NEW ZEALAND LOTR TOUR DIARY
This diary is based on a 13-day Lord of the Rings-themed tour of New Zealand with Red Carpet Tours, encompassing much of both the North and South Islands, and taking in some 30 film locations and related activities.
There's a lot of material here - it's a tale which grew in the telling, if you'll pardon the pun - so the diary has been divided up into 4 parts, each covering approximately the same time span. This is Part 1, covering the opening few days of the trip.
Red Carpet Tours offers fantastic tours for Lord of the Rings fans - and for anyone interested in a slightly different "take" on New Zealand than standard package tours present. Vic and Raewyn (North Island) and Anwen (South Island) took excellent care of us, and opened LOTR-related doors that would have remained firmly shut had we been trying to put together an equivalent tour ourselves.
You see, thanks to some smart thinking early on (even before the first film was released), Red Carpet Tours managed to seal exclusive and/or special arrangements with a number of location landowners, and with many people who contributed to the making of the films in some way, then packaged each location and encounter neatly together into a tour that generally felt neither rushed nor padded.
It wasn't cheap, but like a quality big budget movie, the money's right there on the screen. In the case of our tour, this was manifest for example in the superior standard of accommodation throughout both islands.
The North Island
Day 1: Arrival in Auckland (Sunday September 11, 2005)LOTR related activities/locations: none
Flying in from Tokyo via Christchurch, we arrived at Auckland airport to be greeted warmly by Vic and Raewyn, our North Island guides. Vic stayed behind to wait for other "fellowship" members, while Raewyn drove us through Auckland and across the bridge to North Shore. We were booked into the Spencer on Byron hotel, just a couple of minutes walk from Takapuna Beach. By craning our necks out of the window, we could catch a glimpse of the beach and the blue Pacific beyond.
With time on our hands (the evening welcome dinner was still several hours away) we set off to explore the town. The microwave in our hotel room may have been subliminally guiding our footsteps, because we were drawn towards the delicious array of pies offered by Jesters pie shop. Armed with a pie each, we retreated to our room for a brief munching session.
Come the appointed hour, we headed down to the lobby to meet up with our fellow tour-goers.
Day 2 : Auckland to Rotorua (Monday September 12, 2005)LOTR activities/locations: Hobbiton
After breakfast, we boarded our coach for the drive to Matamata and Hobbiton. We stopped briefly in Huntley for a rest-and-hokey-pokey-icecream break. Hokey pokey is a kind of creamy, toffee-enhanced vanilla icecream that our trip-long "informal research project" showed to be very popular all over New Zealand.
Nearing Matamata, the flat grassland outside the window changed with startling suddenness to shallow green hills. Very Shire-like, very exciting. Although they played no part in the films, the lambs frolicking in the fields added an extra touch of cuteness - some of the lambs were decidedly unsteady on their feet as they were only a couple of days old.
We picked up a tour guide and drove onto the private farm that was used in the filming of the Shire scenes. As we ground slowly forward through gate after gate, our guide showed us the cleared area which had housed a lot of the film trailers and the catering unit. Moving further into the farm, we parked and set off for our encounter with Hobbiton proper.
As we crested the small hill that blocked the view of Hobbiton, the dynamic of our group changed palpably.
Up to that point, we'd essentially been a group of strangers brought together by a shared passion for a book (or a movie), or at least by our ties to someone else who shared that passion. As we took in the line of hobbit holes winding up towards Bag End, and saw the achingly familiar Party Tree looming over the lake (it looks exactly like it does on screen by the way), we metamorphosed into a Fellowship deserving of the capital letter. Thrown in at the deep end, there simply couldn't have been a better starting point for our journey through New-Zealand-as-Middle-Earth!
The decorative facings used to dress the Hobbit holes for the movie were no longer there, but even as bare white boards concealing holes recessed in some cases only inches into the hillside, the familiarity of the scene was amazing. Hobbiton was notably the only location where any of the changes made to accommodate filming were still readily visible, as other locations we visited had been meticulously restored to their pre-starring-role states.
Unlike the other hobbit holes, Bag End was still "functional", in the sense that it offered a space large enough to crouch inside and look through the round window at the Party Tree in the distance. The remains of the "oak tree" that was painstakingly "built" to give added depth to the movie set were still piled up on the grassy bank directly above Bag End.
After taking it in turns hugging the Party Tree, and drinking in the view one last time, we re-boarded the coach for the brief drive to The Shire's Rest for a pie-and-sandwich lunch. The toilet block next to the restaurant was notable for being done up like a bright yellow hobbit hole, with a roof "thatched" with grass turf.
Indulge me for a moment as I wax lyrical about pies. Wherever we went in New Zealand, we found cafes and shops offering seemingly hundreds of variations on the basic pie. Steak pies, steak and cheese pies, minced meat pies, chicken and cranberry pies, you name it - if it can be covered in pastry and baked, it's probably in a pie somewhere... delicious!
Apart from the heavenly landscapes, I think I miss New Zealand's pies most.
Heading for Rotorua, we stopped at Zorb Rotorua (the home of Zorb) just outside the town so that those who wanted to could have a go at Zorbing. If you've never seen a Zorb before - and let's face it, they're not that common - think of a giant hollow, transparent golf ball about two meters across, inside of which you sit (or stand - albeit briefly) while rolling down a fairly steep hill. The bucket of cold water thrown in to keep you company as you roll is apparently optional. Fun, right? Hey, their web site explains it much better than I ever could, so I'll defer to them...
Post-Zorb, we entered Rotorua and checked in at the Lake Plaza Hotel which is right on the edge of Lake Rotorua. Rotorua is located in the heart of an incredibly active volcanic area, and the whole town smells of sulphur. There are geothermal hot springs and bubbling mud pools all over the place - our hotel had its own mini-geyser spouting merrily outside the entrance to the spa pool complex.
We took part in the Maori dinner experience hosted at Tamaki Village. A coach collected us from central Rotorua to take us to the village. The driver explained some of the customs of the ceremony we were about to witness, including the challenge/greeting on arrival. Following the ceremony, we were left to explore the village grounds for a few minutes before being led into the Meeting House to watch a variety of traditional Maori dances and songs. The event ended with a traditional "Hangi" feast: a generous buffet of meat and vegetables that had been cooked by being wrapped in cloths and placed over hot stones, which were then buried in earth for several hours before being dug up piping hot and ready for us to enjoy.
Day 3 : Rotorua to Okahune via Taupo (Tuesday September 13, 2005)LOTR activities/locations: Mordor and the Emyn Muil; Mount Doom; Gollum's fishing pool
We rose early to a postcard-perfect scene of steam rising over Lake Rotorua in the dawn light.
After breakfast, we set off towards Taupo. We stopped off at a place which a bit of Googling suggests is likely to have been "Craters of the Moon" (I'm bad at place names unless I'm really concentrating) where we saw some amazing bubbling mud pools. Some bubbles must have been a meter across or more - they made startlingly loud popping sounds as they burst.
Leaving the energetic mud, we went to Huka Falls, which is apparently - and deservedly - New Zealand's most visited attraction. The Waikato River narrows into a tight gorge that powers an incredible series of cascades of startlingly blue water. Up close, the Falls are overwhelming, the force of the water pounding spray into the air. Although there were several walking tracks to choose from, we had to be on our way pretty quickly - just time to walk along to the viewing point to snap some photos. Driving away, we caught a tantalising glimpse of Huka Lodge nestled in the trees on the river bank. In a different time and place...
We stopped on the shore of Lake Taupo, where my fleeting obsession with a floating stick and an equally floating rock (pumice) meant that I barely took in the stunning view of New Zealand's largest lake! Next time, I'll pay closer attention.
Following a brief stop to stock up on pies, we drove on towards Mordor and the Emyn Muil. Mount Doom (more precisely, the volcanic Mt. Ngauruhoe, which was used to represent Mt. Doom in the films) loomed out of our coach window during much of the journey. We headed into Tongariro National Park, and headed for the Whakapapa Ski Fields on Mt. Ruapehu, where we found some skiers gamely making the best of the thin strips of snow left over from the winter. I had to force myself to remember that it's spring in September here - easy enough when there's lambs in the fields, a different story when it's freezing cold and there's snow on the ground.
Climbing up the rocks, we slipped briefly under the "danger" rope warning of the steep drop beyond in order to find the exact spot where Gollun crept down the cliff thinking to surprise the waiting Frodo and Sam below, and an opportunity for the first of many re-enactments. The rugged terrain made for quite hard going, and it must have been tough filming there with nothing but latex hobbit feet protecting them from the rocks!
We then headed for Okahune, stopping off at Gollum's fishing pool (Mangawhero Falls, on the approach to Ohakune), which actually ends in a steep drop with a waterfall plunging over it. No wonder the film crew were apparently worried about Andy Serkis falling over it!
Onward to Okahune proper and the Powderhorn Chateau hotel, where a surprise was waiting for us. The Powderhorn was used as a base by the cast and crew for several months during the filming of the movies, and we were allocated the same rooms as the cast stayed in. We were given "Frodo's room", complete with a large jetbath that Elijah Wood must have enjoyed. We looked for the cast signatures in the Visitor's Book, then added our own comments.
We took turns viewing each other's rooms, which were all certainly nice enough, but the piece de resistance was "The Mansion", the wing of the hotel custom-built for Peter Jackson, in which Vic and Raewyn our tour guides were staying. With several bedrooms, a lounge, kitchen and bar area, a bathroom with the de rigeur jetbath and a sumptuous possum-fur bedspread (apparently worth a small fortune) we were privately green with envy, but given the tireless way they'd been leading the tour our guides certainly deserved it!
I tried the pool, to find that it was more of a spa, with several couples getting rather "friendly" in it (no, not that friendly I hasten to add, though their antics would certainly have made the Victorians blush). That grew old pretty quickly, so we went for a brief walk around the town and watched the sun go down over the mountains.
After a massive dinner of truly epic proportions (photographic evidence provided) in the hotel restaurant, it was time to turn in for the night.