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 get close to film locations. Some are too isolated for cellphones, so it's good to screen cap each location before you go and use a data-free GPS app like CityMaps2Go. Once you're close, finding the spot can be challenging but fun - taking movie screen caps along with you will help. Ones 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 to avoid the morning rush hour and get used to driving on the left on the less busy highway roads. 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 a short trip south if you're in Waitomo, and a must see for Hobbit fans as there are lots of shoot locations there. I got to pose with props, heard interesting info on the filming from my guide Suzie, and enjoyed seeing the unique rock formations. She also posed with me so I'd have a Gandalf, pointed out a nearby waterfall (Waitanguru) that's worth a look and was super helpful after my tour to help recover my rain jacket. It rained a lot - 18 out of 19.5 days had some rain, mostly light but some torrential. 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 - Rotorua had a tulip festival. 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 still pretty. There is a spot near the lake, 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. The park also has a nice bubbling mud pit and steam rising from various ground & pond locations as well as a Kiwi bird viewing area (no photography, not even with tripod, is allowed 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 parts 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.
In New Zealand, many country roads have a 100kph speed limit when they should have a 40 kph instead in places. This gives GPS the idea that you could take these slightly shorter winding gravel roads instead of the longer but smoother highways, so check your map if you doubt your GPS' chosen route. Also watch out on corners - slow down if you think you're on one of these roads. Near Matamata, the back roads can be nice if you have extra time as the countryside is beautiful, but elsewhere it'll just add to your trip length. The west side of the south island has the same problem. Self driving has the advantage over bus tours that you can choose places to go and how long you stay but the down side is: though you can get insurance to cover your car and another car if they're at fault, you can't for other cars when you are at fault (it's a risk if you're a bad driver). If you do self-drive, book it on your own. Mine was half the price compared to self-drive company quotes. If you want more time at each place, you can use the hop-on hop-off buses (Intercity/Stray/Max pass), but for short stays you may lose more money in extra hotels/time away from work than the price difference between car+gas vs. bus. 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 or find for free on your own.
Oct 8 - The transit to The Tongariro Crossing was cancelled due to 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 in bad weather as the hike is challenging enough on good days). I wanted to see Mordor and Mount Doom anyway so I made my own trip starting from Mt. Ruapehu. It was used for both Mordor and Mt. Doom scenes, but Mt. Ngauruhoe was the main Mount Doom. Also in the area is Mt. Tongariro, the flatter top snow mountain. The red line on my picture is the path I took up Mt. Ruapehu. I got close to the peak I wanted to get to, but got stalled as the snow turned to an ice-field (you'd need crampons to make it all the way to the ridge) and bad weather rolled in. In the end, I went back down and took the leisurely trail to Tama Lakes instead. The weather got bad again as I approached Mt.Doom, 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 are created for the films). They had Trolls to pose with out front (I did some digital editing to turn the image from day to night). 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 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 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 though, including some very colourful birds. At the end of the day, I went back to Wellington.