Australasia

Home of the Hobbits

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The legacy of The Lord of the Rings films turned New Zealand’s tourism sector on its head. With the arrival of a second trilogy, The Hobbit, another influx of visitors is expected.

When watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and who hasn’t?) it’s easy to forget that the fabled landscape of snowy mountains, vast farmlands and blue lakes actually exists; that the towering darkness of Mount Doom is in fact a real mountain; not on Middle Earth, the fictional world where the films’ epic narrative unfolds, but somewhere in real life. Though most of the scenes have gone through cinematic processes, the land on which they were filmed has made a popular tourist attraction since the trilogy debuted more than a decade ago.

Indeed, the fact that every scene in Sir Peter Jackson’s much-acclaimed work was set in his home country, New Zealand, has boosted the country’s tourism pull. Scores of fans have visited, eager to see for themselves the places where their favourite battles were filmed. More than 150 locations across the country were used to shoot the movies, which together made one of the biggest and most ambitious film undertakings of all time with a budget of $280 million.

Today, dozens of tour operators offer specific Lord of the Rings trips, with some lasting up to three weeks, reflecting what has been a steady stream of visitors since the final movie – The Return of the King – was released in December 2003. Most of them are ardent fans, with some arriving dressed as movie characters, and others capable of speaking elvish – a fictional language.

This tourism boom has naturally benefited New Zealand, whose citizens have been bemused at the level of interest in their surroundings. But the advantages are not only economical; their film industry, too, has soared in the wake of Jackson’s masterpiece. The interest and competence within screen production has increased, as has the number of creative entrepreneurships.

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Now another wave of interest is about to sweep across the country. The trilogy of The Hobbit, based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel from 1937, and directed by Jackson, once again in New Zealand, is a prequel of The Lord of the Rings narrative, set on Middle Earth about 60 years earlier. As the first movie – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – hit New Zealand’s cinemas in December, the tourism sector is preparing for another influx of fans eager to explore the new film locations (although few of these are yet specifically known). With the trilogy stretching across three years, the effects are unlikely to fade out before too soon.

It is easy to understand why Jackson chose New Zealand as his location for the trilogies. Both the North- and the South Island are dominated by beautiful snow-covered mountains. The rolling hillsides towards the coastlines have made a fitting habitat for the film’s hobbits (although the original novel’s author, Tolkien, used the surroundings of his home in Oxfordshire, north-west of London, as his inspiration when describing it), while the volcanic mountains accurately depict the dark world of Mordor.

Although most of the old movie sets have been taken down, one particular place has been rebuilt for the new trilogy. The Shire, located in the Waikato region near Matamata, a small agricultural town, on a farm called Hobbiton, is the famous home of the hobbits and has received around 20,000 tourists per year since featuring in The Lord of the Rings. Now fully restored for another production, it is unlikely to have welcomed its last visitor.

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The battle scenes took place elsewhere. On the large grassy fields near the small town of Twizel, in the middle of the South Island, the kingdom of Gondor sprung up. Here, some of the trilogy’s most lavish scenes played out, such as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which required a crew of 1,500 people. Further east, in the Ashburton District, Edoras, the capital city of the Rohan people, was built on a small mountain upspring called Mount Sunday – isolated in a large valley surrounded by majestic mountains. Although the city, which took nine months to build, is now gone, it remains a special place for those who know the movies’ narrative.

So too, of course, do the scenes near Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, where Jackson created the Gardens of Isengard, the River Anduin and Rivendell. Elsewhere on the North Island, the Tongariro National Park became the kingdom of Mordor, and the still-active volcano Mount Ngauruhoe was portrayed as Mount Doom, where the ring was eventually destroyed. Like many sites, you need not be a fan of the movie to appreciate the sight. But it helps.

Photos: Padsaworn, LaurensT [both via Shutterstock.com], Thomas Becker.

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