New Zealand was a ready-made land of stunning vistas to fit those of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy epics. As Ian McKellen aka Gandalf has said, “Middle Earth is a real place and it is New Zealand.”
And you’ll see plenty of Middle-earth-worthy scenery in SBS’s slow TV journey of New Zealand, North to South.
Spectacular filming locations for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are spotted everywhere about the North and South islands making for a dream trip for Middle-earth fans.
Matamata, Waikato: Hobbiton movie set
A great place to start for Middle-earth fans is the big kahuna, the iconic set of Hobbiton at Matamata, three hours south of Auckland. Here, you can visit Bag End, home of the Baggins’ Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and have an ale at the Green Dragon Inn and a jig under the party tree.
Or feel the fresh grass under your furry feet in the Waikato region’s lush dairy farming pastures that surround the set, doubling for The Shire.
Mangaotaki Valley, near Piopio: Trollshaws Forest and Staddles Farm
Another popular Middle-earth destination to visit is the breathtaking sheep and cattle farm owned by Warrick and Suzie Denize in the Mangaotaki Valley, near Piopio in the Waitomo District.
On their aptly named Hairy Feet Waitomo Scenic Film Location Tour, you’ll see key locations for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey including majestic limestone cliffs, Denize Bluffs, and native forest. Scenes filmed here include Bilbo being given the elven blade “Sting” by Gandalf and the dwarves rotating on a spit for hungry trolls in Trollshaws Forest.
Tongariro National Park, Ruapehu: Mount Doom and Hidden Bay
With its volcanic terrain and emerald lakes, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a perfect rendition of primeval Middle-earth. Peter Jackson used the area with its rocky slopes and grassy tussock as the setting for Hidden Bay, the entrance to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It’s also the area where Gollum chased fish in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Most famously though, the volcanic Mount Ngauruhoe was digitally touched up as Mount Doom in Mordor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, where the One Ring was forged and destroyed.
Forgive us, but we just have to say it: “My precious!”
Kaitoke Regional Park, Wellington: Rivendell
A 50-minute drive north of Wellington is Kaitoke Regional Park where scenic exteriors for the Elven realm of Rivendell were filmed, with much digital embroidery added later.
Now all that exists is the brilliant scenery marked by lush rainforest, although there is a replica of an elven archway. And if the moment strikes you, you can reenact a romantic interlude from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring with a loved one – the kiss between Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) at Rivendell.
Putangirua Pinnacles, Wairarapa: The Paths of the Dead
These eerie ancient pinnacles or “hoo-doos” at Aorangi Forest Park, created by wind and rain erosion, are an hour’s drive from Martinborough in the Wellington region.
They served as the eerie setting for the haunted “Paths of the Dead” in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King where Aragorn, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) make the journey to face the “Army of the Dead”.
Waitomo Caves, Waitomo: Eerie soundscapes for The Hobbit
Given Tolkien’s use of subterranean settings for the epics, it makes sense that Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, reportedly abseiled to the depths of Ruakuri Cave in Waitomo to get under Gollum’s skin in preparation for the original trilogy.
The cave, along with Cathedral Cave, served in a behind-the-scenes capacity for The Hobbit films where eerie audio was recorded to accompany subterranean scenes set in Gollum’s pool and Smaug’s Hall.
Kahurangi National Park: South of Rivendell, Dimrill Dale, Exit from the Mines of Moria
For the hardcore Middle-earth fans, a helicopter ride will be necessary to reach the mighty Mount Olympus and Mount Owen that double for these Lord of the Rings locations. The area is said to be one of the least accessible alpine areas on the planet.
Mount Sunday, Canterbury: Edoras
While there’s no trace of the set for Edoras, the capital city of Rohan that appeared in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the rocky outcrop Mount Sunday remains a wildly impressive locale. Speaking of wild, the film crew reportedly had to withstand wind raging up to 180km per hour during the shoot.
Twizel, Canterbury: Battle of the Pelennor Fields
The flat grassy expanse near the charming mountain town of Twizel is famous as the setting for the Battle of Pelennor Fields, a major set piece of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Here, you can take a tour and cosplay it up with sword or orc mask to reenact the epic battle between good and evil.
Lake Pukaki, Canterbury: Lake-town
Overlooked by the stunning Mount Cook, Lake Pukaki was the location for Lake-town in The Hobbit trilogy. While the town was decimated by the firey breath of the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), in contrast, the real-life location turns a vibrant blue as glacial waters enter the lake.
Fiordland National Park: Giant eagle rescue
Several scenes for the films were shot in this majestic UNESCO World Heritage Site, including at Sutherland Falls, located on the Milford Track near Milford Sound (one of the locations visited in North to South).
New Zealand’s tallest waterfall features in the rousing sequence in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey where giant eagles save Bilbo, Gandalf and co. from orcs by sweeping them up onto their backs and soaring over the Fiordland.
Kawarau Gorge, Central Otago: Anduin River
The filming location for one of the most iconic scenes from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring while still beautiful, looks very different to the finished product. You’ll have to imagine the CGI, pastel-hued giant monuments to the Argonath, the Pillars of Kings, standing either side of what is Anduin River in the movie. In the scene, Aragorn, Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) look on in awe as they paddle towards them.
Pelorus River, Marlborough: River barrel escape
After you’ve had some real wine in New Zealand’s famous Marlborough region at the top of the South Island, it’s a 40-minute drive to some wine-themed escapism at Pelorus River.
This is where, in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the band of dwarves barrel down the rapids in wine barrels all while fighting angry orcs, dodging arrows and contending with Legolas using their bobbing heads as stepping stones.
The Remarkables, Queenstown: the Misty Mountains
This truly remarkable location appears in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
In the latter, the stunning mountain range known as The Remarkables surrounding Queenstown, is the external stand-in for the Misty Mountains. Far beneath, Bilbo Baggins “finds” the One Ring to rule them all, before a face-off with a very angry Gollum.
Forgive us, but we just have to say it (again): “My precious!”
North to South airs on Sunday, 27 January at 7:30pm on SBS as part of SBS’s Slow Summer.