“If more of us cared about food and home above gold, this world would be a merrier place.” – Except from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The charms of New Zealand are plenty: stunning views from every angle with wonderful mystical quality, great accessibility, abundant wildlife, pristine environment, amazing people and simplicity of life – enough to fuel one’s daydreaming. Add world-class expertise and impactful government incentives to support the film industry, the country also serves as the perfect location to create cinematic masterpieces.
Countless movie and TV creators have come to this land to capture its natural splendour. It also goes without saying that the most iconic universe ever created in New Zealand is the Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fantasies. Similar to Hogwarts of Harry Porter fame, the Middle Earth is a dreamland that draws people in, which fortunately is within reach. Excited to witness the magical land with my very own eyes, I packed my bag, prepped the Hobbit side of myself and embarked on a journey a la Bilbo Baggins – discovering a new thing one step at a time.
Queenstown is sorcerous. Nothing in the guidebooks, travel photos or videos can prepare you for the astonishing beauty of this land. Surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains on the shores of its glittering Wakatipu basin, it is a town that has always been popular among honeymooners and winter sports lovers. Besides these, there is another segment that finds Queenstown equally captivating: movie makers. Every year, it seems like the town never stops receiving production teams from around the world that aspire to capture the town’s gorgeous landscapes in their films. In fact, when I arrived, I heard that the team from ‘Mission Impossible 6: Fallout’ just wrapped up their shooting here.
Though I missed the opportunity to meet Tom Cruise, I was still excited because I had the opportunity to meet Alfie Speight, one of the most important personalities in the film industry, who is an incredibly sought-after aerial filming pilots in New Zealand. Some of the blockbuster projects under his belt include The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Wolverine, King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia. You see, his highly-praised skill allows movie directors and camera operators to film precise shots from the air, resulting in incredible cinematography that elevates cinema-goers’ experience.
Flying with Alfie on the helicopter felt easy, as he was a natural in the air. He skillfully manoeuvred through the crisp cold air with such prowess to show me the unique angles of the landscape similar to how audiences would see them on screen – but I was seeing them live! Slowly, I could feel my chest rose at the inexpressible excitement of the experience; there’s really nothing like seeing the majestic mountainous landscape being swept under your feet with your own eyes.
Every now and then, Alfie pointed out at some of the notable filming locations in the past. “That was Isengard,” he said, referring to the fortress in the fictional universe of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium. And just when I thought nothing else could beat this, Alfie suddenly announced that he would make an alpine landing on one of the snow-covered peaks, I squeaked cheerfully because I was eventually taken to my real element: the beautiful and dreamlike snowfield, my favourite playground.
Skippers Canyon Jet
When being in Queenstown, travellers are recommended to do something extreme. The town is an absolute paradise for daredevils that even people over 75 years old can bungy jump for free! We opted for the Skippers Canyon Jet, which brought us on a thrill-seeking adventure from the moment we entered OKA, an off-road truck. Dave, our guide for the day who is also an incredible driver I must add, drove us on one of New Zealand’s most notorious roads, Skippers Road, which is narrow and windy with some hair rising corners. He shared interesting gold mining history of the town along the way.
My poor travel companion was already suffering mild vertigo but oh little did she know that what awaited us at the end of this old skimpy road was more hair-raising. We boarded a jet boat that traversed through the narrowest canyons of the Shotover River, also known as the river Anduin among the Lord of the Rings fans. We stopped a couple of times at certain spots where the movies were filmed including the memorable scene when Arwen defended Frodo Baggins from the Witch-king and the rest of the Nazguls.
Lord of the Rings Wakatipu Basin Tour
Another day, another adventure awaited. This time, I got to be the sidekick to David Gatward-Ferguson, who played an Uruk-hai in ‘The Lord the Rings: The Two Towers’, together with his staff, Santiago. Today, David owns a tour company called Nomad Safaris, which brings travellers to the filming locations of Peter Jackson’s most iconic work, The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, in the exact four-wheel drive (4WD) that the cast of ‘Mission Impossible 6: Fallout’ used in the movie recently.
The first stop was Queenstown hill viewpoint overlooking Deer Park Heights, which became the background for various blockbusters like 1988 movie called The Rescue; X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Pete’s Dragon; and of course the LOTR trilogy. From the hill, I could see how the area’s vast and dramatic landscapes with mountains piercing the clouds could pass as Middle Earth! I learned that Peter Jackson spent 18 months filming in and around Queenstown during all seasons to create various environments of the Middle Earth universe, while taking advantage of the area’s accessibility and facilities.
We then proceeded to several other locations including the ‘Ford of Bruinen’ and outskirts of Arrowtown, to a place Tolkien called ‘Gladden Field’, the location where King Isildur was assassinated and lost The One Ring that belonged to Sauron. I definitely recommend this tour to Ringers or Tolkienheads (fans of The Lord of the Rings) due to the immense satisfaction that they would get when visiting these places, further firing up their imagination.
In the words of Ed Sheeran: “there’s no point of going to Queenstown if you don’t do anything extreme; unless you have a Fergburger which is pretty awesome.” And he’s not lying. It has become such a rare thing to find negative reviews about this world-recognised burger outlet, as it does serve some of the best gourmet burgers on the market. Each bite of deliciousness come from perfectly-seasoned and juicy patties, homemade buns and lip-smacking sauces – ah, it’s so simple yet so satisfying! There is a wide range of burgers available such as beef, lamb, venison, fish, chicken and vegetarian. Due to its massive popularity, expect long queues and full tables. The best option is to order takeaway and find a spot at a nearby beach or any of the empty benches around the beautiful town.
I remember the day as we drove near towards the farm owned by the Denize family, located in a town called Piopio, another landscape that came closest to what I imagine Middle Earth would look like. At the top of my view were dramatic limestone cliffs. Below these were verdant fields and strikingly rugged rock formations – for a few moments, I was silenced by the beauty laid out before me. Such is the bewitching power that the place has; I assumed that was also how Jared Connon, the Location Scout for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” felt when he first discovered the place. The fact that Peter Jackson himself also visited the farm made it official as the movie location of choice.
Because of its impressively diverse landscapes, the farm scored the most screen time in the movie. The lovely co-owner of the farm, Suzy Denize, said it was one of the most exciting things ever to happen at their small town when movie stars, crews, and big cameras were everywhere! In fact, some of the locals were willing to move out of their homes for a week for the cast and crew to live temporarily since there were limited accommodation in town. Nowadays, the farm is open to the public, especially movie fans who want to relive the scenes such as when Gandalf bestowed the sword called ‘Sting’ upon Bilbo, the attack of the Wargs and Orcs, and the arrival of the Fellowship of the Ring at Staddle Farm. However, for those who are not familiar with the scenes, the place it still breathtakingly gorgeous nonetheless, offering plenty photo opportunities for amazing Instagram feeds.
Dubbed as ‘Wellywood’, Wellington plays significant role in the development of New Zealand film industry, drawing more international movie directors to use the facilities and services of local talents. One such service is in the provision of special effects and props, offered by the internationally-acclaimed Weta Workshop. It is truly remarkable to witness Weta Workshop artists at work; they simply breathe passion for creativity and films.
“Every day of every year in the workshop, our teams are focused on doing their absolute best, and there is no compromise. We will deliver the same level of importance for each project regardless of the budget,” said Richard Taylor, the founder of Weta Workshop, who is also a multiple Academy Awards and BAFTA winner for his work in the Lord of the Rings and King Kong. This tall, observant and genuinely kind man is indeed one of Wellington’s proudest son.
Richard Taylor was doing puppets for a satirical New Zealand TV show, Public Eye, when he was discovered by Peter Jackson. They first collaborated in 1989 for Meet the Feebles movie, and continued to create together until the golden opportunity of turn Tolkien’s fictional universe into reality came knocking on their door. Both of them share similar vision and drive, which are beautifully translated in the movies.
But Tolkien’s Middle Earth was not the only universe that Weta Workshop has helped to realise. The beautiful Pandora in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ also received touches by the artists of Weta who worked on the design, tech, armour and weapon. Other major projects are too many to include, but I personally surprised to discover that they also did the makeup effects and creature works for my childhood favourite, ‘Xena: Warrior Princess’.
I truly recommend movie buffs to visit Weta Workshop and see how these makeup and special effects artists dedicate their skill and hard work to make the movies or television shows more beautiful and believable. The visit allows travellers to learn about the creative process, from designing, manufacturing and painting to using three-dimensional painting and animatronics. Honestly, I left the workshop with a greater appreciation towards these artists and their significant contribution towards the making of pleasurable movies that become part of popular culture and visual heritage.
I personally enjoy watching movies that are set in the 1920s and 1930s such as The Great Gatsby and Woody Allen’s Cafe Society because they never fail to feature glitzy fashion, music and architecture. In fact, Hollywood entered its golden age during this time because people turned to cinemas to escape from the severe worldwide economic depression. The Roxy in Wellington celebrates just that: the ultimate cinematic experience.
Founded by award-winning film editor Jaime Selkirk and Weta Workshop co-founder Tania Rodger, The Roxy is a classic cinema built in glorious 1930s style yet equipped with state-of-the-art screen and sound systems that are so good that filmmakers working at Park Road Post (a film post-production facility founded by Peter Jackson) up the road sometimes use the cinema’s screens to assess how their movies would look like. The grand lobby-cum-gallery upstairs features artworks by local artists, including a Sistine Chapel-like ceiling painting by celebrated Weta artist, Greg Broadmore. There’s also an outstanding restaurant, CoCo, on site spearheaded by Chef Nic Spicer who creates tasteful dishes inspired from flavours around the globe.
** While in Wellington…
In order to truly understand a destination, one must learn its origin, and there’s no better place to learn about New Zealand than the country’s national museum called Te Papa in short. It is a one stop centre packed with inspiring stories where visitors could discover every facet of the country, from its rich Maori history, geology and natural environment to immigration that makes New Zealand the country it is today. Exhibitions are curated in immersive ways, including the current highlight (during the time of writing), which is the ground-breaking Gallipoli exhibition chronicling the story of the campaign through impressive life-like figures crafted by the artisans of Weta Workshop. The Gallipoli exhibition continues until April 2019.
Offering a break from movie locations, or the busy world in general, Zealandia is one peaceful haven where one can find solitude amidst unspoiled nature without having to leave the city since it is located merely 10 minutes’ drive from the city centre. More interestingly, the centre is committed in doing a great conservation project to restore the ecosystems to its original state before the arrival of humans. Back then, New Zealand is free from mammalian predators except for the mighty Haast’s eagles; however, after the arrival of the Polynesians, the Europeans and plenty of introduced predators that came with them, the wildlife species started to drop. Over the course of 800 years, New Zealand has lost over 50 native species of both flora and fauna. To prevent further extinction, Zealandia develops a world-class 225 hectare fully-fenced ecosanctuary with 500-year masterplan to revive the ecosystems. So far, they have successfully reintroduced 18 species of native wildlife back into the area.
WHERE TO STAY
The plump pillows in its rooms and the elegant air of its timeless design make St. Moritz the best stay in town. The view of Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain range from the restaurant with the accompanying log fire at the lobby promises travellers an unrivalled stay experienced.
Punched with the quirkiest, colourful and contemporary design, QT Museum Wellington is definitely an aesthetically pleasing accommodation. Art pieces are curated in the most tasteful way that is neither too ostentatious nor suffocating to the guests. The hotel’s flagship restaurant – Hippopotamus – is also a hit among locals, serving a delightful mix of comfort food and fine dining.
TRAVELLING BETWEEN THE ISLANDS
Air New Zealand
There are two options available for visitors interested in travelling from North Island to South Island or vice versa, which is either by ferry or domestic flight. The former is more popular among campervan travellers, requiring approximately three hours to traverse the Cook Strait from Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South Island) or vice versa. It is also said to be one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world and definitely cheaper than flying.
However, in the event of bad weather, be mindful that the open waters can be rough at times and the journey will take more time than usual. Thus, travelling by air is the best option should you have a tight schedule. The main providers are Air New Zealand and Jetstar New Zealand – I have flown with the first one and found the seats comfortable and their cabin crew friendly and attentive. And oh, they also serve CookieTime biscuits in flight which is an added bonus for those who has sweet tooth, like me!
As an avid movie fan, I must say that the whole trip has been a special treat. I’ve discovered paradise on earth, learned about tips and tricks of filmmaking, and most importantly, met incredible and exceptional pool of New Zealand’s talents that have been contributing to the global movie industry either creatively or technically. Just like Bilbo Baggins who found amazing discoveries in his journey, I too have found mine during this trip.
I, therefore, extend my heartfelt gratitude to Tourism New Zealand for making my journey such an unforgettable and eye-opening experience. All travellers should embark on this journey too to see the locations for themselves because seeing is believing. And believe me, no matter how many times you must have been visiting those locations, you are bound to fall head over heels for New Zealand as if you have just visited the country for the very first time…
Part 1 of this story is in available in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue 13.1. You can also read the online article HERE.
For information on filming locations in New Zealand, please browse www.newzealand.com/int/.