In Frodo's Footsteps
Lord of the Rings fans will adore this adventure through the magic of
Middle Earth on the North Island of New Zealand, writes Ken Eastwood.
It’s 150km from Hobbiton to Mount
Doom as the Nazgul flies. But modern-day
followers in Frodo’s footsteps can take
a wonderful week-long circular route for
an extraordinary week in Middle Earth.
(Or New Zealand’s North Island if you prefer
its other name.)
Although some of the grandest scenes in the
movies The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
were shot on New Zealand’s South Island, the
North Island’s dramatic volcanic scenery plays
backdrop to key parts of the storyline, and it
holds one of the few outdoor sets that wasn’t
destroyed after the trilogy.
Start your family-friendly quest in the little
town of Matamata, about halfway between
Auckland and Rotorua. The Tourist Information
Centre looks like part of the movie, and Gollum
lurks inside. There a tour whisks you off to
Hobbiton, with 44 hobbit holes set into the
lush green hills of a sheep and cattle farm.
Hobbiton was due to be demolished after filming, but a bout of bad weather gave it a
reprieve, and it has now been kept and used
in The Hobbit movies. It’s a delight wandering
among the hobbit homes (a range of sizes for
filming), the veggie patch and up the hill to Bag
End, with its intricate fake oak tree on top, then
wandering down to the Green Dragon Inn for
a free ale (or ginger beer) that comes as part
of the tour. The magical doors and windows
set into the hillside promise a world beyond,
but Hobbiton is an external set only – all the
interior shots were done in a studio.
Now that little legs are ready to set out on
their own adventure, pop 40km up the road to Te Aroha Holiday Park for the night. It has
a fantastic adventure playground with an
eight-metre high, fast flying-fox, a tree climb
to a giant slide, swinging poles and giant
swings. The park has a beautiful mountain
range towering behind it and a hot pool to
soak in under the stars.
The next day it’s time for more dark
adventures, plunging into the Mines of Moria.
Well, not really: Waitomo Caves are far prettier
than the devastated dwarvish realm. After
descending into the deep, past stalactites
and stalagmites (“stalagmites have a ‘G’ for
‘ground’ in the name”, says our guide helpfully), the tour culminates in an underground
boat ride under a canopy of thousands
of glow worms.
Nearby, in the town of Otorohanga,
it’s worth visiting some of Middle Earth’s
fascinating creatures, such as keas and
kiwis, in the Kiwi House. Then it’s off to
find Fangorn Forest.
New Zealand is rich in dark, tangled
forests. In places the giant kauri pines still
stand too, like Ents waiting to be awakened. A
walk through any of these rich rainforests is like
an other-worldly experience, and some of the
most stunning flank one of the North Island’s
most distinctive volcanoes, Mt Taranaki, or Mt
Egmont, which is the bump sticking out of the
west coast. This national park has a wide range
of walks, from multi-day treks to short family
strolls, and the adventurous can scale
mountains or walk across New Zealand’s
highest swinging bridge.
From here, our self-drive tour swings back
towards Rotorua in the centre of the North
Island. With its bubbling mud pools, sulphur
smells and boiling springs, it’s easy to imagine
yourself in Mordor. There are many thermal
areas to explore, most of which cost money,
but others are just beside the road or in town
parks. One of the best free ones is Kuirau Park
in Rotorua. At the visitors centre you can ask
for directions to one unmarked spot where a
very hot creek meets a cold one, and you can sit at the junction, adjusting your temperature
by moving a few metres in either direction.
Don’t miss the thriving holiday town of Taupo
(pronounced “Toepaw”) on the banks of the
largest lake in New Zealand. Although it is
situated among the thermal activity zone, and
has views over the lake towards Mt Doom, it is
far more homely than anything in Mordor. Stay at
Taupo DeBretts Spa Resort: more like a holiday park than a resort, it has an extensive and
beautiful hot pools area, including an exciting
waterslide, children’s wet play area and private
pools. It stays open into the evening so you can
soak under the stars in pools up to 41°C.
Now that Mt Doom (officially Mt Ngauruhoe,
but everyone now seems to know it as Mt
Doom) is in view, there’s nothing left on the
quest but to head towards it, driving to the
delightful alpine area of Tongariro National
Park. The 2000m-plus peaks in this alpine
area, including Mt Ngauruhoe, are covered
in snow in winter and spring, and the park
contains clear streams running with meltwater,
waterfalls and wild scenery.
Rather than just eating elvish Lembas bread,
splurge on a high tea at Chateau Tongariro at
Whakapapa Village. On a clear day its huge
windows have a divine view of Mt Doom.
Assuming you want to get a little closer
to the action though, head out on one of the
many walking tracks in the park. Superfit and
prepared hikers can walk to the summit, but a
much better alternative for families is the 6km
loop to Taranaki Falls, offering stunning views
all the way of Mt Doom.
It’s guaranteed you’ll finish your New
Zealand quest more refreshed and exhilarated
than even Frodo in the house of Elrond.