Having seen all the films, and being a bit of a Tolkien fan, it was inevitable that New Zealand would make it onto my list of places I must visit.
And so it happened that I spent a year travelling around New Zealand in 2010/2011
I wanted to visit as many of the real life locations from the films as I could, both because they looked stunning in the films, so should look stunning in real life, and because, well, I’m a bit of a geek.
If you are looking for resources that can help you find the filming locations for yourself, then head to the end of the post.
Otherwise, here are three of my favourite real life Lord of the Rings filming locations that no fan should miss when visiting New Zealand.
Tongariro National Park – The land of Mordor
If you were only able to visit one real life Lord of the Rings location in New Zealand, then the Tongariro National Park has to be it. This was the main setting for the land of Mordor, and is home to phenomenal scenery.
The highlight of the area has to be Mount Ngauruhoe which was used as the stand in for Mount Doom – the place where the one ring was forged and then (spoiler alert!) ultimately destroyed by the hobbits. It’s hard not to be impressed by this incredibly conical 2000 year old mountain peak, which is essentially a gigantic mound of ash.
You can climb Mount Doom / Ngauruhoe, from the car park it is a five to six hour return walk. Be aware though that this is not a simple task – the entire cone is largely constructed of soft ash, so is somewhat akin to climbing a sand dune. Down is far easier than up. The views from the top though rival any view you can get in New Zealand.
As well as Mount Doom there are a whole range of other locations in the area. Most notable of these is the Emyn Muil area, which was filmed on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, the north island’s highest peak. Finding this location is easy – park in the car park at the “top of the Bruce”, a short drive from Whakapapa viallage, and head to the bottom of the chair lift.
Walk a bit further past the chair lift and you come to a giant rock outcrop known the wall. It was in this area that Sam and Frodo wandered in circles at the beginning of the Two Towers before Gollum rescued them. This part of the film was cleverly shot so as not to reveal that the hobbits at this point, location wise, were only a stones throw from Mount Doom itself.
If Mount Doom and Emyn Muil aren’t enough for you, then you might also want to head round to the other side of Mount Ruapehu and take in the Mangawhero Falls, up from the town of Ohakune. The pool at the very top of these falls was where Gollum caught a fish. I know, not exactly Oscar winning stuff, but included for completeness.
Finally, if you have a four wheel drive vehicle then you could venture to the Tukino ski field, on the eastern side of the Tongariro National Park, which formed the plains of Gogoroth, not to mention the Black Gate.
Phew. As you can see, there are enough locations in this area to keep you occupied for a couple of days. The desolation and majesty of the volcanic landscape here is truly awe inspiring in it’s beauty, and it is remarkably easy to imagine the place full of orcs and the fires of Mordor. Not to be missed.
Unfortunately, the piece of paper that I signed when I visited Hobbiton was rather specific as to the particular method of death I would be put to if I shared anything from my visit to the set of the Hobbiton village. Something about hobbits appearing out of the vortices of time and painful evisceration. I’ll update this post when the NDA lifts, at some point in 2012.
Update - the NDA has been lifted! Check out my thoughts and photos from the Hobbiton film set tour!
Anyway, this is the location of the Hobbiton set, which is on a farm in the middle of nowhere. For a long while after the filming of the first three films this was nothing more than a series of decaying bits of plywood, as one of the stipulations of the original filming contract was that all locations be returned to their natural state after filming.
However, after multiple geeks trudged across the land to get a glimpse of the set location, the farm owners realised that perhaps some infrastructure was required.
When it started the tour was a walk around some fields, a large tree, a lake, and some moulding bits of wood. Good for die hard fans, but perhaps not what folks were hoping for. With the advent of the new Hobbit movie however, that has all changed.
Essentially, if you are even the mildest fan of the trilogy, or just want to see some funky film related stuff, I can highly recommend taking a visit.
In all my time in New Zealand, I never spoke to anyone who was disappointed in the tour. Just pay the money and do it. You won’t regret it.
The Putangirua Pinnacles – The Paths of the Dead
Not too far away from Wellington, on the bottom tip of the north island, are the Putangirua Pinnacles - a small national park made up of a weird series of rock pinnacles, formed by water erosion over countless years.
These pinnacles were the setting for the roads of the dead, which Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas walked to wake the army of the dead in Return of the King.
Whilst this was only a small part of the film, I can highly recommend a visit to these pinnacles purely for atmosphere. Perfect for visiting in the rain, they are easy to imagine as being haunted by spirits of a lost time.
Afficiandos of Peter Jacksons other work may also recognise the pinnacles from his earlier gore fest Braindead (known as Dead Alive in America for some reason), as these Pinnacles featured as the location the rat monkey came from. Clearly Mr J has a soft spot for this park.
Resources for finding filming locations
There is also a version of the above book, newly published for the Hobbit movies, which you can grab off Amazon here. Between those you will be well equipped for discovering every nook and cranny of the filming locations!
If you’re not into spending money to sate your thirst, there are a number of other options. New Zealand’s department of conservation lists GPS co-ordinates for the majority of locations which were filmed in national parks, which you can find on their website.
A Google search for filming locations will also bring up fan compiled lists of GPS co-ordinates. Bear in mind however that a large proportion of the scenes were filmed on private land, and so are inaccessible. Others have suffered as a result of the passage of time, so are no longer even vaguely recognisable from the films – information which a set of GPS co-ordinates fails to convey. Still, it makes for a fun day out trying to find them.
Finally, there are of course a number of companies offering Lord of the Rings tours from a variety of locations and lasting from half a day to multi-day experiences. I have heard good things about these from fellow travellers, and they certainly save you mucking about with trying to figure out what happened where! Handy if you're on a limited time schedule!
And that is that for my top three Lord of the Rings filming locations in New Zealand. I visited a whole wealth of other locations in New Zealand from the films, including Rivendell, multiple sections of the River Anduin, the mountains used as the beacon fires, the mountain pass over Moria and more, but these three listed here were the three I would recommend as being worth the effort. Let me know if I’ve missed your favourite out!
Thanks for reading my five favourite things to do on the south island of New Zealand! Got a favourite that you think I missed out? Let me know in the comments below!