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Tours of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ locations

Planning a honeymoon or romantic getaway in New Zealand? Save time for a tour of the spectacular locations featured in The Lord of the Rings movies.

Movie location tours are big business worldwide. Millions of people visit Hollywood to stand on the spot in which scenes from their favourite movies were filmed. Thousands have been traipsing around Harry Potter's England and Wales, hoping to experience the magic of J K Rowling's movie.

When the scenery in a film is as magnificent as that in Peter Jackson's adaptation of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, the viewer's pull to visit the setting is strong. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring won Best Cinematography at the 2002 Oscars, but the filmmaker had an unfair advantage to begin with, given the beauty of his chosen location. USA Today noted that, calling New Zealand 'The Lord of the Rings' gorgeous co-star".

Filmgoers - more often than not fed a diet of digitally generated hi-tech futuristic film settings - gasped at the towering green, glistening forests, the azure blue lakes and the untouched mountains of New Zealand (Aotearoa as it is known in native Maori). And, as you'd expect, they asked 'is this place real, and where is it'?

It's very real (although yes, the special effects of Richard Taylor and the crew at New Zealand's Weta FX Workshop Studios also won an Academy Award). Almost two million people visited New Zealand in the year ending June 2002, with many exploring The Lord of the Rings film locations by road, air, jet or paddleboat along the way. While set constructions are no longer in place, visitors are still experiencing the thrill of visiting 'Middle Earth' in special spots all over New Zealand's two main islands. 

Red Carpet Tours

Red Carpet Tours was the first company in New Zealand to offer tours with The Lord of the Rings as a focus. The company has approval to visit sites on private property and provides guides who are knowledgeable Tolkien fans.

Matamata, a mainly dairy farming community (population 12,000) two hours south of New Zealand's largest city Auckland, is typical of small rural settlements. Just outside the town is a private farm that became Hobbiton, and this area has become the most popular destination for those who embark on a Red Carpet Tour.

'People want to find the specific spot where a Hobbiton scene took place,' says Vic James, Red Carpet Tours operator. 'They like to find the right camera angle themselves to take a photo or video, too - that adds a lot to their experience.'

Red Carpet has taken several small groups on its specialist tours and expects an influx at the next two Rings premieres (The Two Towers, December 2002; Return of the King December 2003). Its five-day tour also takes in the central North Island, around Tongariro National Park. The park, a World Heritage site, is made up of three volcanoes: Mt Ruapehu (still active), Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe. The Tongariro region was used in many TLOTR scenes and became the Slopes of Mt Doom, Mordor and Emyn Muil. Filming in such rugged terrain required stamina and respect for the environment. Four weeks during winter was spent filming at Whakapapa, with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin sitting on hot-water bottles in between takes to keep warm. Had they had a moment, they could have kept warm in a slightly more enjoyable fashion - skiing. Whakapapa provides the best skiing in the North Island. During filming, many of the TLOTR cast stayed in the historic Grand Chateau hotel at the foot of Mt Ruapehu, while othe
rs mixed with the down-to-earth ski set at Ohakune - a town that comes alive in the ski season.

Tourmasters South Pacific

Visitors who thrill to the idea of standing on the slopes of Mt Doom might try a nine-day North Island Lord of the Rings tour run by Tourmasters South Pacific or their full 22-day TLOTR tour, which includes the South Island. (A South Island-only option lasts 15 days). The Tourmasters package can be a self-drive tour or passengers travel by coach.

The North Island tour includes Tongariro National Park as well as locations further south in New Zealand's capital city Wellington, Peter Jackson's hometown. The tour visits Wellington's Mt Victoria (Hobbiton Woods) and Upper Hutt's Kaitoke Regional Park (Rivendell and the River Anduin) - a bush area used for camping, hiking, swimming and whitewater rafting.

In Wellington, surfies should hit Lyall Bay - not far from the award-winning Weta Workshop. In between requirements on TLOTR, Liv Tyler (Arwen), Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sean Bean (Boromir), Sean Astin (Sam Gamgee) Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck), Billy Boyd (Peregrin 'Pippin' Took) and Orlando Bloom (Legolas) became part of the local surfie set on Wellington's south coast.
The Wellington region was widely used in the three films, and featured some unlikely places such as Fort Dorset, an army base in seaside Seatoun that became Bree. Cast and crew often lunched at cafés in the Seatoun and Miramar area near Weta Workshop. Two Rooms and Eva Dixon's Place in Miramar and The Chocolate Fish cafe in Scorching Bay became regular haunts.  

Helicopter Tours

Much of The Lord of the Rings was shot in the spectacular South Island, a short ferry ride or plane trip across Cook Strait from Wellington. Nelson is at the top of the South Island and its Mt Owen became Dimrill Dale hillside. To see it by air, Nelson Helicopters offers a one and a half hour The Lord of the Rings flight that visits Dimrill Dale, Chetwood Forest and Eregion Hills.
Nelson has a large arts and crafts community, and many of the local artisans were involved in prop-making for the film. (While in the area, the popular Abel Tasman Coastal Track hike is a must. Situated in New Zealand's smallest National Park, it is a 51-kilometre (31-mile) easy-to-moderate walking track that passes through coastal forests and golden sandy beaches.) 


Heading further south to the Central Otago region including Queenstown, Arrowtown and Glenorchy, provides plenty of rewards. Queenstown, New Zealand's adventure capital, is famous for its skiing, bungy jumping and jetboat rides, and provided an ideal setting for Middle Earth.  Many overseas filmmakers shoot in Queenstown because of its beautiful alpine outlook, clear rivers and lively town. The Central Otago area is also renowned for its burgeoning wine industry (amongst local winemakers is Hollywood star Sam Neill).
About 40 minutes from Queenstown is the serene township of Glenorchy (population 200). The aptly name Paradise, Glenorchy, became the location for the Slopes of Amon Hen (in the final dramatic action in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Boromir succumbs to the orc attack and Merry and Pippin are captured by the Uruk-hai) and Lothlorien. A horse ride from the Dart River stables at Glenorchy is a must and many equine extras came from there.

Glenorchy Air

The Lord of the Rings cast and crew were flown around the rugged mountains of this area by Glenorchy Air, who smartly realised the tour opportunities that would be presented after shooting was over. Subsequently, Trilogy Trails was born to retrace the steps of the wizards, warlocks, hobbits and soldiers as Peter Jackson had directed them.

'We were honoured being able to assist such an ambitious and thrilling project,' says Robert Rutherford, Trilogy Trails' director. 'Obviously, when the movies were being shot, the locations had to be kept a close secret, but once they were released it was clear we had the chance to give visitors the same sense of discovery during their trip to the South Island.'
The company's fleet of light aircraft flies visitors into the backcountry, to areas the movies have since made recognisable. "Devotees of Tolkien can get in amongst Middle Earth as we think he imagined it, and get a real feel for the characters and places they've come to know so well. They can visit the film location of Lothlorien, view the scenery where the battle of Amon Hen took place, smell the smells and see the sights Elijah Wood and Sean Astin experienced. They can become a part of the whole Rings experience and still be back in their accommodation for their evening meal, with some incredible memories," adds Rutherford.
Glenorchy Air has been operating scenic flights around the breathtaking Wakatipu Basin and Fiordland National Park for 10 years, and that lends an extra dimension to the Trilogy Trails experience. 'Our pilots have an intimate knowledge of the area,' says Rutherford. 'The mystical and surreal landscape that's been so moving for Rings fans around the world is our office. It's where we fly every day. We know how beautiful it is, how visually stunning and exciting for first-timers. Conveying that excitement and pride in our wilderness isn't difficult at all.'

Chopper Tours

Also flying high since the filming of The Lord of the Rings is Queenstown company Heliworks. Heliworks chopper pilots flew TLOTR crew to remote spots in the region and have since set up special packages - Heliworks Middle Earth Helicopter Flights - for those wishing to gain access to some otherwise inaccessible locations.
The company has had a steady response from customers for the Middle Earth chopper flights, despite the relative expense involved. Heliworks' 'Flight to the Ford' (30 minutes' flying time plus 10 minutes landing), is described as an introduction to Middle Earth and takes in Queenstown, the Remarkables, Closeburn and Arrowtown. Passengers see the locations for the Misty Mountains, Dimrill Dale, the source of the River Silverlode and the forest where Lurtz fought his final battle against Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas and Gimli.

Heliworks' 'Great Forests' package (one hour plus 15 minutes for landings), sees the chopper also head to Greenstone and Paradise. The TLOTR fan is shown Nan Curunir (scene of Isengard and the Tower of Orthanc), the Great River, the River Bruinen and the River Anduin (location of the Gates of Argonath). Photo stops occur along the way.

Their ultimate TLOTR flight is 'There And Back Again' (two hours 10 minutes + landing time) and includes all destinations visited in 'Flight to the Ford' and 'Great Forests' plus the Mavora Lakes, Kepler Mire, Waiau River, Norwest Lake and Freeman Burn. Passengers visit the snow-clad slopes of the Misty Mountains and cross the Main Divide, descending towards the Dead Marshes. Flying low, they can peer into the graves of elves and men killed in the Battle of Dagorlad before passing over the River Anduin. After a crossing of Nen Hithoel and ascending the broken slopes typical of Eregion, the lunch stop (complete with a draught of Old Winyards) is at Norwest Lakes. Landing atop Mt Alfred, the vista of Nan Curunir (scene of Isengard and the Tower of Orthanc) unfolds as dramatically as it did in the The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.

When a Getaway TV programme screened an item in Australia in May 2002, showing these flights, Internet enquiries increased dramatically.
'The market is definitely there,' says Barbara Swan of Heliworks. 'It's mainly from Australia but we had a guy bring his daughter out from North America and they went on an hour and a half flight. They loved it so much, they then went flying with us for two whole days!'

Heliworks pilots worked closely with Jackson's crew and have an inside knowledge of the film locations and angles used.  They also called on author, TLOTR expert and curator of the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum in Wanaka, Ian Brodie to write their commentary.
'He flew with us to have a look and then wrote the script,' says Swan. 'It's been excellent having someone like him to work with - someone who is so full of knowledge of The Lord of the Rings.'

If being in the air isn't to your liking, a jetboat trip up the Dart River from Glenorchy is an awe-inspiring experience, Rings fan or otherwise. The Dart River Safari is an excellent option to see Lothlorien, Amon Hen and Nan Curunír. It starts out at Glenorchy and each three-hour trip combines a back-road journey through Paradise, a walk in ancient forests (the golden woods of Lothlorien, home of the elven Queen Galadriel) and a jetboat ride up the dramatically scenic Dart River valley - part of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. This area is Isengard, where the wizard Saruman lived in the tower of Orthanc (though the actual fortress was added by computer wizardry).

Boat Tours & Safaris

Dart River Safari and Funyaks also offer inflatable canoes (funyaks). Passengers have the option of jetboating up the Dart River, then paddling their way down to Paradise in an inflatable canoe just like Frodo did on the Great River. The 'Heritage Trail' combines the best of the Safari with an extended walk - one and a half hours in the magical wilderness of Middle Earth. 

'Most passengers are very interested and excited about seeing the film locations,' says Hilary Finnie, sales and marketing manager for Dart River Safaris and Funyaks. 'Most seem to view this as a bonus, rather than the reason for taking the trip. However, we have seen an increase in passengers from UK. It's only really been a very short time since the first movie's release - too short for most long-haul passengers to make a travel decision and implement their holiday plans. We expect we'll see real results over the 2002-2003 summer.'

Finnie says the safaris are everyday trips for the company and TLOTR has simply created added interest. 'Most of our guides are fans and many either worked on the movie or have very close associations with people who did, so have first-hand knowledge. We worked closely with Ian Brodie and he helped us with the facts and detail for the commentary. Our guides have a knack of identifying whether their customers are real fans, very interested, or find the Rings involvement topical only, and can adapt the level of commentary to suit.'

The Daily Telegraph in the UK said of Queenstown and Glenorchy: 'Much of the film was shot here. And it's easy to see why. The peaks of the Remarkables look hand-chiselled. Queenstown straddles part of the lake and the forbidding mountains hem it all in.  Surely, Tolkien had visited this place. He must have, for if parts of Britain could pass for Middle Earth, New Zealand was Middle Earth.'

Queenstown tour company Outback New Zealand Ltd has provided specialist 'Safari of the Rings' tours since May 2002. While winter is normally a quiet time for their Nomad Safari 4WD tours, this year has seen a big increase in winter numbers, which the company believes may have occurred because of The Lord of the Rings.
'We anticipate demand will keep increasing,' says co-owner Amanda Gatward-Ferguson. 'It will be interesting to see what happens in summer. Both tours are proving popular.'

There are half-day or full-day tours available. Tour A takes in the Lake Wakatipu area - Ford of Bruinen, Pillars of the Kings, Road to Mordor and the Misty Mountains. Tour B heads out from Queenstown to Glenorchy - to see the forests of Lothlorien, Isengard, and the Seat of Seeing.

'People want to see the scenery and experience the atmosphere,' says David Gatward-Ferguson. 'It's very evocative and the commentary develops this. Several of our guides are fans and they do the commentary.

'These are real places; there are no film sets left; they are areas of outstanding natural beauty that need no enhancement. Here it really is possible to experience the magical atmosphere captured in the film.'

'New Zealand is Middle Earth,' commented Elijah Wood (Frodo) while he was filming. 'It has every geological formation and geographical landscape you can imagine - and some you can't.'

Further information:

Red Carpet Tours
Contact: Vic James
Phone: + 64 9 410 6561
Email info@redcarpet-tours.com

Tourmasters South Pacific
Contact: Anne-Marie Forsyth
Phone: + 64 9 478 3550 
Email: info@tourmasters.co.nz 

Nelson Helicopters
Contact: Jeanette Lusty
Phone: +64 3 541 8178
Email: enquiries@nelsonhelicopters.co.nz

Glenorchy Air
Contact: Robert Rutherford
Phone: +64 3 4422207
Email air@glenorchy.net.nz
and info@trilogytrail.com

Dart River Safari and Funyaks
Contact: Hilary Finnie
Phone: +64 3 44 9992,
Email reservations@dartriver.co.nz

Outback New Zealand Limited
Contact: Amanda & David Gatward-Ferguson
Phone: +64 3 442 7386
Email: therings@outback.net.nz

Queenstown Helicopters Ltd
Contact: Barbara Swan
Phone: +64 3 441 4011
Email: info@heliworks.co.nz

Other Sites:
•  redcarpet-tours.com
•  tourmasters.co.nz
•  nelsonhelicopters.co.nz
•  glenorchy.co.nz
•  trilogytrail.com
•  dartriver.co.nz
•  funyaks.co.nz
•  outback.net.nz
•  heliworks.co.nz

Related article: Guidebook to The Lord of the Rings Locations