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Exploring New Zealand


Part 2 of a four part diary covering a comprehensive Lord of the Rings-themed tour of New Zealand, taking in some 30 film locations and related activities. Here's a link to Part 1 if you missed it...

Day 4 : Okahune to Wellington (Wednesday September 14, 2005)

LOTR activities/locations: River Anduin (part of); scene of Arwen's vision of her child; visit to Chris the horse trainer and stunt rider; get-together with Erica of

We headed off on the trek south to Wellington, stopping off at Mokai Gravity Canyon for some crazy aerial hijinks.

Flying fox at Mokai Gravity Canyon, New Zealand

Mokai Gravity Canyon is connected with LOTR in that a small portion of the River Anduin scenes were filmed there, but it's the Flying Fox that really got our pulses racing.

The Flying Fox is a high wire strung 175 meters above the Rangitikei river, from a launch tower at the top of the canyon across to a support pylon downriver. The climb up to the launch tower along a seemingly endless number of stairs (think Minas Morgul in the film, and you'll get the idea, though admittedly there were more resting points en route) nearly finished off the more intrepid members of the Fellowship, while the older and/or wiser party members remained on terra firma at the base station and enjoyed a leisurely snack while watching our progress up the canyon.

There's more to it than a wire, of course! The functional part is a reassuringly solid apron/straightjacket contraption dangling from the wire by a pulley, into which up to 3 riders are strapped before being launched off the tower for a Superman-like swoop down into the canyon and above the river. For a couple of seconds (it seemed longer at the time) I was scared stiff as the ground rushed beneath us, but as soon as we crossed over the lip of the canyon and the ground fell away it stopped being scary and turned into an amazing experience. Probably the closest I'll ever get to flying "like a bird" since I'm not the type for hanggliding or parasailing.

What with the climb up (and the climb back down - oh yes, you get hauled back to the starting platform at the end of the ride... no cheating shortcut at the bottom) and the multiple launches needed to accommodate all of us, we ended up spending quite a lot of time in Mokai. That left just enough time for a slightly hasty lunch at the Flying Fox cafe on the main highway through Foxton as we continued our journey south.

After lunch, we stopped at Waitarere Forest, scene of Arwen's vision of her child running through the woods, and also where the elves are seen leaving Middle Earth. There had been quite a lot of new growth since the film was made (as I said earlier, almost all the locations were returned to their "natural" state) but the exact spot was recognizable by the ferns growing on the steep bank, which can just be made out in the film.

Chris and Uraeus, Cavallo Farm, New Zealand

Our next stop was one of the "private tour" moments that Red Carpet Tours specializes in: a visit to Chris on Cavallo Farm. Chris trained a substantial number of the horses used in the film, including "Brego" (actually Uraeus, the horse ridden by Aragorn, and subsequently purchased by Viggo Mortensen). He was also involved in teaching the actors to ride, and he played a role in front of the camera too, playing many parts that required advanced riding skills, including at times the lead Black Rider, Aragorn, Theoden and assorted soldiery! We got to see the only remaining horse used in the film (the others were outside the area, or already sold) which had been used by a Gondorian guard. He then welcomed us in his house for tea and coffee. It's worth noting that Chris is fortunate enough to enjoy perhaps the most fantastic views of any place I've ever visited, with 360 panoramic views of forests and mountains, and out to sea with an island in the distance. All in all, we felt very privileged to have been able to spend some time with him.

This was to be a day of VIP encounters, since during the evening dinner at the Green Parrot cafe in Wellington, we were joined by Erica (webmistress of the amazing fan site) and her partner - another door opened by Red Carpet Tours! Sitting directly opposite Erica, I was able to discuss the staggering growth in interest in the films (both before, during and after filming) and the corresponding growth of her site. If you ever get a chance to visit the cafe, look out for a mural at the other end of the room that includes Peter Jackson (in "large, bearded" mode) and several other recognizable faces. Unfortunately for us, about 100 revellers were between us and the mural as a private party was being held in that part of the building.

We stayed at the Mercure Hotel, located on The Terrace a short walk up a steep hill away from the town and harbour.

Day 5 : Wellington (Thursday September 15, 2005)

LOTR activities/locations: Daniel Reeve (calligrapher); outside Weta Workshop; "Get off the Road" location; Embassy Theatre (in which the LOTR premieres were held)

Over breakfast, we were joined by Daniel Reeve, the calligrapher whose stunning work featured on most of the maps, parchments, books and other documents used in the filming of the LOTR trilogy. Once again (you're beginning to get the picture here) a Red Carpet Tours special!

Daniel Reeve, Lord of the Rings calligrapher, at work

He'd brought with him a number of samples of his work, including Bilbo's Red Book and Saruman's Diary. He wrote each of our names in Elvish, and we bought a personalized invitation to Bilbo's 111th Birthday Party (September 22nd, by an eerie coincidence the same day as our own tour's farewell party). Daniel was incredibly personable and generous in explaining his work (which included the fonts used in the menus on the DVDs, incidentally) and spending much of the morning with us.

The Chocolate Fish Cafe - sign

Armed with our calligraphied trophies, we made a brief stop at Weta Workshop where we were able to go into the lobby and get our pictures taken next to the life-sized Urukhai at the entrance. We then headed out along the bay road to the Chocolate Fish Cafe, a favourite of several of the cast and distinctive in that it has a road that runs through the middle of it (more accurately, there is an outdoor seating area on the far side of the road, right up against the beach). We sat outdoors, near the sea, with a brilliant view of Scorching Bay - though that was something of a misnomer that day as a stiff and rather chilly breeze was blowing! Lunch was topped off by the namesake chocolate fish (strawberry-flavoured fish-shaped marshmallows coated in chocolate).

The Venture, used in filming King Kong

A non-LOTR but movie-flavoured bonus was in store after lunch as we discovered that the Venture (the boat used by Peter Jackson in filming King Kong, which hadn't been released at the time of our tour) was moored to a wharf on the way out of Wellington. It was protected by some flimsy-looking wire barricades, but we were still able to get within about twenty meters.

We headed up Mt Victoria to find the "Get off the road" site (the place that the black rider "sniffs" for the hobbits) which is just a few hundred meters into the forest down a dirt track. After reconstructions aplenty, we had our own unwitting "get off the road!" experience as two seemingly mad cyclists on mountain bikes came flying down the track, sending us scattering for the bushes. At the top of the Mount, we had a great view over Wellington airport (apparently quite "dangerous", a great thing to be told the day before we flew out of there) and over the town below.

Back in town, we headed for Te Papa Museum, which could easily have filled a longer visit than the brief hour we had to explore it. Amongst the highlights: a specimen of the now extinct moa (a massive bird with scary talons that could clearly have done tremendous damage; no match for the guns that made it extinct though, unfortunately); animals in a diorama that were narrated by kids in very cute voices; a life-size Weta beetle (as heavy as 3 mice apparently - while I'm not up on my mouse weights, that sounds like an awful lot for an insect!) and an earthquake simulator, which hit home given that we'd travelled over from Tokyo.

We decided to take a break from the relentless onslaught of delicious-but-massive dinners, and formed a splinter mini-Fellowship group that headed into town rather than go to the Strawberry Faire restaurant. After a long and fruitless quest for aqua shoes (a prerequisite for our trip to Edoras, and ironically available at a discount store about 50 meters from Te Papa had we only headed in the other direction) we went to the Swarovski Crystal shop on Lambton Quay to see if they had any kiwis (nothing doing, so we ended up with a compromise lamb instead). We walked past the Embassy Theatre, home of the LOTR New Zealand premieres and the ROTK world premiere, but with energy running out we headed back to the hotel and a nearby Chinese restaurant, the Yang-Tse.

Back at the hotel (the Mercure again), we were reunited with some of the other Fellowship members, to learn that Daniel had put in another appearance at dinner.

Day 6 : Wellington to Christchurch (Friday September 16, 2005)

LOTR activities/locations: elven cloak factory; leaving Lothlorien location; rainforest that served as location for Rivendell; gardens of Isengard

Erica and her husband joined us at breakfast. We discussed the need to get an underground fan movement started for The Hobbit.

We visited the elven cloak factory, more pragmatically known as Stansborough Fibres Ltd.. We were able to go into the workshop at the back of the shop and see them making cloth on two antique looms. The looms, imported from Yorkshire, apparently seize up when the weather's too hot, so in the summer the workers have to so start at 3 or 4am and then knock off work by early afternoon. A quick dressing-up session ensued, with many of the party trying on elven cloaks and posing next to (cardboard) Frodo.

Ferns of Fernside

Our next stop was the Fernside mansion in Featherston to see the Leaving Lothlorien location (the scene in which Galadriel waves farewell to the fellowship after giving each of them gifts). Fernside is a gorgeous country mansion which is a luxury private hotel and lodge. Mike (the gardener) met us in full ranger costume (by special arrangement, he assured us it wasn't his day-to-day attire). There were only a few namesake ferns left that we could see, but those were magnificent, towering over us at perhaps 3-4m tall. The lake used to represent the Lothlorien segment of the river Anduin in LOTR was surprising small - some very clever camera work must have been involved - but even unadorned the bridge itself was recognizable. A muddy reenactment of the Deagol/Smeagol strangulation scene was one of the highlights here.

Our return to Wellington was via a rainforest. Ironically, it had literally just started raining as we pulled up in the carpark, so we dashed through the rain and across a very wobbly chain bridge into the forest itself, which apparently had served as the location for Rivendell. I say apparently, because so much CGI and modelling had gone into those scenes that it was probably the least recognizable scene. Admittedly, the pounding rain didn't help much.

Gardens of Isengard film location, New Zealand

The rain had mercifully let up by the time we reached the gardens of Isengard location, actually Harcourt Park, a green grassy park with a children's playground in one corner and a frisbee golf course (a new one for me, a series of baskets made out of chains that you're supposed to try and trap the frisbee in.) The main path that Gandalf used to ride up to Orthanc was practically invisible, nothing but the very slightest change of shade in the grass, as all the stones had been removed again, but the garden at the "side" of Orthanc in which he strolled in conversation with Saruman was still very clear - more opportunities for re-enactments.

Getting back to Wellington, it's worth noting at this point that we were shown just how off-piste we'd gone the day before in our fruitless quest for aqua shoes - red faces all round.

All too soon, the time for our departure from the North Island was upon us. We said goodbye to Vic and Raewyn at Wellington airport, and flew to Christchurch on the South Island (a short and, despite the scare stories on Victoria Peak, entirely uneventful flight). On landing, we were met by Anwen, who was to be our guide during our tour of the South Island, and who had been an extra in the films (all in good time).

We tucked into a roast beef dinner at Oxford upon Avon restaurant after a relatively fruitless wander around the centre of Christchurch (it's worth noting that our flight arrived quite late, after all the shops and a lot of the restaurants had shut). Interestingly from our perspective, nearly all the shops around the central tourist district seemed to be aiming straight at the Japanese tourism trade, with probably the most Japanese writing we've seen in one place anywhere outside of Japan!

Our first night on the South Island was spent at the Copthorne Central Hotel overlooking the Avon river.

Read on for Part 3