Olivia Priestley, 21 from London, shares the story of her epic Work New Zealand quest to see every Lord of the Rings location that Kiwiland has to offer!
Following in Frodo’s footsteps…
The most commonly asked question in relation to my first backpacking trip with BUNAC (I’m about to embark on my third) is ‘why New Zealand?’
Well there are a hundred answers for this, all of them applicable to every person who decides to venture to that little island on the other side of the world; the extreme sports, the people, the history (Maori history is fascinating stuff), the insane variations in landscape (deserts, snow capped mountains, glaciers, hot springs, beaches, forests – you name it, they’ve got it!) or simply because it is as far away from home as you can possibly get.
All of these then applied to my own trip. But they were never mentioned when answering that question. Because I had a reason for visiting New Zealand which, though not strictly personal, was far more specific.
I am, and have been for years, a Lord of the Rings obsessive fan.
Now, when I say obsessive, I mean OBSESSIVE. I’ve read the books something like 40 times and I’ve seen the films close to 200 times. And that’s not hyperbole – that’s a near exact estimate. I can quote lines from the films and books as if I had written/starred in them myself. My room is adorned with LotR memorabilia and collectibles, as well as cut outs from magazines and newspapers, etc.
Like I said, obsessive.
So that was my reason for choosing New Zealand over the many other countries BUNAC offered on their website. I vowed that my whole trip (which was meant to last 8 months but which I extended to a full year) would be an epic quest to see every location in the country that contributed to the breathtaking visuals of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thing is, I had been in New Zealand now for a grand total of 11 months and hadn’t seen a single one.
This is not because I had suddenly forgotten about my obsession, or because I didn’t have enough money. I was simply enjoying living and working in New Zealand, getting the ‘real’ experience that you can only get by settling in a place for longer than a couple of months. I had a tremendous run of jobs (bungee jump supervisor, rentals assistant on the Remarkables ski hill, dancer, and chef on a cruise boat being just some of them) and I kept putting off the actual backpacking side of backpacking, which my Lord of the Rings quest would obviously demand of me.
But one winter’s day, I woke up and I realised that I didn’t have much time left to do what I had, in fact, initially set out to do. This terrified me, so I quit my job, found my housemates someone to take my room, and set off to find the One Ring.
Luckily, the majority of Lord of the Rings was actually filmed around Queenstown where I had been living for the past 7 months or so. I booked myself onto a day tour with Nomad Safaris and set out on my first filmic adventure. The guide was a cheery older lady who didn’t know nowhere near as much about the films as her passengers. Which is kind of a given, as you get some serious freaks on these tours (people dressed as Frodo or who refuse to speak anything but elvish for example). We made our way first up the Remarkables (which I had driven up every day at 7am for work coincidentally) and stopped at a viewpoint to gaze upon what were, in the films, the Misty Mountains. It worked out rather well that the weather was absolutely awful that day and the mountains looked appropriately misty through the rain and low cloud. We also stopped at the Kawarau River (the Anduin river in the films) and at the exact spot in Arrowtown where the Flight to the Ford was filmed.
Departing my home in Queenstown the very next day, I made my way up to the picturesque town of Christchurch. I booked myself onto the Lord of the Rings tour a few days later, having first enjoyed the tourist attractions the city itself had to offer. This one was with a tour company called Hassle-free Tours (a promising name) and it was one of the few tours which went out to Mount Sunday, the setting for Edoras in the second and third films.
This was a very important location for me. I always knew that there was just no way without my own car that I would be able to visit every single film site, but this one in particular I HAD to do. It was my favourite place in the films and the books, and the idea of seeing it in real life just gave me goosebumps. Of course, the Edoras set had long been demolished and there wasn’t even the faintest trace of a film ever having been made there, but there was still something magical about the place. Mount Sunday is a rocky hill in the middle of a great plain, surrounded by snow capped mountains. Exactly as is described in the book.
As a sidenote, it is also possibly the windiest place on Earth. Seriously.
After Christchurch, my next stop was Wellington, on the North Island. I made my way slowly but surely there, and again spent a few days first exploring the city. It is a wonderful place, one of my favourites, and has much more of a sense of culture than Auckland. I visited the beautifully renovated movie theatre where they held the world premiere of Return of the King and concluded that it is a worthy experience for all movie lovers, not just Lord of the Rings fans. All cinemas should be like this!
My LotR tour here was with a company called Rover Tours and this was by far the best one in terms of quantity and depth. I had a brilliant, brilliant guide who knew as much if not more about LotR as all of his passengers put together, and was set on immersing us in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien. We were taken to the woods of Mount Victoria (actually right in the middle of the city) where the ‘get off the road’ scene was filmed, amongst others, and had the chance to re-create each scene for photos, or just for a laugh. We then drove to the WETA cave, an awesome little room where genuine memorabilia from all the films – as well as from the Narnia series and different Peter Jackson ventures – was displayed. I discovered here that I have more than a passing resemblance to Gollum – an unsettling thought. After that we passed by Peter Jackson’s house, took photos at the Hutt River, and then finished in another of my favourite locations – Rivendell. As with Mount Sunday, there isn’t much proof in Kaitoke National Park that an Elvish estate ever existed there aside from a few signs, but we got the chance to all dress up as elves and have full on sword fights. Really good fun.
For the final leg of my Lord of the Rings journey, I stopped in Rotorua (again, an entirely magical place to visit in itself) and took the very creatively named Hobbiton Tours to, you guessed it, the Hobbiton location.
Hobbiton was filmed on a sheep farm so we first had a lesson in sheep shearing and lamb feeding before heading off to see the hobbit holes. There is not much left of them but Bag End was still there and you could still go inside - although there was no Bilbo to welcome you in. There was also the ‘party tree’ and a few other interesting tidbits too stare at and discuss. It was the shortest tour of the lot, but no Lord of the Rings Quest would be complete without a visit to Hobbiton!
I often compare my New Zealand experience to Tolkien’s story, and not just because of the similar setting. I started out with a very specific idea, a goal, but as travel often has it, that was pushed to the side by exterior elements (friends, partying, love, jobs, etc). This was the same for the Fellowship, who also had a clear idea of where they were headed and how they would get there – except that fate had other plans. However, even though it took that much longer, and was far removed from the path I initially set out on, I still accomplished what I set out to, and all the extra elements simply enhanced my experience.
In 12 months, I saw the country as a local, a tourist and as a Lord of the Rings nutcase. It was an epic adventure, all right. Gandalf would have been proud.
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