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Exploring New Zealand


Last part 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 the other parts in case you missed them: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Day 10: Queenstown to Te Anau (Tuesday September 20, 2005)

LOTR related activities/locations: river Anduin (bits of)

The heavy snowfall overnight prompted a hasty change of plans, which involved skipping all the off-track LOTR locations as we headed straight for Te Anau. That ultimately left us with a great deal more time for "optional" activities, so the day certainly wasn't wasted.

A surprise blanket of snow

Our first dose of adrenaline came courtesy of a Luxmore Jet jetboating tour, in which we powered along the Upper Waiau River, our driver delighting in sending the boat ducking in and out of floating logs. It was during this tour that we saw our token LOTR locations of the day, as three separate sections of the river were used in filming parts of the Anduin river sequences.

Tranquil waters of Lake Manapouri, South Island, New Zealand

The tour culminated in the glorious Lake Manapouri, a massive mirror-flat body of water encircled entirely by mountains. There we were told to "hang on" while the driver showed just how manoeverable a jetboat can be in a series of 360-degree high-speed spins. After that, he cut the engine completely and the boat bobbed low in the water while we drank in the silence and the awesome scenery.

On our return to the jetboat launch site, we were to be picked by two helicopters for the second leg of the tour. We felt like filmstars as they swooped in to pluck us away, though that feeling dissipated as we found just how cramped they became once we squeezed on board. We were flown across staggeringly beautiful scenery of rugged snowy mountain peaks and deep fir-lined valleys, before stopping on a wide snow-covered ledge halfway up one of the mountains.

Helicopter perched on a snowy mountain ledge, South Island, New Zealand

It was a location that could only have been reached by helicopter, and our pilot said he'd never actually landed there before (apparently they just pick "somewhere flat" each trip and put down there). We tramped around on the top of the world (or as close as we would get this trip), mindful of the vertical drop just beyond the landing zone.

The helicopters delivered us back to the jetty in Te Anau, and we all agreed that it had been an unmissable experience, though for some the jerky movements of the helicopter as it battled the mountain winds, coming close on the heels of the 360-degree jetboat spins, proved queasy enough to make lunch an unpleasant proposition.

We wandered around Te Anau for a while, though the exploration didn't take long as the town seemed to be composed of just one short main street. Still, with time to kill until the evening's "entertainment", we filled time as best we could by getting caught up on email.

As dusk was falling, we headed off on a nighttime cruise to the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, situated on the far shore of Lake Te Anau, diagonally across from the town. The whole tour takes around 2.5 hours, with the lake crossing absorbing about half the time, and about 30 to 45 minutes spent inside the caves themselves.

Upon arrival, we were directed to a visitor's centre, where we watched a multimedia introduction to the caves before being divided up into small groups of a dozen or so, each led by a local guide. One by one, these groups headed out towards the caves proper, while the remaining visitors were left to kill time in the small museum/exhibition. We were in the last group.

Once in the caves, we were led down dark rocky tunnels, often being forced to bend and stoop to clear the lower narrower passages. Some areas were well-illuminated, with lights picking out the many waterfalls and rushing white waters of the underground river. Most were darker, with several spans of cave in near-total darkness. The sound of racing water was never far away...

There were two spans of calmer water to be crossed by boat. Each guide took care of propulsion for their group's boat by pulling hand-over-hand on a chain embedded in the rocks overhead. The narrow caverns meant that outgoing and incoming boats were close enough to touch as they passed. These boats are what caused the bottleneck getting into the caves, because they limit the number of visitors able to go in and out at any one time.

The glowworm grotto lay at the very end of the cave network, accessed via the second of the boats. We made this last step of the journey in total darkness and with the sound of water progressively giving way to peaceful silence. After the lengthy buildup (lake cruise, presentation, wait and adventurous journey through the river-cave system) the experience was a little underwhelming, with the grotto itself small enough that one felt practically able to reach out and touch the walls. Not advisable, as glowworms are sensitive little creatures and just about anything seems to disturb them, including sound and light (no photography allowed). The glowworms themselves looked like an uneven pincushion of tiny yellow-green lights on the roof of the grotto.

While the outward lake journey provided splendid views of the mountains ringing the lake, the tour's hidden gem emerged on the return trip, after night had fallen. Heading back to the jetty, we could see that the skies were clear (the moon had not yet risen) and there were a lot of stars. The lake itself looked very dark, with only a distant fuzz of lights on the far shore signalling where Te Anau lay.

As soon as we boarded the boat, we headed down inside and towards the front, where the captain is. Once we got underway, we headed up the steep steps to the right and onto the open top deck of the boat. Most passengers opted for the warmth of the enclosed main cabin, but the four of us who braved the elements were rewarded with an unparalleled (to us city-dwellers) view of the night sky.

We saw the shimmering band of the Milky Way cutting across the sky almost directly overhead, and the Southern Cross, handily pointed at by two very bright stars - even a couple of shooting stars. After a few minutes of taking it in turns lying on our backs on the flotation mats stacked on deck, our eyes got progressively more used to the dark and we saw layer after layer of stars progressively coming into view, until it was just us and the infinite universe. The return journey alone was worth 10x the cost of the trip, and that's without considering the cave experience itself.

After the excitement of the cruise, we felt we were entitled to a good dinner, but although it was only 9.15pm that clearly seemed late by Te Anau standards since every restaurant was shut and the only place we could find that was still serving food was the Moose bar down by the jetty. We were the last to be served, and there was some fairly pointed shuffling of chairs onto tables going on while we were still finishing our pizzas, so there was nothing to do but head for our hotel (the Luxmore) and a well-earned night's sleep.

Day 11: Te Anau Queenstown (Wednesday September 21, 2005)

LOTR related activities/locations: orc funeral pyre and Fangorn forest outskirts (where Gandalf summons Shadowfax); breaking of the fellowship (Frodo leaves by boat, Sam tries to follow him); Urukhai charge down the hill; Warg attack; refugees leave Rohan; Gandalf rides for Gondor; Eowyn prepares a "tasty" stew for Aragorn

Suddenly the days are flying by! Today's our last full day of LOTR-related activities, and there's a lot that's been packed into a short time since we skipped the Mavora Lakes location yesterday due to the snow and so have that much more ground to cover...

We begin the day by heading out to the location of the orc funeral pyre and the edges of Fangorn forest, where Shadowfax came galloping after Gandalf whistled. While one of the movie shots was heavily enhanced digitally, the others show the same clear treeline that we're now looking at. From there, we head on to the Mavora Lakes, with a brief pause in a layby along the way to photograph the eye-catching Devil's Staircase rock formation.

The lakes are a very recognizable location, both the pebbled beach where Frodo tried to give Sam the slip at the end of Fellowship of the Ring, only for Sam to plunge into the water after him, and the hilly location where Merry and Pippin beckon to Frodo (hidden behind a tree) as the Urukhai charge towards them, only to change their minds and lead the Urukhai away from him, leading to their capture and etc. (hey, I'm assuming you're read the books or at least watched the films if you've read this far!) There was still some snow on the ground, and a light frosting of white on the mossy treetrunks.

Korean POW camp at Deer Park Heights (movie set)

Lunch was in Arrowtown, which is home to a number of LOTR locations that we simply couldn't squeeze into a jam-packed day. Following a very brief wander around the picturesque old town, we headed up to Deer Park Heights and the last LOTR locations of the trip. Heading up the Heights, we saw baby goats, lambs, buffalo, yaks and long-haired cattle as we wound our way to the summit, which was mysteriously adorned by a stark concrete replica Korean POW camp, used in a Disney film shot over a decade previously (they clearly didn't have the same "return it all to how it was before we started" philosophy that guided Peter Jackson and co.)

Lake around which the Rohirrim fled, LOTR film location, South Island, New Zealand

We saw the spot in which the refugees leave Rohan and stream dramatically around the lake (another masterful shot as the "lake" in question is tiny), the hill that the Wargs crested in their attack, the spot where Aragorn plunged over the cliff edge into the river (in fact, it's a drop of just a few feet) and several other closely-spaced locations that were widely dispersed on film. There was a certain poignant feeling of finality as we posed for the last group photo of the trip and turned our backs on the final LOTR film location.

Back in Queenstown, we caught up on more email, did some souvenir shopping, and all the other bits and pieces that suddenly seem to fill up the end of a long trip. Dinner was notable for the length of time it took to serve the main dishes, literally several hours, and wound up taking up the entire evening.

Day 12: Queenstown (Thursday September 22, 2005)

LOTR related activities/locations: none

Today was "optional activities day", though the capricious weather derailed our first choice activity -- a scenic fly/drive tour of Milford Sound -- as fog descended rapidly, grounding smaller planes. We ended up eating the "picnic lunch" provisions as a late breakfast. So instead, we focused our energies on finding out what indoor activities Queenstown had to offer.

Kiwi and Bird Wildlife Park, Queenstown, New Zealand

First stop was the Kiwi & Bird Wildlife Park, signposted with its distinctive wooden kiwi-cutout fence. We saw some kiwi in their log cabin Kiwi House enclosure, but since they're nocturnal birds and kept under very dim red light, the best view turned out to be through the nightvision finder of our video camera. After the kiwi, we watched an animal show involving tame birds and a large grey Tuatara lizard. A rat that "interrupted" proceedings turned out to be part of the show as well.

Lakeshore at Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand

Next, we took on the challenge of Mini Golf head on at CaddyShack City, a mini golf range just down the road. I don't want to come across as a mini-golf obsessive, but it was definitely the most unusual course I've seen, with every hole incorporating active elements such as doors that opened and closed randomly, elevators that carried the ball up and around obstactles, random "splitter" tubes which directed the ball out of one of a number of openings and so on. Each hole was progressively more elaborate than the last, and we ended up taking an age to go around as we felt we simply had to stop for pictures on every new hole.

Short on ideas and still fairly full from breakfast, we returned to the same cafe we had bought breakfast from. We then wandered around the town for the afternoon, browsing in and out of shops.

The Fellowship departure dinner was held at in the restaurant at the top of the Skyline Gondola. We couldn't see that much going up the hill as it was already dark, but the lights of the town shone prettily enough. Emotional speeches and photos, toasts (and more toasts at the hotel bar later) and promises to keep in touch (sorry, folks, this is my official "mea culpa" moment!) brought the tour to an triumphant conclusion...

Day 13: Departure from Queenstown (Friday September 23, 2005)

LOTR related activities/locations: none

Although yesterday was the last official tour day, everyone met up for breakfast as usual again today, which was just that tiniest bit weird as we'd said our goodbyes a dozen times the night before. This "long goodbye" theme was to repeat itself throughout the morning as tour members kept bumping into us (central Queenstown is pretty small) while killing time before their respective flights. Most people were going to fly back to Auckland like us, though some were leaving on earlier or later flights.

Determined to wring the last drops out of Queenstown, we embarked on a short but busy morning. We watched the high resolution Kiwi Magic movie and marvelled at how little things had changed in the decade or so since it was shot, and played "spot the location" as familiar scenes flashed up again and again on screen. It helped that we were the only viewers, so we were able to chat our way happily through the 20-minute performance.

After that, we headed to Underwater World, a small structure on the jetty which turned out to house a submerged room with walls made of toughened glass, offering an almost unobstructed view of the lake. A small fish-feeding device accepted our coins and automatically dispensed a stream of pellets outside the glass, which were pounced upon by trout, eels and... ducks! Yes, the brainy Queenstown ducks have learned that it pays to swim back and forth above the machine, and dive for tasty goodies as soon as some obliging tourist slots in another coin.

One final lunch, and it was time to head for the airport and Auckland. The end of a perfect holiday - and the start of what is proving to be an enduring love affair with New Zealand.