The Tolkien pilgrimage continues, moving up to New Zealand’s North Island. First stop: Wellington, home to Weta Workshop, Peter Jackson’s studios, Rivendell, Minas Tirith, Helm’s Deep, Aragorn’s breath of life scene (nudged awake by his horse) and bits of the Shire. It’s plenty to see with lots of driving around to get to some of it, but fortunately a few tour companies have your back and can hit all these places in a day.
Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith are the same place, with Minas Tirith being built on top of the Helm’s Deep set. Fitting, really, since Minas Tirith is described as a city built on top of many older cities. Now, however, the set isn’t the most exciting you’ll see in New Zealand. Having gone back to its original state before the filming, it’s now a quarry again with amused truck drivers shaking their heads at the groups of tourists stood outside. The high, rock walls do make it easy enough to spot where they were though.
One of the more interesting and recognisable locations is Rivendell at Kaitoke Regional Park (Wheel of Time fans will notice it’s next to a place called the Two Rivers). It’s all nicely signposted and has quotes for Tolkien along the way. Even better, they reconstructed the arch where Frodo led the Fellowship towards Mordor after the Council of Elrond (‘Mordor, Galdalf, is it left or right?’).
Around Wellington itself there are the film studios (not really a lot to see beyond a car park and some inconspicuous buildings) and Mount Victoria which provided the setting for the hobbits’ escape from the Shire: shortcut to mushrooms, ‘Get off the road’, and running away from Black Riders to Buckleberry Ferry. Sadly, that iconic tree, under whose roots the hobbits hid from a Black Rider, was a fake but a keen eye can spot the bank where it was. Just look for the confused tourists (who didn’t pay for a guide) milling around. It’s a very Shire-like place all the same.
Weta Workshop and Weta Cave have lots of the nitty gritty of film and prop making to see. It’s easy enough to spot – it’s the only building with three trolls guarding it. My advice: take the tour, otherwise you only really have a gift shop to walk around or a DVD to watch. As usual, it costs a bit extra, but there’s not much point going to Weta without it. They show you works in progress, a stage by stage build of Dwarven helms from The Hobbit, what their workshops look like, and how they’re making what they’re working on, such as Blade Runner buildings made from building blocks. Wargaming scenery makers take note! Essentially, it’s a tour that inspires enormous job envy. Watch out for the Pale Orc though – he almost had me at one point but I think I got the better of him.
Leaving Wellington and heading right through the middle of North Island takes you to the Tongariro National Park; Mordor to you and me. It’s home to Mount Doom, the Emyn Muil, Gollum’s Pool and the generally blasted landscape of Mordor.
For a short stay, the best bet is to head to the Whakapapa Ski Field. If you’ve got longer, and you’re fit, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing gets you up close and personal with Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe):
Mead’s Wall is a short walk from the Whakapapa Ski Field, most notably used when Frodo and Sam ambushed Gollum in the Emyn Muil. It’s also a great place to simply walk into Mordor.
That’s very much a whirlwind tour. Next up will be exploring the Hobbiton movie set.