When Peter Jackson was 18, he took a train ride across New Zealand's North Island – one of the two islands that comprise the country. On the trip he read The Lord of the Rings, the great J R R Tolkien saga. The now famous film director tells how he was fascinated to see how the landscape he could see from the train window was exactly like the mythical Middle Earth imagined by the British author some 30 years earlier.
When Jackson embarked on the epic task of transferring the literary masterpiece to film it took five years and 2,500 people to recreate the pre-industrial utopia imagined by Tolkien and complete the picture with forts, goblin mines, dark towers and orc armies.
The small town of Matamata in the Waikato region of North Island, is a good starting point to explore the scenes of the silver-screen trilogy. On the outskirts lies the vast Alexander's Farm, transformed for the filming into the Shire, the bucolic homeland of the hobbits; when the film crew left, they left behind hobbit holes, the Green Dragon Inn, the Mill and other elements of Middle Earth, which can now be visited by the public.
The idyllic peacefulness of the Matamata landscape contrasts with the harshness and the never-lifting fog of Tongariro National Park. Here steaming craters and swamps provided a perfect setting for Mordor, domain of Sauron, The Dark Lord, the original master of the Ring. Lowering cloud, eerie colours resulting from mineral deposits in the small lakes of the park and the perpetual smell of sulfur may lead visitors to almost give up hope, and will certainly help them imagine the scenes of Frodo on his journey to the Crack of Doom to destroy the Ring.
The One Ring – the one actually used in the film – is now on display in Nelson, one of the most beautiful cities in New Zealand, in the north of South Island. At the Jens Hansen Gold and Silversmith store, in Trafalgar Square, you can not only see and photograph the ring, but you can order a replica of it.
Near the west coast of South Island, Tai Poutini National Park is the home of the Franz Josef glacier, whose 12 metre tongue, together with the 22 metres of the Fox Glacier, form a valley called Te Wahipounamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The slopes of perpetual ice can only be toured by helicopter, a unique experience which includes landing on the glaciers and allows visitors to see the setting where the Lighting of the Beacons was filmed.
Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, was one of the cities that was most involved in the recreation of the fantasy trilogy. There were days when 600 people lined up to take part in the filming of some scenes. With a population of 11,000, each year the city welcomes more than a million tourists who come to explore the lush forests, to sail on the lake, to catch the cable car to Bob's Peak or simply to enjoy a coffee on the main street. And, of course, many of them will be imagining the scene in the movie where Aragorn leads the Army of the Dead to the aid of Minas Tirith.
At 20 kilometres from Queenstown, running north-south along the shore of Lake Wakatipu is the Remarkables mountain chain. A walk of just over two hours, leads to Lake Alta, scene of the Frodo's flight to the Ford of Bruinen aided by by the elf Arwen.
Farther north, at the very tip of the elongated lake, you reach Glenorchy, the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. This is the starting point for excursions to Amon Hen, the abode of the Lady Galadriel, and the plateau where Isengard, headquarters of Saruman, was located. From Glenorchy you can take a day trip to the banks of the river Dart, the green elven forest of Lothlorien, and then continue by motorboat, full speed ahead up-river for 90 minutes. The trip ends in a backwater of the river where the guides show where Merry and Pippin were captured by the orcs – those mythical monsters that everyone in Queenstown knows were really mostly taxi drivers.
Best time to visit
The best months are March and April, which, being the southern hemisphere, is early autumn. In winter (our summer months) temperatures can drop to 15 degrees below zero in parts of South Island.
Where to stay
Chateau Tongariro, built in 1920 is one of the best in New Zealand; what's more, it's just 15 minutes from the Tongariro Park – site of Mordor in the films – and was the residence of the cast during much of the filming of The Return of King. Another, even more exclusive, option is to spend a night at Fernside – the grounds are not open to casual visitors, but only to guests and specific tour companies – where you can take a trip in an elfin boat on the lake and imagine you, too are one of the Company of the Ring setting off from Lothlorien, the city of the elves.
Where to eat
The Red Cliff Bar & Cafe in Te Anau, is reputed to serve the best beer in the entire South Island. The Bunker, Queenstown, was visited daily by the hobbits in the long nights before the filming of scenes set around the city.
The Lord of the Rings agency offers a tour of most of the settings and locations of the Oscar-winning trilogy. A four-day trip takes in 20 locations a day, plus a day trip by motorboat and another by helicopter visiting the most inaccessible locations. Price around ￡850 per person.
Whale watching, at Kaikoura, where sperm whales are visible year round and, depending on the season, you may see humpback whales, pilot whales, blue whales and southern right whales.
The most popular visitor destination in New Zealand, Milford Sound, a 15 kilometer fjord in the south west of South Island that crosses from the Tasmanian Sea to Dale Point and which Rudyard Kipling described as "the eighth wonder of the world."
And on North Island, Waitomo Caves is home to thousands upon thousands of arachnocampa luminosa – a tiny firefly whose characteristic blue light illuminates the caves as boats pass below.
Tourism New Zealand