Bofur's Adventures In Middle Earth

by Rob Emery

The North Island

I did a 3 week self-drive road trip across New Zealand and while there hunted down Lord of the Rings series film locations with help from: Google Map of LOTR Sites. If you have a travel data plan, you can use it with GPS to help you get close to many locations but word of caution, it's not always pointing to the right spot. Also of note: some locations are too far for cellphone reception, so it's also good to screen cap each map location before you go and use a data-free GPS map app like CityMaps2Go (it can also reduce how much travel data you end up using even where you do have a signal). Once you're close, finding the exact spot can be challenging but fun - taking movie screen caps along with you will help with that, as will some of the tips below. Screen caps with rocks and mountains are best as foliage can change in both shape and colour. Hover your mouse over images below for more info, or click on them to see the full size image. The journey begins...

Oct 3 - I arrived in Auckland in the early morning and took off for Waitomo right away. That got me out of town before the morning rush hour, so I could acclimatize to the driving on the left side of the road on the less busy highway roads. If you're not good with sleeping on a plane or long drives, it's best to rest in Auckland for a day instead. Driving on the other side wasn't so bad, as they've put a lot of indicator signs on roads to help foreigners out. The steering wheel, windshield wipers, lights and signal are all on the opposite side too though - making for a lot of things to get used to if it happens to be rainy and dark, which it was. The drive to Waitomo was easy, as was finding a glowworm tour (Oct is just before high season so lots were available). Into the Mines of Moria I went... or rather the Footwhistle glowworm cave. Our guide Richard explained the glow "worms" are gnats in their larval stage that use the light to attract insects to get trapped in their spider like hanging lures. He was very accommodating and let me setup a tripod and shoot on my own for a bit so I highly recommend that company/cave if you're a photographer (others won't allow a tripod and may rush you along too). The best photos were a combination of long bulb exposure for the glowworms and brief lighting from a flashlight to bring out the rocks.

The next destination was Hairy Feet Waitomo. It's further south, but a short side trip if you're already in Waitomo, and for a Hobbit fan, it's a must see as there are lots of cool shoot locations there. I got to pose with props and heard interesting background info on the filming from my guide Suzie, all while enjoying the unique rock formations in the area. She also posed with me so I'd have a Gandalf, pointed out a nearby waterfall (Waitanguru) that's worth a look while you're in the area too, and was super helpful after my tour to help recover my rain jacket. It rained a lot while I was there - 18 out of 19.5 days had at least some rain, some of it was torrential but most days it was light and scattered. So, I'd recommend avoiding October there, unless you like rain or don't want to have to book hiking (tramping) huts in advance. The lack of crowds was handy at some places for people-free shots and getting on tours, but a problem in others where tours can be cancelled or more expensive due to lack of people. That night was spent in Matamata.

Oct 4 - I headed to Hobbiton. The tour guide was nice enough to provide umbrellas. There are hobbit homes of assorted colours, each with it's own theme. You can't go in, but can take pictures outside at each. Bring your own costume for extra fun. Some are large to make people dwarf/hobbit sized, and others are small to make Gandalf seem larger. The end is a nice stop at the Green Dragon Inn for cider. The night was spent in Rotorua.

Oct 5 - I had a look around Rotorua. It had a tulip festival going on. If you don't like sulphur smells, this town isn't for you and all the tulips in town aren't enough to fix that, but they were pretty all the same. There is a spot near the lake, actually called Sulphur Point, which seemed the worst so get a hotel far from there if you go. Nicely the one I chose close to the thermal park didn't have that smell. The thermal park ( Te Puia ) had the best geyser ( Pohutu ) of the 3 parks I visited. It's natural (not manually triggered), huge and went for an hour, and by the time I finished looking at the rest of the park it was going again. It made me wonder how stable the region was. The park also has a nice bubbling mud pit and steam rising from various ground & pond locations as well as a Kiwi bird viewing are (no photography, not even with tripod, is allowed for Kiwi birds due to their light sensitivity). The night was spent in Whakatane.

Oct 6 - The White Island Tour (boat trip) was cancelled on account of rough water so instead I did a little hiking in the area at Tauwhare Pa, Ohope beach and the Fairbrother loop track. Each offered some nice views and pleasant hiking. I also had time to explore more of Rotorua so checked out the Tree Trust in Centennial Park and was surprised at all the sheep. The night was spent in Rotorua, this time a little closer to the middle of town, and you could start to smell the sulphur.

Oct 7 - I visited two more thermal parks today. Wai-o-tapu had lots of colourful lakes and a geyser. The geyser is triggered manually (by dropping in a surfactant to disturb the water levels below), so at least it happens at a predictable time, but it also only happens once per day. The best part of this site were the lakes and mud pit though.

Waimangu had the most beautiful thermal lakes, as well as a regular lake with a boat tour available for an extra $40 or lots of birds you can watch from the shore. The next two nights were spent in Turangi.

One challenge in New Zealand is that almost all roads have a 100kph speed limit when they should have a 40, 60 or 80 kph limit instead. This gives GPS the idea that you should take winding back-country gravel roads instead of main highways, both of which are "100 kph", so take and check your map if you doubt your GPS' chosen route. It also leads you into corners at speeds you won't make it out of, so slow down on approach to any turns especially if you think you're on one of the back-country roads. I'm surprised there weren't more cars off the road. Near Auckland and Matimata, the GPS recommended routes can be nice if you have extra time as the countryside is beautiful, but elsewhere it'll just add to your trip length (and time) so plan for some detours and slower speeds than the gps or google maps calculates or you'll end up late everywhere. The west side of the south island has the same problem - plan accordingly. Also something to consider is whether to do a self-drive trip like this one or a bus tour. The self drive has the advantage that you can pick and choose places to go and how long you stay. The down side is: though you can get insurance for your car, and another car if they're at fault, you can't readily get insurance for other cars when you are at fault - so it's a bad risk if you're a bad driver. If you do self-drive though - book it on your own. Mine was half the price (including all hotels, flights and excursions) compared to if I had a self-drive tour company book it for me. Buses are another option. If you have more time, you can use the hop-on hop-off buses (Intercity/Stray/Max pass), but you'll likely lose more money in extra hotels/time away from work than the price difference between car+gas vs. bus. You will also miss on some sites as the routes are fixed, but on the plus side, you can rest on the bus or chat with other folks without having to worry about accidents or breakdowns as much. Formal LOTR bus vacations are even more pricey. They sometimes have unique experiences but mostly just take you to the same tours and locations that you can book and find on your own (for much cheaper), but without the hassle of doing any planning.

Oct 8 - The transit to The Tongariro Crossing was cancelled on account of bad weather (it's a one-way hike so you need someone to ferry you from the end to the start, but they won't take you if the weather is rough as the hike is challenging enough even on good days). I decided I needed to see Mordor and Mount Doom anyway so I made my own trip starting from Mt. Ruapehu (on the right/south) instead. It was used for both Mordor and Mt. Doom scenes, but Mt. Ngauruhoe (in the middle) was the main Mount Doom. Mt. Tongariro is the flatter top snow region to the left (north). The red line is the path I took up Mt. Ruapehu. I got close to the peak I wanted to get to, but got slowed down as the snow turned to an ice-field (you'd need crampons to make it all the way to the top of the ridge) and then the bad weather rolled in. In the end, I went back down, and took the the trail to the Tama Lakes instead. The weather got bad as I approached Mt.Doom there too, so I didn't end up getting a closer view. I think Saruman didn't want me to destroy the ring or something.

Oct 9 - I checked out a few LOTR sites on the way to Wellington. The first was near Waitarare. At the time, the info I had led me south of the Esplanade reserve, which does have some similar looking sites to Osgiliath, but the Google Map location seems to be further north. It was a nice area for a walk all the same.

The other site was Queen Elizabeth Park near Raumati. This one had locations used for close-ups in the Pelennor Fields battle, but were much greener thanks to the spring visit so nothing's really recognizable. That spot also made for a nice hike though. After that, I dined in Hell!! Actually it was a pizza place, quite good and the best priced meal in the area. There's a Heaven down the street with some desserts too. Food in New Zealand is more expensive, with the exception of pizza and sushi for some reason. On a budget you can make do with grocery supplies though, as many hotels have cooking facilities / a microwave (in the room or at least in a common area).

Oct 10 - The day started with a tour of the Weta Cave (where props and digital effects work is created for the films). They had cool Trolls to pose with out front (I had to do some digital editing to turn the image from day to night though). They also had a tour where you can see props from other films like District 9 and Chappie. After that I went to some film sites on my own - the first I tried for was near the old Fort Dorset. It has been updated on the google maps site to show nothing is there to see now, but at least you do get some nice city and ocean views. The next spot was Poet's Park and the Anduin River - it's mostly just enjoyable for fans as there's not much to see unless you can imagine the fellowship. The last spot was Harcourt Park. This park has some areas reminiscent of the film, but with a lot of digital editing and props no longer in the area, it's tough to match anything up. It does make for a nice park to walk around in though, including some very colourful birds. At the end of the day, I went back to Wellington to prepare for the early morning ferry ride.

On to Part 2 - The South Island.

All images copyright Rob Emery, 2016

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