The tour goes on though and we're not even half way there yet. This morning Vic has arranged for us to be the first of the general public to get in and see the lengthily titled "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: The Exhibition" at New Zealand's national museum called Te Papa. This is the first leg of its round the world tour and anyone who gets a chance should definately try and visit it.

The exhibits are fantastic because they allow you to get up close and personal to a lot of the actual constumes and props. More than a lot of other things they make you realise how much thought and detail went into the whole production. There's also some hands-on exhibits where you get to see the different between the steel, aluminium and plastic swords they use and can take a close look at some of the detail in the armour.

The video footage is equally as good with behind the scenes footage and commentaries from the cast and crew. One of the best sections is Andy Serkis (Gollum) acting out the role with a direct comparison to how they mapped Gollum's facial movements to Andy's face. The matching up is near flawless.

We spent all morning in the exhibit but eventually got driven out by the crowds (and, for many, the need to get in the gift shop!). I'm very glad we had permission to go in there so early. The plan was to drive along the twisting Wellington coastline for lunch at the Chocolate Fish cafe, a cast favourite, but we only got to have the scenic drive because the restaurant was packed.

In the afternoon we went up into Mt Victoria park to look at the site from the first film where the Hobbits find the mushrooms and see the first black rider. It's fairly recognisable and there's a nice view across the center of the city

Since this is our last night with many people from the tour we all organise and go for a last meal together at Viggo Mortensen's (Aragorn) favourite restaurant: The Green Parrot. To say that the meal was memorable would probably be an understatement. Take my dinner for example, which earned itself several photos to preserve its visual image for posterity, with its still kicking steak and fat swimming pasta. No one, least of all myself, wanted to preseve the taste for much longer. We can't quite see why this would be anyone's favourite restaurant.

The next stop was much better: Molly Malone's, an Irish bar (every bar out here seems to be Irish) which was regularly visited by Liv Tyler (Arwen) and Elijah Wood (Frodo). There was a very frantic Irish band jigging away and a few people were clearly fighting the urge to give Michael Flatley a run for his money.

Being the last night out we decided that the hotel bar was the best place to fall back to in the end so we could talk to the people we were supposed to be saying goodbye too, instead of just smiling across a loud bar. Then it's the final goodbyes and off to bed to catch up on some sleep from the excitement of last night.