On Easter Monday / Anzac Day we toured J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, stopping at the outer Shire, Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, Rivendell and Isengard. Peter Jackson spent seven years filming his Lord of the Rings trilogy all over New Zealand but he preferred to use sets and scenes close to his home and studios in Wellington, also known in some circles as Wellywood.
We climbed aboard a Wellington Rover minibus shortly before 8:30am and were greeted by Laura, our tour guide for the day. Joining us were a gentleman from Maine and a family of three from Sydney who crossed the ditch to spend their five-day holiday weekend in New Zealand.
The Outer Shire
Our first stop was still within the city limits of Wellington. Remember the scene in The Fellowship of the Rings when Frodo yelled at his companions to get off the road and the four Hobbits hid from the Ringwraiths in the vast root system of a huge tree? Well, that scene and several others were taken in the woods on top of Mt Victoria, not too far from our hotel.
Laura parked and led us down a path into the woods and soon we were enveloped in trees that looked a bit familiar. Laura explained that all the trees on Mt. Victoria were cut down to build the houses of Wellington and so the leading citizens decided to replant using a fast growing variety and they chose the Monterey Pine from Northern California! She also explained that most of the outdoor scenes in LOTR were filmed in regional or national parks or on private property where it was always agreed that everything would be taken down after the filming and the locations would be restored to look exactly as they did before the filming. So we would be using our imaginations a lot on this tour and Laura would help by showing us pictures from the films where we could verify from the shapes of nearby trees, etc. that, yes, we really were standing in the middle of a particular scene.
Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith
Our next stop was up towards the Hutt Valley on highway 2 northeast of Wellington. It was Dry Creek Quarry where elaborate sets were built to form the beseiged city of Helm’s Deep and the major battle scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring. Several months after the filming of this battle Peter Jackson returned to the quarry, moved the sets around a bit and — voila! — Helm’s Deep was morphed into Minas Tirith, the site of another major battle in The Lord of the Rings. The quarry was now back in business, however, and there was not a hint that this site served as a major LOTR location a decade ago.
The Hutt River runs through a vast regional park called Kaitoke Park. It’s mostly rainforest and, naturally, it rained for most of the time we were there, which was about an hour. We parked at the main parking lot close to where the Hutt and Pakuratahi rivers meet and the Aussies set off by themselves to explore. John from Maine and I decided to take the mini-bushwalk across the river which meant walking across a swing bridge. No way my wife was going to get anywhere near this bridge which reminded her of an unpleasant experience trying to cross the Capilano Suspension Bridge north of Vancouver many years ago and so she stayed behind with Laura who prepared our midmorning tea while the rest of us were on our rainforest adventure.
After our tea and pastries we walked across the parking lot to the Elven city of Rivendell and Laura pointed out the various sites including a magnificent tree, all that is left of one of the major scenes in the LOTR triloigy — when the four hobbits, two men, a dwarf, an elf and a wizard bonded to form the Fellowship of the Ring. Nearby was a platform used to shoot PR photos of the Elven archer Legolas (the character played by Orlando Bloom). So we posed, too, ears and all, but we had to settle for swords. I guess someone thought a bow and arrow would be too dangerous for both little kids and big kids like me!
After Kaitoke we turned around and headed back toward Wellington and made our final stop of the day in Harcourt Park in the community of Brown Owl, just a few miles from Upper Hutt. Here we strolled down the path in the gardens of Isengard with the two wizards, Gandalf and Saruman. And some of us posed for pictures with Gandalf’s staff. On top of a small hill we gazed at a verdant meadow where the good guy Gandalf rode his brown horse in Fellowship of the Ring and his white horse in The Lord of the Ring from left to right on a gravel path. The same location was used to film Boromir, Sean Bean’s character, riding off. But Boromir wasn’t always the good guy. So they reversed the film to make it look like he was riding from right to left! We could also see the exact path the horses rode on because the seed used to replant the grass over the gravel path was not quite the same as the original grass and now a long dark line appears across the meadow.
The filming of LOTR was a big deal to all New Zealanders a decade ago and especially so in Wellington where The Return of the King had its world debut. Now Peter Jackson is back at work filming The Hobbits and the excitement has returned. I watched the the three LOTR movies several times before we left for New Zealand and Howard Shore’s music swelled my head all day — especially the flute solo that dominates the Shire theme during Hobbiton scenes. We were glad that we were able to devote most of our last day in Wellington to The Lord of the Rings.