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Exploring New Zealand


Part 3 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 are links to Part 1 and Part 2 in case you missed them...

The South Island

Day 7: Christchurch to Mount Cook (Saturday September 17, 2005)

LOTR related activities/locations: Edoras

Today's adventure was to be a long one, so the early start meant we saw almost literally nothing of Christchurch since we left before any of the shops had opened. We stopped for provisions (second breakfast, and the makings of a picnic lunch) on the way out of the city. Another notable milestone was the last traffic light we were to see for hundreds of kilometers, which Anwen gleefully pointed out.

View of Mt Sunday, which doubled as Edoras film location

Heading for Mt. Sunday (the hill that became Edoras in the films) in Ashburton District, we stopped by the side of the road to pick up Anwen's father Derek in full "Grandalf" costume. He takes on some of the tour-leading duties from time to time, and nearly always participates in the Edoras segment. Accompanying him were Anwen's brother and 4-year-old nephew. We were treated to stories of Anwen and Derek's spells as extras in LOTR. Anwen can be seen stirring a cauldron in the back of one scene while Derek is center frame for a second as the fellowship strides briskly into Edoras.

Fording a freezing stream near Edoras (Mt. Sunday), New Zealand

Mt. Sunday is a remote, rocky hill in the middle of a flat grassland plain hemmed in by towering mountains. We stopped at the base hut for a rest break - the owners of the hut apparently own most of the valley and the foothills of the mountains all around it. Edoras itself is instantly recognizable even from the relatively distant vantage point of the hut - of course, none of the buildings are there any more, but the hill itself is a very distinctive shape.

View from Edoras (Mt. Sunday), New Zealand

And my goodness, it's BIG! The journey across the plain seemed to get gradually longer as Mt. Sunday loomed larger and larger. We forded three streams (the aqua shoes clearly proved to be worth the effort expended in tracking them down), two of which were above knee height, and all of which were breathtakingly cold as they were partially fueled by snow runoff.

The path got steeper as we reached the bottom of Mt. Sunday, but the views from the top were stunning. Sitting on boulders at the site of Edoras, most of us agreed that the location competed with Hobbiton as the most inspiring place we'd visited so far (and despite many other interesting locations, nothing beyond Edoras really shifted that belief). We returned to the base hut to eat our picnics, as the wind on the summit was prohibitive.

Lake Pukaki, South Island, New Zealand

After lunch, we drove on towards Mount Cook and the Hermitage Hotel via Lake Tekapo (with the Church of the Good Shepherd) and Lake Pukaki. The lake water was piercingly blue as it is of glacial origin. The mountainous landscape was distinctively different from that of the North Island, more traditionally "mountainy" (higher, pointier peaks) since the mountains were formed by tectonic movement rather than volcanic activity.

A brief glimpse of Mt Cook, South Island, New Zealand

We arrived at the Hermitage Hotel just before dark; we were lucky to catch a glimpse of the peak of Mount Cook as the sun set (and we later saw it bathed in moonlight - stunning!) Our rooms were on the top floor of the wing directly facing Mount Cook. Looking down into the hotel gardens, we could see the statue of Sir Edmund Hillary, who first climbed Everest.

Our South Island tour seemed to have taken on a peculiarly Japanese theme, as we were pipped to the post at the evening buffet by a coachload of Japanese tourists, who seemed to form the dominent resident population of the hotel. Not put off in the slightest, we enjoyed a delicious meal and a long evening spent chatting.

Day 8: Mount Cook to Clyde (Sunday September 18, 2005)

LOTR related activities/locations: Pelennor Fields; Great Chase

Today was to be a deliberately slower-paced day to make up for our exertions in reaching Edoras. The weather was proving equally lethargic, the clouds having descended during the night to shroud the mountains from view, bringing home just how lucky we'd been to have enjoyed an unobstructed vista the previous evening.

Hermitage Hotel, Mt Cook, New Zealand

After a leisurely breakfast at the Hermitage, we set off for the location of the Pelennor Fields which were, as the name implies, fields. Unfortunately, the owners weren't able to meet us there, but had granted us permission to go onto their land. You could just about visualise the horses charging (Anwen did her best to conjure up the appropriate mood) but it wasn't one of those "instantly recognizable" locations - a stark contrast with Edoras.

Strictly from a LOTR perspective, the day was to prove a bit of a letdown, since the Great Chase location was even less inaccessible given that it was on private land behind a sturdy wire fence. Still, we could see the pine tree forest and the clear path cutting through it along which Arwen (stunt double Jane, plus a Frodo life-size doll) was chased by the Nine Riders.

Sunlight dancing on Lake Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand

We drove on to Wanaka for lunch, and ate down by the lake. The scenery was breathtaking, with the sun scattering like diamonds off the rippling water, but our attention was somewhat distracted by the non-arrival of lunch. At last, the food made a belated appearance and we gulped it down before sprinting back out to the coach. Wanaka was also one of the few places that felt "busy", at least during the period we were there, as all the cafes and restaurants were filled with tourists.

We headed out to Wanaka airport, where Ian Brody usually works (he is the author of the absolutely-must-have Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook), but he wasn't there as it was Sunday. At least we were able to pick up authographed copies of the extended edition of his Guidebook.

Archery at Have A Shot, Wanaka, New Zealand

Over the road was the Have a Shot Shooting Complex, where we tried to smoke out any budding Legolases in the party during an archery session. Archery is harder than it looks - no doubt that won't come as news to archers - but by dint of a lot of practice and about 20 arrows apiece we managed a few bulls-eyes eventually.

From the Wanaka area we went back on the road to Clyde and Olivers Restaurant and Lodge. Olivers is a charmingly rustic hotel (in the nicest possible sense) that offered a comfortable, sedate (clearly the theme of the day) stay since the rooms didn't have televisions, telephones, alarm clocks or any other nods to 21st century living. Amusingly, the bathroom (overlooked by the "main" road) seemed aimed at exhibitionists, since the roller blinds were just that meaningfully bit narrower than the windows they were supposed to be blanking. Having said that, we saw virtually nobody around during our stay, so who exactly did we think was watching?

Roaring log file, Olivers Restaurant and Lodge, Clyde, New Zealand

Dinner was served in the main dining room, with a roaring log fire dispelling the chill. Given that it was supposed to snow the next day, the flickering flames were doubly welcome. The food was delicious and plentiful (another trip-long theme, seemingly) and the entertainment was fantastic as we were entertained by a group of local musicians who played music from Lord of the Rings, as well as their a composition based on the ballad of Beren and Luthien which had been penned by Anwen's father Derek. In the quiet of a rural hotel, the atmosphere was spellbinding.

After dinner, we explored the upstairs bar area, which was bedecked in strange shadowy wallpaper that might have featured women, or pig heads, or wolves (we ended up with as many opinions as the number of people who looked at it). There was also an unusual set of stairs in the middle of the floor which went down a few steps, then straight back up again, forming a peculiar v-shape that made for interesting discussion but seemed structurally pointless.

The rest of the evening was spent drinking, chatting and playing a mamouth game of charades, spiced up by the fact that we had many nationalities represented on the tour. Imagine trying to mime something in English if you only know what it's called in Japanese, or Italian... much hilarity ensued.

Day 9: Clyde to Queenstown (Monday September 19, 2005)

LOTR related activities/locations: orc canyon; burnt Rohan village; Amon Hen and Ithilien

Worth noting: today was "Talk Like a Pirate Day" according to our intrepid guide, Anwen. We gamely went along with a few piratical phrases of our own, but we were a bit mystified about what she meant. Subsequent research turned up this website, which sheds more light...

Billy Boyd's autograph in visitor's book, Olivers Restaurant and Lodge, Clyde, New Zealand

Started the day with a delicious home-cooked breakfast in the Olivers kitchen area, seated at long tressle tables. The visitor's book in the corner was "casually" open at the page proving that Billy Boyd had stayed there in 2000. With snow threatening on and off throughout the day, the plan was to take in a number of LOTR locations.

We headed for Sue's place, a massive tract of hilly farmland (over 10,000 hectares in all) that encompassed the orc canyon location where Merry manages to drop the Mallorn leaf brooch only for it to be almost immediately trampled underfoot by an orc. The journey included some incredible driving by our intrepid driver Wayne, who had to guide a full-size coach up a bumpy, rough dirt track for about twenty minutes as it wound its way through the arid, boulder-strewn landscape. I realise that Wayne is only entering the story at this point; however, he deserves a big "thank you" for having stuck with us the whole way (two coaches, on both islands).

The final leg of the journey was on foot for about 10 minutes, the party picking their way carefully to avoid the "sheep mines" concealed in the scrubby grass. We passed the rock that Aragorn "listened" on, only a few meters from the canyon in reality, though in the film they're a day's journey apart. The canyon itself looked exactly like in the film, another "instantly recognizable" location and our cue for another re-enactment by willing hobbits and rather more reluctant orcs.

Souvenir nail from the burn Rohan village movie set location

Having made the most of the canyon while the weather was clear, the promised snow was beginning to fall in earnest as we reboarded the coach and moved on to the location in which the Rohan village stood before it was put to the torch by the Urukhai. There were still some remnants of the burnt village houses scattered around in the form of charred timbers and nails. Sue said we could take whatever we could carry away as a souvenir, so I opted for a bent nail sticking out of a blackened beam (Said nail was to cause some concern at the end of our trip when we couldn't remember where it had been packed - we were worried it would be discovered in our carry-on luggage and mistaken for a weapon.)

Crazy bed racing antics in Alexandra, New Zealand

The snow was falling more strongly as we left the Rohan village area, but it cleared up by Alexandra (notable for the large white clockface adorning the mountainside above the town). There, we watched a charity "bed race" on wheeled iron beds, pitting teams of "pushers" and "sleepers" from the local hospital. The beds looks rather unstable, a view clearly shared by their supine riders since all of them were kitted out with bicycle helmets. After a warming chicken soup lunch at the Cobblers Cafe & Bar, we headed for the Amon Hen and Ithilien locations on the outskirts of Queenstown.

We weren't able to get to the Ithilien location from the hilltop on which Amon Hen would have stood (the structure having of course been dismantled after filming was complete) and despite Aragorn's heroic stride towards the orcs in the film, the hill in real life is very shallow, little more than a hillock a meter or so high. Nevertheless, the opportunity was there for a re-enactment on a truly grand scale, Aragorn vs the massed party of travellers (sorry, orcs). The proceedings were spiced up by a small but aggressive black dog which decided it would be a mighty fine idea to chase the person chasing all the others.

On arrival at the Novotel Gardens Hotel in Queenstown, a mass charge ensued towards the (free) laundry facilities that eclipsed the afternoon's orcish performance. Nevertheless, by the time the evening wound down in the Thai Siam restaurant next to the casino, everyone's clothes were clean if perhaps still slightly damp in places.

Read on for Part 4