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In Middle-earth, a dark mass of crows swoops over the spectacular rock columns of the Eregion Hills, where Frodo Baggins and the fellowship hide. In New Zealand, a helicopter buzzes over Mt Olympus – otherwise known as Eregion – to spot the location of that scene from one of Hollywood’s great epics.
Mt Olympus, dramatic pillars of rock carved out by nature and time, sits in Kahurangi National Park near Nelson in a remote corner of New Zealand’s stunning South Island. The mountain has been rarely touched by human feet.
But since it co-starred in the Fellowship of the Ring, the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mt Olympus has become a must-see spot for The Lord of the Rings fans, who take helicopter tours over the once-isolated rocky outcrops.
It’s the same in an ancient forest of beech trees in Paradise near Queenstown. On screen, these are the woods of Lothlorien, home of Elven queen Galadriel. Off screen, Paradise lives up to its name as a tranquil, breathtaking spot on the outskirts of Queenstown, where visitors take a magical horse ride through the sun-dappled beech forest.
These, and more than 150 other locations around New Zealand, have become globally famous as the fantastical world of J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle-earth, yet virtually all of them (bar those digitally enhanced) exist in pure form in one small country at the southern edge of the world.
Since Peter Jackson chose his homeland to film The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the impact on New Zealand has been, and continues to be, immense.
“The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook", compiled by Rings fanatic and warbird enthusiast Ian Brodie, is New Zealand’s fastest-selling book, and thousands of fans follow his directions to The Lord of the Rings locations. A blossoming industry has been created from The Lord of the Rings related tourism, where people can tramp, jetboat, horse-ride, kayak, helicopter or four-wheel drive to the spots where filming took place.
While the majestic scenes from the three movies speak volumes for the breathtaking beauty of New Zealand, the spoken word of the stars is equally potent.
When someone of hobbit-sized proportions speaks, it is not often the world sits up and listens. But when Elijah Wood – aka Hobbit Frodo Baggins – starts extolling the virtues of New Zealand, the world has taken notice.
“Every element of Middle-earth is contained in New Zealand. It is absolutely perfect," Wood said.
“I’ve never seen a country in which there are so many different geographical landscapes – mountains, deserts, sea, rolling hills and farmland."
Of course, New Zealanders have been well aware of that for centuries, but feature films like The Piano, Whale Rider, Rain, and the latest Sam Neill movie Perfect Strangers, only help to showcase the country’s stunning landscape and unique culture to the rest of the world.
The Piano, which collected three Academy Awards in 1994, has drawn thousands of international visitors to the magnificent, rugged Karekare Beach on Auckland’s west coast. Perfect Strangers is expected to do the same for the remote Punakaiki (on the South Islands West Coast), with its giant pancake rock stacks and blowholes.
Whale Rider which has just been released internationally and is the story of a young Maori girl’s struggle to lead her tribe will also draw crowds to the small Maori community of Whangara, in the North Island’s beautiful, unspoilt Eastland region where it was shot.
The poignant film introduces the uninitiated outside of New Zealand to Maori culture, and beyond the big screen, visitors to New Zealand are experiencing first-hand Maori folklore, tribal history, traditional art and the warmth of its people. Maori are increasingly using tourism to uphold and preserve their culture and offer tourists a unique way to see the country.
For some iwi (tribes) it is also an opportunity to give their youth a prosperous future. Whale Watching Kaikoura is one of the most successful established Maori tourism ventures. A group of entrepreneurial Ngati Kuri people in Kaikoura, on the eastern side of the South Island, pooled their savings to buy a boat and turned whale watching into an international award-winning attraction.
It is a similar story in the Whirinaki rainforest – one of the world’s most spectacular forests. The tribes of Ngati Whare and Tuhoe started guided walks in the forest, telling tales of tribal history and the medicinal merits of native plants.
The hobbits aren’t the only ones singing New Zealand’s praises – Orlando Bloom (Legolas the Elf) is taken by New Zealand’s adventure lifestyle.
He was one of the cast who when not shooting amidst the spectacle of the New Zealand scenery, was diving into it, or sliding down it. New Zealand has long been known as the world’s adventure capital – a thrill seeker’s paradise. “I’ve been throwing myself out of airplanes and cable cars into gorges. I’ve been sliding down snow on a board and riding waves. It’s amazing – only in New Zealand," he said.
Queenstown – dubbed the most beautiful place on Earth by former US president Bill Clinton – is the centre of the thrill seeker’s universe. Here, you can dive and dangle upside down over the breathtaking vista, with nothing but an elastic cord tied around your ankles – a sport known as bungy jumping which was started as a commercial operation by Kiwi thrill king A J Hackett.
New Zealand is home to other daredevil past-times such as blackwater rafting, jetboating, fly-by-wire and zorbing (where participants roll down hill in a giant plastic ball).
At Wellington’s Lyall Bay, not far from Richard Taylor’s Oscar-winning special effects Weta Workshop, The Lord of the Rings stars Bloom and Wood, Liv Tyler, Sean Bean, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd became part of the local surfing set between shoots.
The high-profile actors comfortably mingled with the local community, and became big fans of the laid-back, but stylish New Zealand culture. Tyler, who plays Arwen in the trilogy, took home clothes from leading Kiwi fashion designers Zambezi, Karen Walker and young Wellington label Starfish – reinforcing New Zealand’s growing reputation as a top player in the world fashion scene.
Billy Boyd (Pippin the Hobbit) fell in love with Wellington – a city that is not only New Zealand’s political capital, but touts itself as the country’s cultural centre. “It’s got the right mix … of good restaurants and good coffee shops and really good theatre," Boyd said of the city, which has more food haunts per capita than New York.
Kiwi cuisine is some of the freshest food in the world – lamb, seafood, venison, kiwifruit and avocado are prepared in the “Pacific Rim" style by chefs who are being lauded for their innovative and natural approach to food. Complementing the food, New Zealand wines are regarded amongst the best in the world. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot noir from vineyards throughout the country are gaining a strong following worldwide. More than 13,000 hectares of prime New Zealand land is planted in grape vines, and there are 10 major wine-producing areas.
Hawke’s Bay, in the North Island, has New Zealand’s highest sunshine hours and is at the forefront of the country’s wine industry – internationally famous for its bold cabernet. Marlborough, at the top of the South Island, is famed for its sauvignon blanc, while sunny Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island is renowned for award-winning chardonnay. Central Otago and Martinborough (near Wellington) are building a reputation for pinor noir and pinot gris.
The country also has a number of highly-regarded breweries. Harrington Brewers, in Richmond at the top of the South Island, were asked to brew a special beer to serve in the Lord of the Rings movies. The crew settled on Harrington’s Stout – a special blend of malts and yeast with an alcohol content of only 1% because of the volume actors would have to imbibe during takes. More than 20,000 litres were made for the films, and now enthusiasts can visit the brewery and taste it themselves – with an extra 5% alcohol added.
For all its natural beauty, its innovation and style, it is perhaps the warmth of New Zealand people which truly sets this country apart. As Dominic Monaghan – Merry the Hobbit – said: “[New Zealand] is so very welcoming … it just embraces people."