Long before Peter Jackson ever thought of taking on the epic project of adapting LOTR for the cinema, I started imagining how wonderful it would be to visit New Zealand. Misanthrope that I am, I couldn't resist the idea of a country with 3 million people and 70 million sheep--that's my idea of the proper human/animal ratio. But it wasn't until "Fellowship" came out, and linked my passion for undisturbed nature with my even older passion for Tolkien, that I got off my butt and on a 747 bound for Middle Earth.
What follows is just a snapshot of the LOTR-related aspects of my journey. I deliberately did NOT make my trip an LOTR-only affair; I wanted to experience the country for itself, not just as the location for the movies. Plus, my travelling companion is not a fan, and it didn't seem fair to inflict too much LOTR on her--although by the end of the trip we taken to calling each other Frodo (that's me, dark-haired and the leader of the trip, plus having the Ring around my neck) and Sam (she being blondish and feeling the need to look after me even when I don't need it.) Some of what follows is just for general interest; some may be of use for those planning their own trip. I urge everyone who can go to do so. New Zealand truly is Middle Earth!
NORTH ISLAND: I blush to confess it, but we didn't go to Mata Mata, and I didn't miss it--because most of what we saw of the north island looked just like Hobbiton anyway. NZ south of Auckland to Rotorua, where we headed first, is all green and rolling hills and, well, Shire-like. Funny that we should start our journey in the Shire, as do the hobbits. . . .
WELLINGTON: Our first big plunge into LOTR-NZ fannishness came when we detoured for a four-hour stop in Wellington--just long enough to hit the LOTR exhibit at Te Papa, the National Museum. Others have written detailed accounts of that exhibit, so I won't go over old ground. What was most cool about the whole day was just the feel of being surrounded by Things LOTR--posters in the Wellington airport, as well as a storefront running TTT trailers continuously on a large screen; museum exhibit posters and banners all over town; and a large exhibit of LOTR artifacts as real-seeming as the findings from a medieval archaeological dig. (See below for a bit of "dirt" on the exhibit itself.)
NELSON, Part I: Having just bought the LOTR Guide Book the day before, I was delighted to read that Hans Jensen & Co, the makers of the One Ring, were located in Nelson. I planned to stop in--and was even more delighted when, as we strolled around town on our first night, we rounded a corner and ran smack into the shop! It was after hours, but I still ogled in the window and read the promotional material they'd put up outside regarding their involvement in the films. And of course I did stop in, the morning of our departure.
Thorkild, son of the now-deceased Hans and himself a Ring-maker, greeted us. I figured he probably thought we fans are all pretty loony, and I think I was right; we had a good time joshing about that. I showed him what I referred to as my "inferior imitation" of the One Ring--actually a very nice Harmony Gold 18K ring with beautiful script, sized to fit me. He said, "Oh, I've got one of those" and trotted out one he'd been sent by Harmony, with the request that they send him one of theirs. "I think they just want to make a mold of mine," he said scornfully.
I asked Thorkild how he felt about all the fuss and publicity; he made a face and then announced that he'd been interviewed for Swedish TV the day before, as if this were entirely weird. It probably is, so I just joined in the laugh. I asked how his father would feel if he saw the results, and all the attention that the shop was getting; he said he thought his dad would have thoroughly enjoyed it. I think Thorkild enjoys it, too, even if he does act as if we're all nuts.
I told him we'd been to the Te Papa exhibit and seen the Ring on display there, and asked if he'd made it. Here's the "dirt": "Yeah," he replied, "I only made that one about 3 weeks ago." So now you know--the Ring hanging in amber in Wellington wasn't actually used in the filming. Oh, well.
Thorkild also trotted out the several prototypes that the shop had made when they were first hired to do the Ring--several of different shapes and thicknesses. It was pretty cool to see what hadn't been chosen. PJ made the right choice--the others weren't as impressive.
What was impressive was the "replica" Rings on display, and available for purchase. I held one of the larger, 18K replicas--it felt heavy in my hand, as it must have felt in Elijah/Frodo's hand when Gandalf gives it to him after heating it in the Bag End fireplace. Not feeling able to afford that Ring, I settled for ordering a 9 carat version, sized to fit. Credit to Thorkild as a businessman: he told me to expect it at the end of January, but the shippers called and it will apparently be here two weeks early. And in the meantime, he gave me a more authentic chain to wear with my Ring, as the one I had on was all wrong. He was right: it looks much better!
NELSON, Part II: Our B & B hosts in Nelson happened to be fans, and mentioned that Stonehurst Farm, well-known for its "horse treks" (Kiwi for trail rides), owns several horses from the films, including "Percy," who had been Liv Tyler's mount in her shots with Asfaloth. (A different horse was used for the real galloping scenes--Percy, who is very staid and mellow, was better for the horse-phobic Liv.) So, thinking to combine my longtime love of horses with more fannishness, I booked us a ride the next day (right after our visit to the Ringmaker).
What luck--one of the guides on our ride, Callum, was mounted on none other than Percy, a large and pretty docile grey gelding. Once Callum learned that I was an LOTR fan, he was delighted to talk about the horses and the movies. According to him, when filming started a great call went out for horses to buy, as well as people to ride their own horses. After filming, many of the bought horses were available, and Stonehurst purchased six to use as lesson horses. Percy, according to him, was both Liv's quiet version of Asfaloth, and the grey ridden by Theoden at the beginning of TTT. (I had to see the movie again after this to confirm that Theoden rides several different horses in the movie, including a bay after the Warg battle, and a chestnut in the final battle at Helm's Deep. But Percy's in there early on!) Somewhere my "Sam" has a digital photo of me with Percy, a lovely boy.
QUEENSTOWN: As you know if you have read the LOTR Locations Guide Book, much of the movies were filmed around the Queenstown area. Again, I spared my non-fannish friend a stop at every known shooting location--although I did force her to start reading the book, which she read aloud in the car while I drove. (You'll see below why I didn't read to her while she drove!) But frankly, the whole place looks like you've dropped straight into the movies. I kept saying to myself, "I'm in Middle Earth."
From Queenstown you can also do several "trilogy trail" type tours, many offered by companies involved in the filming. We chose Glenorchy Air, which operates small planes and now uses the motto "We flew cast and crew." The story, as our pilot gave it to us, is that Robert, the company owner, called Three Foot Six and told them he could fly them in anywhere (as well as the helicopters) at a much lower price--and as a result, got a lot of work for his company. Now, they offer several "trilogy trail" tours, mostly by air, including a 5 hour trip that features the locations for Edoras.
Fannishness apparently outweighed my good sense; I booked us onto a 3 hour tour (extended by a non-LOTR flight out to see Milford Sound), despite my propensity towards motion sickness. Let me just say this: if you share a strong tendency to get sick in small planes, this trip is not for you! Despite taking a dramamine, I was thoroughly sick. But I also got to see where they filmed the Ford of Bruinen, the landing at Amon Hen, some shots of the River Anduin, and the like. And the best part involved some time not in the air at all (for which my stomach was very grateful).
Nathan, our very nice pilot, landed us in a farmer's field--not just any farmer's field, but the farm used for several LOTR locations. He claimed that the mountains to our right are some of the peaks seen in the opening shots of TTT, but it's hard to tell, as PJ takes different location shots and digitally edits them together to create new landscapes. More recognizable was the copse of woods to which we walked: it was the point of entry for the Fellowship into Lothlorien, when they first run into the trees, and also the basis for some of the shots at Amon Hen. The whole farm was so beautiful, with its lush pastures framed by mountains, that I would have loved it even if it hadn't been a key location. But it got even better once we were airborne again, and Nathan pointed out that "Dan's Paddock" (the field below) was the location that surrounds the digitally created Isengard. I saw it at once, including the long road down which Gandalf rides to meet Saruman.
There were more locations visible from our air tour--and some can be seen on foot, for those wise enough not to book a flight. I didn't think I'd much care about seeing locations, but frankly, it was a real joy to feel that the places that are so vivid in the films "really exist."
A bit of Queenstown/LOTR gossip: we stayed at a lovely B & B, Trelawn Place, that is just out of town, and like many, part of a farm. Our hostess told us that the farm had just been bought up by someone associated with LOTR, for $2 million NZ dollars, twice the government valuation of its worth. So LOTR millionaires are making their mark. I didn't think it polite to ask who was the purchaser, and doubt that she'd have known in any event.
We did and saw many other wonderful things in NZ, and met many kind and interesting people. But I have to admit, the best parts were those associated with LOTR. I hope other fans who want to will have the chance to visit Middle Earth for themselves.
Ringer Spy Lee