The Road to the Door to the Paths of the Dead

putangirua pinnacles

Who shall call them from the grey twilight,

the forgotten people?

He shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.

putangirua pinnacles

These words are part of the prophecy recited by Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, before he, Legolas and Gimli brave the Dimholt Road that leads to the Paths of the Dead. In the extended version of the Peter Jackson film, it is Legolas, a.k.a. the Exposition Elf, who says them, as the heroes approach the Door. That scene was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles, on the south coast of New Zealand’s North Island, somewhere I had wanted to visit for years. This is the story of when I finally made it.

putangirua pinnacles

Darkness descended long before our rental campervan reached the car park of the Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. It was a darkness so deep our headlights struggled to penetrate it, which was a little scary on the winding, coastal Cape Palliser Road, a section of which had crumbled into the waves! Our uneasiness did not abate upon arrival at the Putangirua Pinnacles Campsite: it was completely deserted.

“I don’t like camping somewhere so isolated,” my fiancé said, as though trying to call the narrative of an urban legend horror story down upon us. Then, sure enough, another campervan arrived, no doubt containing an axe murderer.

putangirua pinnacles

By some miracle, we survived the night. The grey light of morning revealed not only a friendly fellow campervanner, but our first sight of the geographical feature known as Badlands erosion. The cliffs visible from the car park were nowhere near as dramatic as the film had promised, but they were only a sniff of what awaited us, jagged and grey as bone dust. Forbidding columns emerged from them, slanted, straight and sharp, like the bars of an orcish prison. I’d never seen such a landscape.

The path to the ‘Dimholt Road’ was, to my surprise, a rocky riverbed. I should have researched it beforehand, because all I had was a pair of light trainers, when I could really have done with proper hiking boots. Ah well – I only fell over twice! I would have had an easier time of it if I’d just waded through the water, but I was determined not to get my feet wet. Thus began the most challenging game of stepping stones I’d ever played.

putangirua pinnacles

I lost count of the times we had to cross the stream. My freakishly tall fiancé could stride over the water with the confidence of an elf, but I was lumbered with the legs of a hobbit. At one point, I had to take a long, running leap… which resulted in me impaling my thigh on a broken blade of pampas grass that was sticking out of the opposite bank! The wound was a few millimetres deep, but it wasn’t painful enough to thwart the quest, so I resolved to carry on and remember to clean it thoroughly when we got back to the campervan.

Eventually, the riverbed began to rise. Being a hobbit, I struggled to climb it at one point. Then, after an exhaustingly steep section, the canyon walls closed in and I recognised the Dimholt Road. It was eerie. Seriously. I felt less like Aragorn and more like a red shirt beamed down to scout the planet of the week. The sci-fi feeling was not helped by the fact that some unseen person was flying their drone between the bone-dust-grey columns. The noise it made echoed around us like the buzzing of an angry, mechanical insect.

My fiancé walked ahead of me. He looked so small amidst the gloomy towers. My mouth hung open in awe. I was glad I hadn’t turned back when I’d realised how difficult the road to the door to the Paths of the Dead would be, or when I’d injured my leg. This was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

putangirua pinnaclesOf course, the alcove that contained the entrance to the Paths of the Dead in the film had been a set, but it was easy to imagine. There were many nooks and crannies between the crumbling columns. Some of the columns resembled crude spears, while others were more, well, phallic.

“Who shall call them from the grey twilight?” I whispered to myself. Pretentious twit.

The world was grey. The ground, the sky, the canyon walls… I’d never seen anywhere more suited to an army of ghosts. I kept expecting to see scraps of grey, sun-bleached fabric fluttering against grey skeletons.

We found the guy flying the drone. I gave him my email address so he could send me the footage. This is it:

Then, just as he put his drone away, the heavens opened. Luckily, we’d brought rain coats, but that didn’t make the descent down a riverbed now slippery with mud any easier. My feet skidded from under me a few times, but I managed to stay upright, my squeals ringing around the grey canyon.

putangirua pinnacles

It took an age to get back. I immediately sought out our first aid kit, which in retrospect, we should probably have taken with us on the hike. My thigh hurt far more now than it had when I’d pulled the stick out of it, and an interesting bruise had already formed. I rubbed disinfectant into it and hoped for the best. (It was fine, as it turned out. I would have gotten an emergency medical appointment at the first sign of blood poisoning.)

Now it was time to drive to Wellington. Little did we know we’d find Rivendell before we got there, but that’s a story for another time…

To Rivendell, where Elves yet dwell
In glades beneath the misty fell,
Through moor and waste we ride in haste,
And whither then we cannot tell.

Is This the Coolest Information Centre Ever?

Matamata Hobbiton Information Centre

This is the tourist information centre in Matamata, a town in the Waikato Region of New Zealand. Why does it look so awesome, you ask? Well, this is the town’s other, unofficial name…

welcome to hobbiton, matamata

Matamata was rebranded as Hobbiton following the filming of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. The home of the hobbits was built on a farm just outside the town. Of course, you can visit the set and it’s completely wonderful – read my account of it here!

Matamata Information Centre

The information centre is the most interesting thing in the Matamata CBD, to be honest. Unless you count a shoe shop called Strider and this pub…

gollum, matamata

Not that there’s nothing else to do around Matamata. The Firth Tower Museum looks like it’s worth a visit, as do the Daltons Plantation Gardens. Also, the Kamai Cheese Factory isn’t far away.

Matamata Information Centre

The attention to detail around the outside of the information centre is impressive. I wish, somewhere in New Zealand, there was a pub like it. The inside, though, is just a regular information centre, albeit with more than the usual focus on Lord of the Rings-based merchandise. And this statue, which is pretty cool…

gollum statue

Down the road from the information centre, there’s a café called Dew Drop Inn that’s perfect for Lord of the Rings fans. The inside is decorated like Bag End…

Bag End, Dew Drop Inn, Matamata

And this is the outside…

Dew Drop Inn, Matamata

They even have a costume rack, so you can dress up as a hobbit as you sip your tea from one of their darling, little cups.

teacup

So, that’s Matamata: a small town made magical by association with Lord of the Rings. Do you think it’s got the coolest information centre ever, or do you know of somewhere that’s got an even cooler one?

 

P.S. I’ve just had a short story published in Breach, a magazine devoted to sci-fi, dark fantasy and horror. My story is called The Girl, the Cat and the Goblins, and you can read it for just $1.99 here.

Concerning Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy

“Just one song? We could do three. Or we could do one long one and split it into three. I’ll tell you what, it’ll be worth it.”

Peter Jackson, Team Ball Player Thing *

When it was announced that The Hobbit was going to be made into a trilogy, I was actually excited. Yes, the stretching out of a children’s book far shorter than even the first instalment of The Lord of the Rings would mean a lot of padding, but I didn’t mind that. I love The Lord of the Rings. I just wanted more in whatever way I could have it. I’m one of those people who could watch the extended versions forever!

And I really liked The Hobbit trilogy – until three quarters of the way through the second film, that is.

The first film, An Unexpected Journey, was brilliant. I have read The Hobbit many times, and seeing the scene with all the dwarves bursting into Bilbo’s cosy hobbit hole brought to life was, for me, exhilarating. And that singing – it gave me the chills! The film continued to be brilliant, even with the introduction of Azog following the party. In fact, the film did a better job of making me care about the characters that weren’t Bilbo than the book ever did.

I simply adored the portrayals of Thorin, Fili, Kili and Balin. Thorin was beautifully deep and brooding. Fili and Kili were more than adequate Merry and Pippin replacements – they were actually given characters, something seriously lacking in the book! And Balin was perfect. As for the other dwarves, there wasn’t much they could have done even with all the padding. Bombur, for example, serves exactly the same function as in the book – he’s the butt of fat jokes.

First Hobbit Hole

Another Hobbit Hole (from my visit to the Hobbiton Movie Set)

The scenes with all the dwarves at Rivendell are wonderfully funny, especially in the extended version. The whole trilogy was far more light-hearted than The Lord of the Rings, which threw a lot of people. I didn’t mind the film’s self-indulgence here in the slightest. Also, I don’t agree with the argument that the White Council scenes were unnecessary. They were in the book; they just happened off-stage. Besides, Gandalf randomly buggers off in the book and doesn’t return for ages – they couldn’t have gotten away with that in a film without showing where he’d gone.

And as for the addition of Radagast, I found that utterly delightful.

Tongariro Crossing

My little sister in Tongariro National Park, a.k.a. Mordor

Now, the bit with the goblins singing… that did feel uncomfortably childish, even more so than that bit with the trolls, but it’s in the book, dammit! Finding the correct balance between the childishness of the book and keeping the film consistent with The Lord of the Rings was always going to be difficult, given the source material, but The Hobbit trilogy… did not find it. Ah well. At least that computer game-like goblin escape was good fun.

Undoubtedly, the best bit of the first film – and, indeed, of the entire trilogy – was the Riddles in the Dark scene. In fact, I’d say the entire trilogy was worth it just for that! Shame it had to be in the first film, really. The second-best scene of the film, I’d say, is what came after: the bit where they all climb the trees on the edge of the cliff to escape from the orcs. That was beautifully done – suitably tense – and the music was amazing. Re-using the Black Riders’ theme from Fellowship to create the mood for Thorin’s charge made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Wellington Airport Eagle Gandalf

Gandalf riding the Lord of the Eagles at Wellington Airport (from my trip to Wellington)

Then the eagles.

Yeah.

The eagles showed up in the book too – they’re not just a deus ex machina exploited by the films. But the thing is they’re actually explained in the book. They can talk. Here’s an extract from The Hobbit book, from after they’ve just been rescued by the eagles and set down:

     It seemed that Bilbo was not going to be eaten after all. The wizard and the eagle-lord appeared to know one another slightly, and even to be on friendly terms. As a matter of fact Gandalf, who had often been in the mountains, had once rendered a service to the eagles and healed their lord from an arrow-wound… He was discussing plans with the Great Eagle for carrying the dwarves and himself and Bilbo far away and setting them down well on their journey across the plains below.

     The Lord of the Eagles would not take them anywhere near where men lived. “They would shoot at us with their great bows of yew,” he said, “for they would think we were after their sheep. And at other times they would be right. No! we are glad to cheat the goblins of their sport, and glad to repay our thanks to you, but we will not risk ourselves for dwarves in the southward plains.”

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki, a.k.a. Long Lake with the Lonely Mountain in the background (from my South Island campervan trip)

I hope that stops a few of you ‘why didn’t the eagles just take them there?’ complainers! I think this should have been the opening of the second Hobbit film, The Desolation of Smaug. It would have provided a useful explanation (for non-readers) for the eagles in The Lord of the Rings too.

Dwarf Statue

One of the dwarven statues on display at Auckland International Airport

So anyway – the first Hobbit film – VERY GOOD. The second film is where things get iffy. I was still onboard for it. The only thing I really didn’t like was the just-too-ridiculous action scene at the end, when the dwarves flush the dragon out of the mountain. You know, the whole molten gold bit. I was onboard for Legolas. (He would have been there.) I was onboard for the barrel ride. (Over-the-top, but FUN.) I was onboard for Stephen Fry in Lake-town. (It was Stephen Fry!) I was even onboard for the unnecessary addition of Tauriel. (The inclusion of a bad-ass elf chick – or even any female character at all – was most welcome.)

As for the Tauriel-Kili flirtation, I was fine with it. It was funny. It developed their characters. Kili’s character needed developing. (His death in the book is literally just ‘oh, and by the way, Kili and Fili died too’.) Even when the flirtation developed into a somewhat forced love story, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I would wait to see how it turned out in the next film before I would condemn it. Maybe it would even make the audience care about Kili’s death. (Never mind Fili, eh?)

The Wizard's Vale

They’re taking the hobbits to… guess where (from my South Island campervan trip)

But then came the third film. The Tauriel-Kili love story was AWFUL. If anything, it detracted from the emotional impact of Kili’s death. It would have been far better to show Fili and Kili fall defending Thorin ‘with shield and body’. Instead, we got those nauseating lines delivered by Tauriel and Thranduil. For me, four words destroyed the entire film: “Because it was real.” UCK. SPLURG. ICK. In the cinema, I was left wanting to shout, “I GAVE YOU THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT, DAMMIT! THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT!

Not the actual hobbit hiding place, but close

Not actually where the hobbits hid from the Black Rider, but close (from my trip to Wellington)

I mean the third film did have some fine moments. The surprise Billy Connolly cameo, for example, was a stroke of genius, but where THE FUCK did those giant goats come from? And why THE FUCK does the CGI look worse than it does in The Lord of the Rings, which came out over ten years before The Battle of the Five Armies? It makes the film look – ironically – rushed.

At the end of the day, though, the entire Hobbit trilogy is beautiful. Every shot looks like a painting. It’s artfully acted, (if not always artfully written,) and it really delves into the wider world of Middle-earth. And even The Battle of the Five Armies is a lot better than some of the movies that come out today. I just hope that people watch The Lord of the Rings first. The Hobbit is a bit of beautiful fun; The Lord of the Rings is a towering landmark in the history of cinema. (And both are very expensive New Zealand tourism commercials.)

* Team Ball Player Thing is a New Zealand charity/All Blacks support music video in which many local celebrities make fun of themselves. Watch it here for a great example of Kiwi humour:

 

Nerds of New Zealand Unite for Armageddon

For me, Armageddon is an annual certainty. (I’m talking about the sci-fi/fantasy/anime/comic/gaming/cosplay convention, not the actual end of the world.) I usually go to the Auckland Armageddon, but I live in Hamilton now, and I’ve just experienced my first ‘Hamigeddon’.

The Hamilton Armageddon is, of course, a lot smaller than the Auckland Armageddon. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. It turned out to be my best Armageddon yet!

When we got there, I was shocked at the sheer length of the entry line. I mean you don’t expect Hamilton to have so many people, let alone so many nerds. It was with some trepidation that we trekked to the end of the queue. That trepidation was only increased by the presence of a Dalek screeching:

dalek1

“It. Is. Three. Hours. To. The. Head. Of. The. Line!”

Thankfully, the Dalek was lying for comic effect. The line moved very quickly and it only took us fifteen minutes to get in.

Fifteen minutes and one jeer from a passing car full of Muggles with backward baseball caps. Apparently they didn’t like our costumes, many of which were quite excellent.

Once we were in, I immediately appreciated one difference from the Auckland Armageddon: I could move! I could actually get to each of the stalls without battling through a mass of sweaty bodies in anime costumes. I immediately set about sifting through the mountains of nerdy novelty items – what treasures would I find this year?

I always spend more than I should at Armageddon. After all, does anyone really need light-up lightsaber chopsticks or a Firefly/Serenity ‘leaf on the wind’ necklace?

Well, apparently, I do. My favourite mementos of this Armageddon, however, weren’t the Pikachu T-shirt, or the Game of Thrones dragon cuddly, or even the ornamental Sting heavily discounted because of its slightly damaged hilt. This year, my favourite Armageddon mementos were memories.

Me feeling a bit too much like Joffrey...

That’s me aiming a crossbow and feeling a little too much like Joffrey…

I had a great time shooting cushioned crossbow bolts at a heavily armoured Viking. I had an even greater time duelling my boyfriend in a combat ring with various LARP-safe weapons. After fighting each other, we went up against an experienced warrior: two on one.

“Unfair advantage,” a spectator observed. “Unfair for them, I mean.”

Indeed it was. We got pummelled.

Other activities on offer at this year’s Hamigeddon included lasertag, League of Legends, a cosplay parade, a Magic the Gathering tournament and a ‘Dinosaur vs. Zombie Alley’, which was kinda lame. I mean the zombie actors were quite good, but I didn’t see them fighting any dinosaurs.

Attribution: Gage Skidmore

John Rhys-Davies / Attribution: Gage Skidmore

For me, the absolute best part of this Armageddon was the John Rhys-Davies panel. Before he was Gimli in The Lord of the Rings, I mostly knew John Rhys-Davies for the Indiana Jones movies. In person, he was wonderful. He didn’t just sit there with the mike and answer awkward questions; he paced the stage and actively engaged with the audience. He gave both funny and intelligent answers, and he wasn’t above doing the ‘dwarf tossing’ line. He’s currently in New Zealand filming for the new epic fantasy series based on Terry Brooks’ Shannara, in which he plays an elf KING – take that, Orlando Bloom! (His words.)

Manu Bennett was fairly awesome too, going off on long, yet ultimately rewarding stories. He’s in Shannara as well, and he said he was stoked to be back in New Zealand.

mountain-310155_640Graham McTavish, or Dwalin from The Hobbit, said something particularly nice about New Zealand. It’s like one of those fantasy islands you draw as kid, an island that has everything you could possibly want on it. J.M. Barrie created Neverland to be like that. New Zealand is Neverland: adventure is never far away.

The funniest panel was with Martin Klebba, (the short guy in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies,) and Adam Brown, (Ori in the Hobbit movies, currently filming for the new Pirates of the Caribbean with Martin Klebba. I know – like we need ANOTHER Pirates of the Caribbean film! I got the impression that when Martin joked about it being just a paycheck at this stage, he wasn’t actually joking.)

clipart-orc-warrior-256x256-7ae3Many of Martin’s answers had Adam comically facepalming in despair. Like when he told a hall full of nerds that he’d never watched The Lord of the Rings, or Star Trek, or Doctor Who, or, in fact, anything represented at the convention, (except Pirates of the Caribbean.) He actually refuses to watch The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit on principle, and has a considerable amount of beef with Peter Jackson for not casting real little people as dwarves or hobbits.

You can kinda see his point, as there must be so few roles come up for little people that actually have a character beyond ‘little person’. There aren’t enough Tyrion Lannisters out there!

So, yeah, the 2015 Hamigeddon made for a very enjoyable weekend. I’ll definitely be going again next year. Hopefully, there’ll be some more interesting people coming – I’m still dreaming of the day New Zealand gets David Tennant or Nathan Fillion.

Interview with the Larper: Having a Larp in New Zealand

What Hobbiton’s Like

My review of New Zealand’s own vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows

Nerds of New Zealand Unite!

Nerds of New Zealand Unite!

My Top 10 Favourite Places in New Zealand

Since moving to New Zealand, I’ve seen so many wonderful places. The country’s full of them; beauty spots beyond counting. But some of them have stayed with me more than others. Some places are just so wonderful, so beautiful…

This is a personal list. You might not agree, but I think these ten places are amongst the best places to visit in New Zealand:

10) Te Puna Quarry Park

Like a fairytale

I love this place. It makes me feel like a kid exploring Wonderland. I mean there’s a dragon and everything! The first time I went, I just knew I’d be back again and again. Te Puna Quarry Park is really close to Tauranga – click the link to see my blog about it.

9) Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove 1cropped

The name of what I think is New Zealand’s most beautiful beach certainly does it justice. Cathedral Cove is on the Coromandel Peninsula. You can only get there by bush walk or boat, but it’s totally worth it. If you’re still not convinced, check out the Cathedral Cove bit from The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. (No CGI there – except the ‘ruins’, of course.)

8) The Hamilton Gardens

Indian

Hamilton is often accused of being a boring city, yet people flock from afar to the Hamilton Gardens. Completely free to enter, Hamilton’s greatest asset was named Garden of the Year at the 2014 International Garden Tourism Awards in France. What I love about the place – which grows with every visit – is it has heaps of small gardens within it, each with a different theme. It’s like having lots of little pockets of paradise to sample. And it has a lake with a waterfall.

7) The Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers

154 Glacier Franz Josefcropped

I have fond memories of visiting the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. They were beautiful, but more importantly they were sights out of the ordinary – they took my breath away. We didn’t walk onto them, just up to them. They’re possibly the world’s most easily accessible glaciers. You don’t have to climb halfway up a mountain or trudge through snow; you simply walk up to them from their respective car parks, enjoying the refreshing breeze coming off the ice as you go.

Be warned, however: the photo above was taken when I visited the glaciers with my family, and that was about a decade ago. The glaciers have gotten smaller since then, thanks to global warming, and I don’t think you can get as close anymore. (You can still walk on top of them if you take a commercial tour.)

6) White Island

White Island

White Island is one of the most wonderful places I’ve been in my life. It’s the top of an active volcano, rising out of the sea amidst plumes of white steam. I’ll never forget it, seeing all the vibrant colours; hearing the bubbling acid; smelling the sulphur; feeling the warm rocks and the air tingling on my skin. It was like walking on an alien planet – such a different experience. I can’t recommend it enough.

5) Hobbiton

First Hobbit Hole

Visiting Hobbiton was like going home. There was something comfortingly English about it, but it was also – quite literally – stepping into a childhood fantasy. It was amazing. For anyone as Lord of the Rings-obsessed as I am, it’s simply a must-go. More than worth the admission price – I loved every second.

4) The Otago Peninsula

The Otago Peninsula

If you want dramatic scenery, awesome wildlife, romantic villages and a castle, spend a day or two on the Otago Peninsula. I went there with my boyfriend a couple of years ago and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Hire a budget car – that’s what we did – and explore its peaceful roads, winding over sheep-scattered hills and around beautiful bays. The peninsula is home to the world’s only colony of royal albatrosses breeding on an inhabited mainland. The fluffy, white chicks are so cute!

3) The Waitomo Caves

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

I don’t believe in magic, though I’ve spent my life writing fantasy stories. The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing real magic – magic as the raw force of nature I write about – was in one of the Waitomo Caves. It was with a tour group. We’d been led through a dark labyrinth, had many fascinating features pointed out along the way, and now we were helped into a small, inflatable boat. As we drifted silently through the pitch-black tunnel millions of tiny, electric-blue lights appeared like stars above our heads. They were the famous Waitomo glowworms – an awe-inspiring sight everyone should see.

2) The Shotover River Canyons

The Shotover Jet

The whole area around Queenstown is staggeringly beautiful – possibly the most beautiful place in the world. One part of that area in particular stands out in my memory: the Shotover River Canyons. It was one of the great treats of my family’s South Island campervan rental holiday. We all had a jet boat ride on the Shotover River with the only company that can enter the canyons. And though the ride itself was fun – the best jet boat ride in New Zealand, in fact – what makes it memorable is the scenery. Oh. My. God.

1) Glenorchy

The Wizard's Vale

North of Queenstown, Glenorchy is a self-proclaimed paradise. I won’t argue with them. The drive towards it is jaw-dropping, (but only if you like mystical lakes and snow-capped mountains.) The reason Glenorchy has stayed with me is the view of the Wizard’s Vale from The Lord of the Rings, (where Saruman lives.) My heart captured this view on the Dart Stables ‘Ride of the Rings’ tour. I had never ridden a horse before, but I felt like a fantasy character – a warrior maiden – as we emerged from a forest, crested a rise, and looked out over heaven.

(Read more about Our Campervan Tour of New Zealand’s South Island.)

So these are my favourite places in New Zealand. What do you think? What are yours? Leave a comment – I really want to know!

My Weekend in Wellington

I just got back from Wellington, the capitol city of New Zealand. I was really excited to go. I had been once before, but years ago, with my parents. All I remembered from that trip was getting my skirt blown up above my head in public. Wellington’s notorious for being ridiculously windy.

The 'Windy Wellington' sign

The ‘Windy Wellington’ sign from Mount Victoria

This time, however, there was hardly any wind at all. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny even though winter’s nearly here. I spent the weekend wandering around the city centre with my boyfriend and I loved it.

We’d been planning the trip for a while. We live in Auckland, but a friend of ours recently moved to Wellington to do a law degree and we wanted to visit him. We were originally going to take a campervan down, but time simply wasn’t on our side so we ended up flying.

It takes about nine hours to drive from Auckland to Wellington. If you do hire a campervan in Auckland, don’t try to do it all in one day. Good stops along the way are Hamilton and Taupo. My family spent the night in Taupo when we drove down to Wellington that time. Actually, it might have been two nights. We did a jet boat ride on Lake Taupo. That was fun.

Wellington 005

“Seriously, Gandalf, this is the last time…”

So my boyfriend and I got to Wellington on Saturday morning. As our plane came in to land, we saw a few ferries crossing Cook Strait. It was cool being able to see both the North and South Island at once. Our friend met us at the airport, which, I was delighted to discover, had a giant Lord of the Rings eagle hanging from the ceiling with Gandalf riding upon its back. There was also an enormous model of Sméagol looming over the food court.

In case you hadn’t noticed, New Zealand takes The Lord of the Rings very seriously, and Wellington is right at the epicentre of the hobbit mania. The city rebranded itself ‘the middle of Middle-earth’ – it is, after all, in the middle of New Zealand as well as being spiritually the centre of the whole Lord of the Rings franchise. Wellington is the cradle of the genius that is Peter Jackson. It is the home of Weta Workshop, which we didn’t visit, and the forest in which the hobbits hide from the Black Rider at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. We did go there.

But first we went to Cuba Street. It’s famous for being Wellington’s premier shopping street, but I have to say that I wasn’t that impressed. There were a few mildly interesting shops and cafes and a few mildly interesting artworks, but if it weren’t for the surprising number of second-hand bookshops I would have been quite bored. The harbour front was different story.

Background: 50% of New Zealand’s navy

Wellington has the prettiest and most interesting harbour front in New Zealand. Lively with both locals and tourists, it has stunning sculptures and gorgeous views; random pieces of poetry and a fantastic bridge that’s a work of art in itself. As we made our way along, watching the people kayaking on the sapphire water, we found a colourful piano and a wonderful underground market. It was here that my boyfriend had the best crepe of his life.

After this, we made our way to the government district. Our law student friend showed us Government Buildings, built in 1876 out of wood and made to look like stone, because stone was deemed too expensive. (It ended up being really expensive anyway, much to the government’s embarrassment. The building was opened without fanfare.) Until recently, it was the largest wooden building in the world. The funny thing is a smaller building was constructed in its shadow, this one actually built out of stone, but they wanted it to match the original building – so it’s stone made to look like wood made to look like stone!

The Beehive

The Beehive

The next day we visited the Beehive, the architecturally controversial Executive Wing of New Zealand’s Parliament Buildings. From it, you can take a free tour of the Parliament Buildings. I’m not too interested in politics, but the tour was enjoyable. It’s strange to see such opulence in New Zealand: the marble, the gilding, the furniture, the artefacts, the stained-glass windows… There was even an exquisite sculpture of the hobbits hiding from the Black Rider. Yes, The Lord of the Rings is THAT important.

And staying with The Lord of the Rings, the next thing we did was climb Mount Victoria. The thing about Wellington is it’s all hilly – and big hills at that. The only flat part is the city centre, and it’s only flat because it’s built on reclaimed land. While this does make Wellington a very pretty city – every time you look up you see you’re surrounded by green hills, the houses merely white patches amongst verdant bush – it’s incredibly tiring to walk around. Also, due to the higgledy-windy-uppy-downy nature of the roads, buses take a lot longer than you think they should. By the time we got to the foot of Mount Victoria, we were already exhausted!

I found this somewhere on Mount Victoria

I found this somewhere on Mount Victoria

It was a really good walk up it, though. The forest that covers Mount Victoria is made up of pines rather than New Zealand natives. Probably why Peter Jackson chose it. We met an old lady with a pair of hiking poles coming the other way, and she told us how grateful she was to have such a good walk right by her house. It must be really easy to keep fit in Wellington. There were a lot of mountain bikers around as well, although I’d never dare to bike on such terrain.

Not the actual hobbit hiding place, but close

Not the actual hobbit hiding place, but close

The place where the hobbits hid from the Black Rider is barely worth taking a photograph of. The tree in the film is fake, so all that’s there is a depression in the slope just below the path, blanketed by brown pine needles. Above the path, however, there’s a rocky outcrop that looks more like it. In fact I remember getting a picture crouching there as a kid, pretending to be scared. I’m sure I shouted, “Get off the road!” at some point too.

The real treat of Mount Victoria is the view from the summit. You can see all of the city, the harbour, the surrounding hill, Cook Strait and, if you squint hard through the haze, the South Island. It was just beautiful. If you only do one thing in Wellington, climb Mount Victoria. It’s not too difficult and doesn’t take that long.

A view over Cook Strait

A view over Cook Strait

From the top of Mount Victoria, we walked down to Te Papa, renowned as New Zealand’s best museum. Although there weren’t any outstanding exhibitions on this time, there was certainly plenty to look at. The museum has a wonderful look to it, both futuristic and traditional. The displays are a treat for the eyes. One particular exhibition struck a chord with me: the history of New Zealand immigration. I must say, I’m very glad it only took my family twenty-four hours on a plane to reach New Zealand, as opposed to six months on a cramped, pestilential ship with a significant chance that not all of us would survive the journey.

The harbour from Te Papa

The harbour from Te Papa

We stayed at Te Papa until closing time. By then we were definitely in need of dinner, and our friend knew exactly where to take us: Inferno. He’d been raving about it all weekend. Newly opened on Courtenay Place, Inferno is an American-style chilli bar. The food is cheap and absolutely delicious. As well as the traditional chilli con carne, you can get a lamb and chocolate chilli and even a pork and spinach chilli. There are five levels of hotness: Mild, Medium, Hot, Extra Hot and Inferno. I was a wuss. I went for Extra Hot. Ooh, it was lovely. I think I could have had the Inferno, as long as I was careful not to get any on my lips. I got some of the Extra Hot on my lips and ended up having to wet them every few seconds to sooth the burning!

Courtenay Place, opposite the Embassy Theatre

Courtenay Place, opposite the Embassy Theatre

Rather fittingly, Inferno is just a few doors away from what our friend described as the best place to get gelato he’d ever been to. All weekend, we’d been promised the best ice-cream – sorry, gelato – of our lives, so, needless to say, our expectations were pretty high. The place was Kaffee Eis. There are a few of them throughout Wellington and, let me tell you now, you MUST visit one when you’re there. Our high expectations were not only met, but surpassed. It genuinely was the best ice-cream – sorry, gelato – we’ve ever had in our lives! Seriously. Oh, my goodness. Amazing.

My boyfriend had amaretto and I had white chocolate and coconut. Now, I’m not usually that keen on ice-cream – gelato, we get it! – but I simply didn’t want to stop licking this stuff. I was blown away. (Figuratively blown away. As I said, Windy Wellington was surprisingly calm last weekend.)

So, in conclusion: if you’re going to Wellington, make sure you pack a coat. The wind is usually quite cold. If you’re driving down from Auckland, make stops along the way. Once you’re there, make sure you visit the harbour front, Mount Victoria and Te Papa, and don’t leave without trying a Kaffee Eis gelato. Of course, there are heaps of other things to do, but that was my weekend in Wellington.

See more Lord of the Rings locations I’ve been to…

What Hobbiton’s Like

Last weekend I had a dream come true: I visited Hobbiton. And it was better than I dreamed. I absolutely loved it.

My family had some reservations about going. We’re big Lord of the Rings fans, but the Hobbiton Movie Set, located on a farm in Matamata, has a reputation as a tourist trap. It’s quite expensive and, being the height of summer, we feared it would be heaving with visitors. We didn’t know how much of the set would be left, or if the experience would be worth it. As it turned out, we were blown away.

First Hobbit HoleThe set looks exactly as it does in Peter Jackson’s films.

Still, as we drove towards the site, we couldn’t help but giggle at a sign that read Tourist Farm. Then, when we got there, we were greeted by a curious sheep.

The set is a short bus ride away from the car park. As the bus driver explained, the original set was dismantled after the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but when it came to the filming of The Hobbit, the owners of the farm asked that the set be built to last. That decision made them rich.

The Fake Oak TreeThe first magical moment of the tour was when we rounded a hill and The Green Dragon came into view. It was like sliding back in time. The pub, the mill and the stone bridge could have been straight from the Middle Ages.

The next magical moment was when we stepped off the bus and walked between two stone walls into another world. There was Hobbiton. It was so colourful, not just the emerald grass, but every petal of every flower was remarkably vivid. The gardens were beautiful. And then there were the bright, circular front doors.

ChimneyEverything was ridiculously detailed. It looked lived in; a functioning village. There were vegetables in wheelbarrows, washing lines with hobbit clothes on, tools leaning against fences and candles in windows.

The commentary our guide provided was interesting and, actually, even though there were heaps of people there, it didn’t feel crowded. If anything, seeing other tour groups in the distance added to the feeling of the living village. I felt like I was back in England!

There was so much to look at, I probably missed a lot. With every step came a new delight. Most of the stuff didn’t even make it into the films, but no detail was overlooked. What those filmmakers did was insane – such as taking all the fruit off an apple tree and replacing it with plums, because that’s what was in Tolkien’s books.

Bilbo's GateOf course, the highlight of the tour is Bag End, the house of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It did not disappoint, right down to the no admittance except on party business sign on the gate. Standing there at the top, looking out over the fields with the famous party tree in the centre, you genuinely feel as though you’re part of the films.

The Mill 3Too soon, it was time to go back down the hill. We passed more hobbit holes, including Sam Gamgee’s house, and the site of the long-expected party. Then we crossed the stone bridge by the mill – there was a village notice board with all sorts on it!

The Green Dragon 3The final magical moment was when we entered The Green Dragon. It was the most gorgeous pub I’ve ever been in, a fantasy version of the very best old pubs in England, all dark wood and rafters and fireplaces. Every visitor gets a complimentary drink in a medieval-style beaker, a choice between cider, stout, ale and ginger beer. I had the cider and it was the best I’ve ever tasted!

The Dragon

The interior of The Green Dragon is just as detailed as the rest of the village. Hobbit coats are hung up by the door and above the food bar is an amazing carving of a dragon. There’s a book of cast signatures in a glass case. I noticed that Sir Ian McKellen had put a G rune next to his name, for Gandalf.

Bag End 2The pub and the party marquee next to it are available to hire for functions. I’m already dreaming of having my wedding there! The pub garden was exquisite.

The only disappointment of the tour was that we felt a bit rushed in the pub, but it would have gotten too crowded if they hadn’t moved us on. Besides, as my dad said, “I always feel rushed when asked to leave a pub.”

Second Hobbit HoleSo it was back on the bus and to the gift shop, which has a pretty good café above it. We bought a couple of fridge magnets, (the signs of The Prancing Pony and The Green Dragon,) and the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

What a day! If you were wondering whether or not to visit Hobbiton when travelling around New Zealand then wonder no more. It’s wonderful. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, an Anglophile, a history nerd, or just someone who loves gardens, Hobbiton is definitely for you.

The Party Tree

For more Lord of the Rings locations, see 10 Places Hobbits Have Been.

Scarecrow 2