Middle Earth Travelogue Part 3/3 – Gondor, Pillars of the Kings, Fangorn Forest, Amon Hen

Minas Tirith and The Pelennor Fields – Twizel

We set out from the beleaguered city of Christchurch towards our final destination-  Queenstown.  But first we’d spend the night in the small town of Twizel where Jackson filmed the grassy outskirts of Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor.  The road south took us through two gorgeous turquoise mountain lakes formed by glacial terminal moraine.  Their distinctly blue color is a result of finely ground rock particles churned up by glaciers, otherwise known as “glacial flour”.  Unrelated to Lord of the Rings but equally as cool was the Church of the Good Shepard situated along the banks of Lake Tekapo.  It is considered to be the most photographed Church in the entire country, and it’s not hard to see why.

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Church of the Good Shepherd – Lake Tekapo

We continued the drive down from the mountain elevations into a large brown grassy lowland.  We had arrived in Twizel.  At first glance, there was really nothing that impressive about the region.  Sarah was really confused as to why I was so pumped up to see a big grassland, but it wasn’t just any grassland.  To any fan of Jackson’s Return of the King, Twizel’s importance is enormous.  This was the filming location for one of the greatest, most desperate battles conceived in literature and subsequently depicted on film. In the words of Gandalf, this was THE “Battle for Middle Earth”-or more precisely- the Battle of the Pelennor Fields during which thousands of Rohirrim, united under King Theoden, launched their heroic charge on the armies of Mordor during the siege of Minas Tirith.

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The grassy outskirts of Minas Tirith (Twizel)

We got into Twizel in late afternoon and we were racing twilight to be able to get some decent photos of the Pelennor Fields. I plugged in the lat/long coordinates into my GPS and we drove (sped) to the ridge from which the Rohirim made their charge, which was just off Highway 8.  Despite being a completely fake war, I looked upon the colossal battlefield with an eerie reverence.

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The Pelennor Fields. “Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn! Forth, Eorlingas!”

Hundreds of horses and local riders had been cast (which was basically Twizel’s entire population).  I had learned that the horses were literally auditioned through a series of psychological and physical tests to ensure they could remain calm with hundreds of other horses, humans and the chaotic stimuli of a large film set.

After paying my respects at the Pelennor Fields, we ate dinner at a really nice local place called Poppies.  We set out early the next morning to Queenstown in order to arrive in time to catch our scheduled wine tour in the afternoon.

Ithilien, Nen Hithoel, The Pillars of the Kings, Amon Hen – Queenstown/Milford Sound

Queenstown, simply put, was the coolest most novel city of the trip.  It’s a bustling mountain town nestled around Lake Wakatipu- New Zealand’s longest and weirdest shaped lake.  Queenstown had a fresh and youthful energy about it.   Its denizens were predominately young people like us, and the local culture revolved around outdoor sports, music, pubs and individuality.   I’ve never really been to Colorado, but Queenstown is what I envision a small mountain town in Colorado to be like.

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Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown at the far end

We did a wine tasting tour around the Central Otago region surrounding Queenstown (I had to give Sarah at least one non-LOTR activity on the trip).  We got wine-drunk during the day (first time for me), and it proved a pleasantly mellow, warm buzz.  Pinot Noir was the flagship wine of the Otago region and I learned to love it.

Still reeling from our wine buzz, we had enough wherewithal to hunt down one last filming location for the day – Ithilien – located near the Twelve Mile Delta campground.  Ithilien was the wooded region in Gondor where Frodo and Sam first saw the Oliphants and a company of Haradrim before being captured by Faramir.  Burned out from my LOTR sidequests, Sarah opted to stay in the car while I set out on foot down the trail from the campground.  I must of walked at least a mile through the lonely forest before I had my fill and turned back.  The backdrop of Lake Wakatipu also provided some of the wide shots of Amon Hen in Fellowship.  We then got to bed early that night in preparation for our 5am wakeup the next day for our long day-trip to Milford Sound.

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Ithilien and Amon Hen location at Twelve Mile Delta campground

Geographically only 40 miles from Queenstown, Milford sound is actually a long and arduous 8 hour drive through mountainous fjord land, in fact the region is literally called “Fiordland”.  The sound itself is an awe-inspiring costal region of sharp cliffs towering over the water, easily evoking the awesome spectacle of The Pillars of the Kings.   It was of course pitch black in the early morning, but it was truly sublime to see the untamed beauty of the mountains slowly resolve from the sunrise.  It was also on this drive that we finally finished our audio book of “The Fellowship of the Ring”.  It served as a bittersweet reminder that our trip, just like The Fellowship, was coming to an end.  It also served to highlight the insane amount of driving we had just done – well over 26 hours!

We stopped halfway in the small town of Te Anau to take a bus that would take us the remaining 4 hours to Milford Sound.  Much to our dismay, we got an awful foggy day to see what many call New Zealand’s grandest sight.  But like our trip to Hobbiton, we took the bad weather in stride, rationalizing that the blustery conditions added a certain majesty  to the views.

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The Argonath – The Pillars of the Kings (Milford Sound)

We boarded a small ship that took us on a 2 hour journey through the Sound.  Even despite the mist and low clouds, the giant slopes of the Fjords still made us feel like we were paddling down the Anduin through the mighty Argonath (the two giant statues of Isildur and Anarion that guarded the northern borders of Gondor).  The Howard Shore soundtrack was playing in my mind the entire time.

Amon Hen, Lothlorien, Fangorn Forest and Isengard  – Paradise/Glenorchy

The next day marked our final day of the trip, and what better way to end a 1,300 mile road trip-not in a car-but on horseback.  We made our way to Dart Stables located 20 miles north in a small rural town appropriately called Paradise.  The company had exclusive access to the private land on which the scenes were filmed.  Our first stop was in forest of beech trees where they filmed the Fellowship’s run-in with Haldir in the Elven tree-city of Lothlorien.  This area was simultaneously used to film most of the Amon Hen closeups in Fellowship, most notably the scene where Aragorn fights and beheads Saruman’s Uruk-hai captain, Lurtz.

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Exact spot where Aragorn defeats Lurtz (also Lothlorien filmsite)

We ventured further through the forest up to a ridge overlooking a giant valley carved by the Dart River.  This was unmistakably the valley that provided the core exteriors for Isengard and Fangorn Forest.

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Isengard and Fangorn Forest in the distance (Dart River Valley)

We then returned through the forest to discover the exact spot where Boromir was slain.  The forest floor was studded with fallen beech leaves which gave the spot that signature look from the film.  Boromir’s last stand to defend Frodo depicts one of the most beautiful scenes of heroism and sacrifice in the story and is a personal favorite of mine.  Although *spoiler alert* not actually in the book, I find his death scene appropriate—perhaps even crucial—to the Boromir narrative.  The idea that we can find the strength to fight on, even in the face of assured defeat, is one of the most beautiful and noble lessons of the Lord of the Rings story.  In the same way I looked upon the Pelennor Fields, my hopeless inner nerd looked upon the site of Boromir’s death with a solemn reverence.

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Exact film site of Boromir’s death

And on that sad note, our journey came to its end.  The weather took a turn for the worse and we spent our final hours driving to the airport under Gandalf’s proverbial “gray-rain curtain of this world”.  The glum weather matched our mood as our Middle Earth holiday came to its end as our plane carried us back into the Northern Hemisphere.

Huge thanks to my wife Sarah for putting up with my film site hunting antics throughout the trip.  Sometimes it was a frustrating wild goose chase for little payoff, but most of the time the site hunts led us to spectacular views we wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.  Having lived in Hawaii for 3 years, I feel like we’ve become pretty desensitized to beautiful scenery and the fact that New Zealand still blew our minds is testament to its awesome beauty.

I was lucky to have visited Peter Jackson’s particular vision of Middle Earth, and I fully realize that Tolkien’s universe cannot be reduced to a single country or worldly locale. Middle Earth is ultimately what we make of it.  In much the same way as Prince fantasized about his beloved Paisley Park, the same is true of Middle Earth – it’s in our heart.

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