The extraordinary landscapes of New Zealand are once again commanding the attention of cinema-goers, with the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy returning to a destination that first cast a spell over the Lord of the Rings films a decade ago.
Back then, I’d been as captivated as anyone else. So, like a modern-day Bilbo Baggins, I decided to experience my own adventure in the country’s vast South Island: seeking out some of the film’s spectacularly remote new locations, accessible on foot and horseback.
I’d been briefed as to what to expect by Jared Connon, supervising location manager for The Hobbit, who I spoke to in Wellington. “The films add to the credibility of New Zealand not only as a filmmaking destination, but as a tourist destination as well. We have so many beautiful places just waiting to be explored,” he told me.
It struck me how proud New Zealanders are of Peter Jackson and his films. “The Hobbit was a project of such national pride and national interest,” says Connon. “Everybody in New Zealand knows someone who worked on The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, and they all have invested interest in the end goal. For The Hobbit, it was amazing to see how open everybody was to the film, because they knew what a great thing it was for the country. There was no fear of the unknown, because Peter Jackson has a history with New Zealand and everyone is so proud of him and what he’s done for the country.”
My adventure started on a sunny October morning in Nelson, a small town at the northern end of South Island. I’d decided to get in the mood for Middle Earth by visiting a local goldsmith’s studio. Here lies one of the original versions of “Precious”, the all-powerful “One Ring”, and the central icon for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In 1999, Peter Jackson approached the late Jens Hansen, a Danish-born, Nelson-based goldsmith, and asked him to create some designs for the ring used in the original trilogy.
Halfdan Hansen now manages his father’s studio. “We created around 40 different sized rings for The Lord of the Rings, to use on special sets and for different actors to wear. Some were given away, or lost, or are now in museums. For The Hobbit, we recreated the One Ring, a smooth and heavy 18-carat gold ring. We also recreated the blue sapphire ring called “Vilya” worn by actor Hugo Weaving’s elf character, Elrond, Lord of Rivendell, in both trilogies.”
I left Nelson for the three-hour drive along State Highway 60, passing over Takaka Hill and towards the small township of Puponga, which lies on the far shore of Golden Bay. The bay’s north side is protected from the sea by Farewell Spit, a 26km-long sand spit which runs eastward from Cape Farewell. Golden Bay is a popular tourist destination, dotted with small towns, remote beaches and spectacular coastal scenery. Part of the 82km-long Heaphy Track — one of New Zealand’s great walks — passes here.
After reaching the top of the 862m-high Takaka Hill, I was rewarded with panoramic views that stretched across the forested Takaka Valley and onto Golden Bay. At the top, I diverted briefly to see the Ngarua Caves, a popular roadside attraction. It’s surrounded by jutting limestone formations; huge stalactites loom mysteriously in the cavernous interior. The road then curved around the bay towards Puponga, a tiny community at the top of the bay, with impressive views of the curvy, narrow spit.
Farewell Bay Horse Treks, based in Golden Bay, offers treks suitable for everyone from beginners to advanced riders; they last from one hour to a few days in the saddle. Owner Gail McKnight was quick to tell me about her horse Big Nick. “When The Hobbit production team turned up I was already selling him: a huge dark grey Clydesdale horse. The head wrangler was in search of a large horse for Gandalf to ride and when they saw Big Nick, they immediately knew they’d found an unmistakable star and bought him,” she told me.
We saddled up for our two-day ride starting along Old Man Range cliff top with spectacular views of the narrow, cat-claw-shaped spit. My horse, Homer, carried me along a winding trail, brushing past low-bowing wind-blown trees and prickly Manuka bushes. We rode on to Wharariki Beach, with its vast sea-worn archway; we rode through huge caves and then cantered along the deserted beach, past fur seals in shallow pools.
A picnic lunch appeared like magic from Gail’s saddlebag, then we turned inland and onto Kaihoka Station, a private sheep farm full of rolling green pastures and owned by Jock and Joyce Wiley, who allow Gail to lead her treks on to the station.
We were now about 5km from Puponga, sandwiched between the spectacular western coastline, Kaihoka Lakes and the Westhaven inlet, an estuary of sand flats, tidal channels, and coastal forest. We rode onto Kaihoka sheep station along a crooked trail and across a spongy grass floor and deep into Hobbit country, passing areas traversed by the adventurous troop of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and the dwarves, where they travelled on horseback en route to their big adventure. Kaihoka is full of wild scenery that lends itself to fantasy films.
“The wind-swept pine trees here particularly caught our eye,” says Connon of the location. “They’re lonely, surreal gnarled trees limestone rocks behind them and set in a big valley; rocks are always interesting for a fantasy film, they give it a bit of structure.”
At Kaihoka we met Joyce Wiley, a vet by profession. “The production team included us in everything,” she explained. “We had meals with the crew and Andy Serkis [the second unit director and Gollum actor]. They were here for over a week. On one wet and very windy day we had to use our tractors to get the production’s equipment up the hill.”
Some actors had no horse-riding experience at all. “The horses were trained up by head wrangler Steve Old, who selected the horses for the film; their temperament had to be right, and the animals mostly plodded along with actors on their backs,” recalled Jared Connon. “The actors had their ups and downs — some were comfortable on horseback, and others were less interested in riding.”
As is normal, the producers engaged an animal welfare representative from the American Humane Association throughout filming to ensure no animals were hurt during filming. But recently the animal rights’ campaign group Peta accused Warner Bros of being responsible for animal deaths that occurred on a farm near Wellington, where the animals were stabled during the making of The Hobbit. Warner Bros later released a statement: “No animals died or were harmed on set during filming... We are currently investigating these new allegations and are attempting to speak with all parties involved to establish the truth.”
The following morning we saddled up and headed to Windy Ridge, a rocky area where a film sequence called Weather Hills: Trees and Rocks was shot. It’s where the mystical troupe led by Gandalf are seen riding up a spectacular ridge en route to the Misty Mountains.
“Peter Jackson really liked this area, so we decided to add another sequence to the filming schedule,” said Connon. “When I saw the Windy Ridge riding sequence, I thought it was such a beautiful shot.”
We zigzagged into rushing wind, up and down steep hills to reach our destination, passing through sheep-mown fields in every shade of green. The windy ridge-top views on to Westhaven inlet and the curvy west coast were breathtaking; the perfect place to end my trail in the (ample) footsteps of Bilbo.
Driving back to Nelson, just before Takaka Hill, I saw a tall, slender man apparently dressed as Gandalf walking towards me down the grassy roadside. As I passed, he raised his staff and I waved back. Then we went our separate ways. There’s magic in this Middle Earth.
Travel essentials: New Zealand
Staying there: Austravel (0800 988 4834; austravel.com) has a 15-day ‘New Zealand Splendour’ self-drive that flies to Auckland and explores the North and South Islands for £2,699pp, with Qantas flights,accommodation and car hire.
Seeing there: Jens Hansen, Nelson, South Island (00 64 3 548 0640; jenshansen.com).
Cape Farewell Horse Treks (00 64 3 524 8031; horsetreksnz.co.nz) offers all-inclusive two-day treks from NZ$1,200 (£626).
More information: Tourism New Zealand (newzealand.com)