Let me just get one thing immediately clear. I am, and always will be, a Lord of the Rings apologist. I am comfortable in my nerdiness to admit it. Like most of the population, I discovered Tolkien’s masterpiece through Peter Jackson’s film adaptations in the early aughties. I was immediately gripped by the theatrical experience; the wide sweeping visuals, the grand scale of the adventure, the beauty of the dialogue, and of course Howard Shore’s truly masterful score. Jackson’s cinematic experience continued to affect my subconscious long after departing the theater and the underlying themes of the story and its characters became my obsession. To me, The Lord of the Rings is much more than the universal tale of good vs. evil. It’s a grand epic about the human condition. It’s about romantic idealism, friendship and loyalty, leadership and honor, the importance of history, the relationship between power and morality, and the awesome force of hope. Its characters are archetypal just enough to be accessible, but complicated enough to be interesting. Despite Peter Jackson’s brilliant envisioning of the books, it is Tolkien’s content that ultimately guarantees that the films will endure as timeless classics.
Lord of the Rings struck me during a very crucial time in my life. I was dealing with the many cliché coming-of-age struggles that every 17-22 year old has during the formative high school and college years- breakup, rejection, identity issues, grades, stressing over the future, etc. And as dumb as it sounds, I drew a lot of childish inspiration from The Lord of the Rings that kept me hungry and idealistic enough to fight for my goals into adulthood. In High School, and especially throughout my time at The Naval Academy, my subconscious always found some kind of motivational parallel to the story; whether it was King Theoden’s battle speeches, the grace of Lady Galadriel, Aragorn’s reassurance to the defeated Rohirrim, Boromir’s noble (and utterly badass) last stand, or the unconditional loyalty between Frodo and Sam. I realize this sounds insanely lame and sentimental but whatever. Lord of the Rings rules.
Fast forward to October 2014. My childhood fantasies would be realized upon reaching the end of a three-year assignment flying Navy P-3 Orions around the globe. I was granted a precious 2 weeks of end-of-tour leave to basically do whatever I wanted. Stationed in Hawaii (life was rough), my wife Sarah and I decided to take advantage of our close proximity to New Zealand. Naturally, and much to Sarah’s chagrin, I oriented the entire trip around the exploration of Lord of the Rings film sites. It would be a mammoth 1300 mile road trip spanning both islands from Auckland to Queenstown. Armed with a few maps, a film site guide, and The Fellowship of the Ring on audiobook, we began our 8 hour nonstop flight to the bottom of the world…
“The Shire” – Auckland, Rotorua, and Matamata
We arrived in New Zealand’s largest and most northern city of Auckland – and yes – to the tune of Lorde’s Royals playing in my head since Auckland is actually her hometown. We debarked and picked up our travel itinerary made with the Kiwi travel company “Relaxing Journeys”, which I would highly recommend. Then we picked up our trusty steed, a red Toyota Camry. My mind was blown within about 1 or 2 seconds upon settling into the driver’s seat…on the right side. Learning to drive on the opposite side of the road jetlagged on zero sleep in New Zealand’s biggest city was no easy task. My mind remained blown throughout that harrowing first drive into the city. I felt like I was in high school driver’s ed all over again. I navigated the alien roadways slowly and cautiously. I was terrified because I knew that the moment I broke focus I would revert back to my normal USA right-side-of-the-road autopilot mode and risk a head-on collision. Left is life I kept repeating until my brain eventually adjusted to the opposite driving challenge. Our first day was spent exploring the Waitakere Forest and western Tasman coast where we saw our first notable sight- a vast, rocky coastline whose beauty rivaled even that of Hawaii’s.
The next day we made our way south to the rural city of Rotorua. The urban landscape of Auckland quickly dissipated into a rustic paradise of rolling emerald green hills. It looked like a fairy tale. It was quite literally, The Shire, and it blew my mind (of which there will be many future blowings of). I love the Midwest to death but growing up there has caused my idea of “farmland” to be associated with boring flat brown plains extending to infinity. The farmland of New Zealand was anything but that. I had never seen so much green before- and also white- as there were thousands of sheep everywhere. Apparently the New Zealand spring (our fall) is prime time for birthing lambs. We were told there were more sheep in this country than humans and it definitely appeared to be true. I initially craved to listen to the Pink Floyd album Animals, but I resisted, instead popping in disc 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring unabridged audiobook narrated by Bob Inglis. The book of course begins in the Shire and it was just too perfect.
We arrived in Rotorua in the late afternoon, having stopped at the Waitomo glow worm caves on the way. We were bombarded with signs for “agro-adventures” as we entered the town, highlighting the many bizarre outdoor activities invented by bored New Zealanders such as “zorbing”. Rotorua is a beautiful little town nestled beside a big lake with hilly outcroppings. We arrived at the first of our long list of motels and decided to catch the last bit of twilight on a gondola ride on our way up to dinner. The restaurant was nestled atop a big hill that provided a beautiful view overlooking the lake. This is totally like Lake Town from The Hobbit!, my hopeless inner nerd exclaimed.
The next morning I went jogging beside the lake to the Queen album Made in Heaven which fit my mood perfectly. Following the run, it was time to make our daytrip north to Hobbiton, located in the small podunk town of Matamata. Our excitement was blunted slightly when the day became gray and overcast- hardly the proper weather to experience the heart of the Shire in. But we kept our spirits up and rationalized that the gray-green landscape was still beautiful in a kind of sophisticated English, Jane Austen kind of way.
We arrived at a quaint looking office/farmhouse with a big dirt parking lot with sheep pens by the road- hardly what I expected for a film set as grand as Hobbiton. Inside we got our tickets for the tour and marveled at the dizzying array of movie paraphernalia in the giftshop. Sarah really loved the green leaf brooch the Fellowship wore with their elvish cloaks, but at $300 they were out of the question.
The actual film set was deep inside private land, and could only be reached by the official tour busses that ran on a schedule. Hobbiton was unique in that it was the only LOTR film site that was still preserved by order of Peter Jackson. This was in order to provide last minute shots for the recent Hobbit trilogy. The land for the set is owned by a humble New Zealand family farm, of course making loads of money off the tourism.
We unloaded off the bus and herded through the entrance. Nobody in our tour group was dressed up which kind of surprised me. Giddy like a schoolgirl, I was immediately transplanted into the movie. It was a truly surreal sight to behold. The set was impressively well-preserved and all 44 original Hobbit holes remained. Even the chimneys were smoking, which the film crew used honeybee smokers to provide the effect. The set wasn’t very recognizable from the entrance at the bottom, but after making our way up to the “House on the Hill”, the Shire’s cinematic panorama was unmistakable. We then made our way to the famous Party Tree passing Sam and Elanor’s house on 3 Bagshot Row. The real thing felt much smaller, but highlighted just how brilliantly Jackson’s crew engineered the scale of the set to cast the illusion of depth and space. Our Hobbiton tour ended with free pints of Southfarthing ale at the Green Dragon. Sarah and I called first dibs on the fireplace, and drank our brews in geeky bliss.
We departed Rotorua the next morning and made our way south to Ohakune where they filmed many of the Mordor exterior shots. But before leaving Rotorua I finally talked Sarah into going “zorbing” with me. I knew I could never live with myself if I didn’t know what it was like to tumble around in a giant plastic ball careening down a steep hill. It was an uncomfortably cold day, but the water inside the big plastic orb was pleasantly warm. The ride itself was actually more benign than I expected since the water inside keeps you pretty stable. At the end they opened a big drain plug and we slid out of the zorb in a kind of “wet live birth” experience.
“Mordor” and The Barrel Escape – Ohakune and The Waikato River
As we drove south, the innocent rolling green terrain began to give way to rocky crags carving the terrain. We were proceeding into the volcanic heartland of the North Island – Mordor. It seemed a bit ironic that the two most distant places on Middle Earth were so close in real life. We stopped enroute at the Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park which featured an alien landscape of colored geothermal pools. It felt more like I was on the set in Star Trek: The Original Series than Lord of the Rings.
We continued the drive around the massive and incredible Lake Taupo which looked like Nen Hithoel (the big lake behind the twin rock statues) from Fellowship of the Ring. This lake provides the source water for the Waikato river on which they filmed the “barrels out of bond” scene from The Hobbit.
We then proceeded on the last leg of our journey to Ohakune which saw one of the biggest scenery transformations of the entire trip. What remained of the rustic paradise of the northern region, completely dissolved into a bleak, arid volcanic plains riddled with dead trees. It was a landscape I had never seen, let alone envisioned before. We were actually ascending into the higher elevations of the North Island’s core where most of New Zealand’s volcanoes lie. The entire bleak area was actually within the confines of Tongariro National Park, and it was here where they filmed Mordor and the Emyn Muil (the craggy misty place Sam and Frodo wandered through in the beginning of Two Towers). We checked into our hotel in the mountain town of Ohakune, which was actually nestled in a beautiful alpine region at the base of Mount Ruapehu. It was late afternoon and we were racing daylight to make it up to the Whakapapa Ski Lodge near the mountain’s summit. This is was our only chance to see a sunset from Mordor, so we sped (which is like over 100 km/hr in NZ) up the mountain and basked in the last rays of sunlight from the barren volcanic desert. This was the legendary Dagorath Plain of Mordor where The Battle of the Last Alliance was fought and Isildur cut The One Right from Sauron’s hand. This was also the Gorgoroth Plain where Frodo and Sam trudged toward Mt. Doom cloaked in orc armor. And it was here, at the base of the Whakapapa ski lodge where they filmed it. The translucent sunset over the black plain had an eerie kind of majesty to it. You could even see Mt. Ngauranga (the real life Mt. Doom) in the distance.
The next morning we drove up a different part of Mt. Ruapehu to see the spot where Gollum chased a fish down the river in Two Towers. It was a beautiful mountain stream that plunged into a nearby waterfall. There was still a ton of residual mountain snow from the winter during filming, so the crew hired the local fire department to wash away the snow with fire hoses. Andy Serkis was apparently really pissed at Peter Jackson who, true to form, made him do a ton of takes despite the freezing cold water!
This concludes part 1/3 of my travelogue. Part 2 will cover our southbound journey to Wellington and Christchurch where we’ll discover Peter Jackson’s private Hollywood, the great river Anduin, the Nazgul chase, and most importantly- Rohan. Stay tuned!