Most people have only seen New Zealand in movies — specifically, the Lord of the Rings series. After spending the past weekend visiting two of the most famous Lord of the Rings shooting locations in New Zealand, I’m happy to report that the country looks exactly like it does in the movies.
Now, I’m not a diehard Lord of the Rings fan. I’ve never read the books and my butt might go numb if I had to watch all three movies in one day. But I am fascinated by the detail that was put into creating this world known as “Middle Earth” and how this imaginary place has become synonymous with New Zealand.
My first stop was Tongariro National Park, which was used to portray the evil wasteland known as Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At the start of the hike, I was wondering whether I was even in the right place. The land was covered with delicate purple flowers and soft shrubs that looked like coral. It didn’t look even remotely creepy, and I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or disappointed that it took a whole lot of movie magic to make this landscape into Mordor.
But of course, New Zealand’s landscape changes drastically in just a few hundred meters. I walked a little further and came across a barren landscape with ancient volcanic rocks. Now, we’re talking. The hike was so high up on the mountain that the clouds hugged the ground like an eerie fog.
The most recognizable feature of this location is Mount Ngauruhoe, which is known as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Some people even hike to the summit and throw a ring in to honor Frodo’s epic journey. Even though I didn’t venture there myself, I’m pretty sure that it’s not a bubbly lava pit.
Even so, this mountain is impressive in that it stands out against the barrenness that surrounds it. There are no trees on Mount Doom. There are long stretches of flat land around it with nothing but rocks. There’s a huge crater nearby known as “Red Crater,” where you can actually see the steam being released from steam vents. It smells like sulfur. I’m sure if Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson could have put that smell into his movies, he would have.
Next, I visited Hobbiton, the movie set that was used for filming scenes of the Shire. The iconic little round doors are built into the sides of beautiful, green rolling hills of a working farm. The only way to visit Hobbiton is with a guided tour, and my tour guide seemed to think Peter Jackson was a little insane. For example, Jackson insisted on planting apple and pear trees, instead of the plum trees described in the books, because he felt that the plum tree’s’ trunk and branches did not match the rest of the set. He then had his crew attach plums and plum leaves to the apple and pear trees by hand. These “plum trees” never made it into the movies.
Despite my tour guide’s attitude, I appreciated the attention to detail put into Hobbiton, from the clotheslines to the mailboxes. Those little things made this imaginary world come to life, and that’s what makes it worth visiting.
The Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand still feel alive. I’ve been to movie set locations in plenty of places in the United States, and they’ve felt empty. I’ve seen the backlots of Paramount Studios and Universal Studios. I’ve seen the Godzilla footprint that’s still imprinted on a hillside in Hawaii. But the Lord of the Rings locations in New Zealand don’t need the epic soundtrack and tiny hobbits to make it special. This place already has the character it needs to take your imagination to a fantasy land.