Middle Earthly delights in New Zealand’s South Island

Lisa Young gets a close-up of film locations from The Hobbit Middle

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 trade. “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,” said 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.

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’, is in cinemas now

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Qantas (08457 747 767; qantas.com) which flies to Queenstown via Sydney. Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) offers the only direct link from Heathrow to Auckland. Other connections are available on airlines such as Emirates, Malaysia and Thai.

Staying there

Austravel (0800 988 4834; austravel.com) has a 15-day “New Zealand Splendour” self-drive that flies to Auckland and explores both 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 NZ1,200 (£626).

More information

Tourism New Zealand (newzealand.com)

Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own