Three Dozen Tours To Lure Them All
Even with the elvish ears on and the bow in my hand I wasn't feeling it.
New Zealand is a beautiful country, but it isn't Middle-earth, despite the assertion of signs at Wellington airport welcoming travelers. (This fantastically ginormous one was sadly taken down before our arrival.) I was the only person on the tour that day brave -- or shameless -- enough to take the guide up on his dare to pose like Orlando Bloom had done for publicity photos. I stood obediently in front of the trees of Rivendell and took direction on how to angle myself to look most like an elf. I tried to smile cheerfully for the camera while enduring Meredith's giggling derision -- all in the name of the ultimate in nerdy souvenirs.
But I wasn't in Rivendell, though this Wellington Park had recently been renamed that, and the surrounding foliage wasn't terribly mystical, though this was the "exact" spot where Bloom had modeled for the movie poster. Moreover, my bow was just a curved stick, my ears (supplied by Wellington Rover Tours) were made of plastic and my overall resemblance to Legolas was slim to nil.
The filming of the blockbuster trilogy had long since wrapped. All of the beautiful sets (save one) were entirely dismantled and the make-up artists, costumers and prop makers had moved on to other projects. The movie magic that transformed New Zealand, including substantial sections of the city of Wellington, into a fantasy realm for the camera lens had left along with Frodo and Bilbo on the White Ship for the Undying Lands at the end of The Return of the King. Where Elrond's palace once stood, there now was a lovingly landscaped city park. Instead of tall actors drifting gracefully through the forest in handcrafted cloaks, tourists in sneakers trudged down the path to take silly photos.
The point is that New Zealand, though offering an abundance of natural wonder, is not naturally synonymous with the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. The genius of Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop simply made it look that way. Learning about how they accomplished that is exactly what makes a LOTR tour interesting.
So maybe New Zealand isn't so much a destination for self-styled hobbits, wizards, dwarves and elves, as it is for movie buffs. After all, J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator himself, never visited the country. That didn't stop our Queenstown tour guide, however, from suggesting that the author must have traveled there several times in his dreams to gather inspiration.
We were standing in a field, battling the sand flies while a guide described how The Remarkables were used as a background and how Isengard was dropped into the valley via the miracle of computer graphics. She pointed at the composite photo from The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook to illustrate and repeated the following refrain: "You are here. You're actually standing in Middle Earth." Well, suspension of disbelief turns out to be a bit difficult when there's a cow pasture where the tower of Orthanc should be. But it's still fun to hold up the book and pose for a snapshot.
I don't know, but perhaps some happy tourists end up feeling closer to Tolkien or Galadriel when they visit the forest "near" to where the Lothlorien set was created (the actual filming location was on private land). But without the imported leaves spray-painted gold and the prop guys dropping them from the trees, it's a bit of a stretch of the imagination. Unfortunately, Rings fanatics aren't even guaranteed of communing with others of their own kind on an LOTR tour. On both trips the first question we were asked was whether we had seen the movies and/or read the books. We were grateful that there weren't any ignoramuses in either of our groups. Meredith came the closest because he's only seen the movies (tisk, tisk!). But apparently it's quite common for people who can't even pronounce Tolkien's name correctly to sign up for a location tour.
I've counted at least 30 LOTR tours in New Zealand. Many of them seem to involve helicopters or four-wheel drives and none of them are particularly cheap. If you put your mind to it, you could spend thousands of dollars learning about the filming of the trilogy. What you're not going to hear too much about is Tolkien as England would be a better destination for that. We only went on two tours, one in Wellington and one in Queenstown, and even though Queesnstown has more spectacular scenery, we enjoyed the second much more. I think that's because Wellington is the home of both Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, so the city was the epicenter of all the movie magic that won all those Oscars. We even caught a glimpse of Jackson's gold statuette through his window.
By Meredith Bragg |
April 20, 2006; 1:29 PM ET
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