Having experienced the spectacle of Hobbiton, as well as myriad locations featured in The Lord of the Rings movie, our trip to new Zealand wouldn’t have been complete without a tour of Wētā Workshop. The company, based in Wellington, is the creative home of special effects and props, and they have been producing sets, costumes, armour, weapons and creatures for television and film since 1987. Sneaking past the huge stone trolls cavorting on the lawns
we made it through the Hobbit door entrance.
There was no shortage of memorabilia in the gift shop
and I wondered what was lurking under the loincloth of Lurtz.
The first part of the tour led us on a discovery of miniature effects including real television shooting stages for Thunderbirds Are Go! I remember the original TV series in the 1960s and couldn’t pass up the chance to ride up front with Virgil Tracy in Thunderbird 2.
We were then taken on a fascinating journey through the creation of props, costumes and creatures for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Photography was only allowed in designated areas throughout the tour, hence the absence thereof. At the end of the tour, we were ushered into a room, seemingly guarded by a life size figure of Orc-lord, Azog.
Here we met special effects artist, Warren Beaton, his appearance the epitome of a mad professor.
Various heads kept watch from above
as he demonstrated his expertise of making prototypes using tin foil and a spoon.
I’m sure it’s not as easy as he made it look, the results are remarkable.
With a fond farewell to Bert (stone trolls need love, too) we headed off in search of sustenance before our next adventure.
Having returned to the base of Mount Ruapehu on Sky Waka, we followed the signs to explore Mead’s Wall, named for William Perrett Mead, the first to reconnoitre the Whakapapa valley and subsequently form the Ruapehu Ski Club in 1913. The wall didn’t look particularly impressive from a distance but the 25 metre high west face has eight rock climbing routes for those who wish to indulge.
We walked the easy trail to the side of the wall, wondering how (or why) anyone would climb it.
Looking back across the ski field, chalets dotted the barren landscape that becomes the beginners run, Happy Valley, when covered in snow.
The east face of the wall presents a sheer drop of 45 metres, a little more challenging for those thrill-seekers with ropes, helmets and jelly legs
We were more excited to be standing in the vicinity of memorable Mordor scenes from The Lord of the Rings. These volcanic rocks, cliffs and ash were the location of Emyn Muil, the mountainous area where Frodo and Sam become lost on their way to the Black Gates of Mordor and first meet Gollum.
Beyond Mead’s Wall, the river valley wends its way through the Whakapapa Gorge, toward the conical shape of Mount Doom, I mean Mount Ngauruhoe.
Back to reality, as we were leaving a solo rock climbing lesson was just beginning, I couldn’t bear to watch.
Tongariro National Park was a scenic forty minute drive from our haven at Motuoapa Bay. New Zealand’s first national park, Tongariro was gifted to the people by Te Heuheu Tukino IV, the Paramount Chief of local Māori tribe Ngati Tuwharetoa, in September 1887. The 80,000 hectare park is centred around three sacred volcanic peaks. A lookout on the way to our destination, Whakapapa Village, rewarded us with views of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, the latter (on the right) may be recognised by The Lord of the Rings fans as Mount Doom.
From this height, the sweeping panorama across the Central Plateau was spectacular.
We parked the car at the village and considered our options, deciding on the Sky Waka gondola ride and buffet lunch combo. Mount Ruapehu is the centrepiece of the national park, the North Island’s highest peak is home to the largest ski field in New Zealand. The terrain in March is quite different to that during ski season, it is hard to imagine the Rock Garden Chairlift conveying skiers on the advanced beginners run.
The $25 million Sky Waka gondola opened in July 2019 to transport 2,400 people an hour, a distance of 1.8km, up the northern slopes of Mount Ruapehu. It really didn’t feel as though we were travelling at 6 metres per second.
Back to The Lord of the Rings, scenes of Mordor were filmed on the rugged landscape of Whakapapa ski field and the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, including the scene where Isildur cuts off Sauron’s finger.
Our ride culminated at Knoll Ridge Chalet, a multi-storey eatery built in 2009 to replace the original café that was destroyed by fire earlier in the year.
The magnificent Pinnacles Ridge was shrouded in cloud when we arrived and it was a bit cool for alfresco dining.
The Pinnacles Restaurant was warm and welcoming, the extensive use of timber created the feeling of a traditional mountain chalet.
Lunch at the highest restaurant in New Zealand, at 2,020 metres above sea level, was delicious.
Mount Ruapehu is the largest active volcano in New Zealand and has three major peaks. There is a beautiful carving representing Paretetaitonga, the peak that wards off the southern winds.
By the time we finished lunch, the clouds had lifted from Pinnacles Ridge
Just in case you didn’t get enough of Hobbiton from my previous post, here is another instalment. When planning our visit, we couldn’t decide whether to do the Movie Set Tour or the Evening Banquet Tour. The obvious solution was to partake in both, after all, it was to be a once in a lifetime experience. The evening sun shed a different light on the hobbit holes and the lovely gardens.
From Bag End at the top of the hill,
the Green Dragon Inn shone invitingly across the water.
Working up an appetite and thirst, we meandered our way to lower ground.
The Green Dragon was one of many inns in the Shire and was actually situated in the neighbouring settlement of Bywater, though it was frequented by Hobbits from both villages. Arriving at our destination, we explored the inn with a complimentary Southfarthing beverage in hand.
We had been here on the morning tour but this time, there was only our group in the whole place. Apologies for the quality of this photo, I could possibly blame the ale?
As the light faded outside
we moved through to the dining room, greeted by tables laden with traditional Hobbit fare.
Is it my imagination or does that lady sitting across the table look like Pippin?
Having indulged in second and third helpings in true Hobbit style, we wandered around the garden while tables were magically transformed for dessert.
Once feasting concluded, lanterns were randomly dispersed among the guests and we ventured into the night to make our way back through the village, past smoking chimneys and hobbit holes glowing warmly, another adventure concluded.
The reason we chose to stay at Matamata was its proximity to Hobbiton, the film location for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy. You don’t have to be a fan of these literary works to appreciate the beauty of The Shire but it adds to the fascination if able to picture the movie scenes as you wander around. Sir Peter Jackson spotted the 1,250 acre sheep farm while aerial scouting for film locations in September 1998. He, apparently, knocked on the door of the Alexander home, explained what he wanted, and was asked to come back later as they were watching the rugby! The original set was never intended to be a permanent fixture and was dismantled at the end of filming The Lord of the Rings. Two years later, The Shire was rebuilt for The Hobbit, this time from wood, concrete and bricks instead of polystyrene and plywood. We learned a lot of interesting facts on the bus ride through the farmland, arriving in Hobbiton eager to see more.
A short walk from the car park along Gandalf’s Cutting, we halted to take in the scene before us. Hobbit holes, 44 in all, dotted the green rolling hills, their chimney stacks and enchanting windows emerge sporadically from the landscape.
I can’t think of a job I would rather have than tending the gardens in Hobbiton. There are between 30 and 200 plants around each hobbit hole and all the fruit and vegetables are seasonal.
During filming, a person was employed to walk to the clothes lines and back to make a well-worn track.
Not all hobbit holes are equal. The poorer inhabitants live lower down the hill and the further up the hill you go, the homes are bigger with more manicured gardens.
Bilbo, at Bag End, is one of the wealthiest. The magnificent oak at the top of the hill is actually made from fibreglass and the silk leaves, imported from Taiwan, were individually painted and wired on to the branches.
The occupations of the residents are depicted in great detail by some of the exterior props including beekeepers, loggers, bakers and cheesemakers.
Local frogs soon moved into the man made pond and they were so loud during filming, someone was paid to collect all the frogs and relocate them to another pond on the farm.
Most of the hobbit holes are just facades, the interior shots were filmed in a studio in Wellington, although the half open door at Bag End gives a hint of a cosy abode.
There was no need to manufacture leaves for the Party Tree, the perfect specimen as described in the books was found on the property.
The morning sunlight shone beatifically on some of the hobbit doors, Bag End is one that faces east. To create the scene where Bilbo and Gandalf are sitting facing a sunset, the crew had to get up early to film sunrises and play them backwards. It took seven attempts to capture the one we see in the movie.
The hobbit holes were built to two different scales. The smaller ones at 60% scale were used for scenes with Gandalf to make him look larger. To be cast as a hobbit you had to be 5’2” and they were filmed around the 90% scale doors.
There is a scene in The Lord of the Rings book where children are playing under plum trees but Peter Jackson thought plum trees would look too big. Instead, he had apple and pear trees planted and just before filming, all the fruit was stripped from the trees and replaced with fake ones. After all that effort, the scene never made it to the movie.
Samwise Gamgee lived at number 3 Bagshot Row, a lovely terrace of hobbit holes
with convenient access to the Party Field.
With the Green Dragon Inn in our sights,
we meandered our way to the double arch stone bridge and the Old Mill where the large water wheel still turns.
The Green Dragon Inn was added to Hobbiton in 2012
and the interior has been reconstructed to appear as it did in the films.
Our tour included a complimentary beverage from the Southfarthing range; Girdley Fine Grain Amber Ale, Sackville Apple Cider, Oatbarton Traditional English Ale or Frogmorton Ginger Beer. All are brewed at the Good George Brewery in Hamilton and available only at the Green Dragon Inn.
Our circuitous route returned us to the car park past flourishing vegetable gardens