The landscape flows from jagged cliffs to rolling hills, from faltering limestone formations to ramparts – a constant tidal wave of the landscapes I love so much. The greenery of the North Island fills the car windows.
I’m thinking of my friend Grant Roa. He is a writer, producer, and actor who has been involved in one way or another in most of the films set in New Zealand. It also has a soft spot in this part of the country. “The South Island has stunning scenery, but I love the contrasts on the North Island,” he told me while I was planning my trip. “I like it when you have a landscape on the hills in front of you and you turn around and see the snow-capped mountains behind you. Or when you are on the beach and there is nothing but native bush behind you.”
About 140 miles south of the Hobbiton Hills, Tongariro National Park embodies both of these extremes. There are three active volcanoes – Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe – and the ski resort of Whakapapa. The garden was used as a backdrop for Shadowland of Mordor, an abandoned and desolate stronghold of evil in Middle-earth.
Tongariro is one too World Heritage Site One of my favorite places in New Zealand. After half a dozen hits, I have now climbed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, descended the slopes of Whakapapa and enjoyed the white landscape and cool air while feeling like I was on top of the world.
But Lounes and I are alone today in the village of Iwikau at the top of the ski area, shrouded in mist. The temperature has dropped dramatically since Matmata and hovered around the freezing point as the wind swept us from all directions. Waheed thinks this is strange. “Mordor should be hot and dry,” he says.
My interpretation of Mordor is that it’s just a totally uncomfortable – and deceptive – place, which Tongariro certainly holds true. Whenever I was here, the sky was as clear as glass. I know the weather can change quickly – and wildly – here, but this is the first time Tongariro has shown his wild side.
I can now see the tangled heap of black and red remnants of the cooled lava more clearly, which among the almost shimmering white and green vegetation is trying to struggle its existence. The rocks seem to reach the sky. I can totally imagine getting lost here. In fact, we are only a ten minute drive from Chateau Tongariro, the find of all New Zealand hotels in the historic village of Wakapapa.
This elegant new Georgian building from the 1920s exudes a European vibe. A tuxedo feel and crystal glass on the wall of an active volcano. As I drank a glass of red wine from Gisborne, a wine region about 260 miles on the East Coast, I was thinking about spending time with two good friends. Not only with Loons, but also with the place that captured my heart the first time I saw him.
“That’s the cool thing about movie sites,” says Loons. “If you miss a place you love, you can always revisit it at the movies.” Visiting Tongariro with The Lord of the Rings in mind allowed me to see it in a different way. Tongariro has impressive and profound unpredictability.
Beech trees flock for the best location, and the road from the mountain village of Ohakune to the southern tip of Tongariro is crowded. It’s hard to believe that this quiet ski resort awaiting winter is just 45 minutes east of Pipiriki. There, on the edge of Whanganui National Park, lush forests provided the backdrop for the River Queen. The 2005 film focuses on the conflict between indigenous Maori and European settlers in the 1860s. ((Worth reading: Destinations for ‘Star Wars’ fans)
A few minutes into Ohakune, most traces of the outside world were gone in our rearview mirror. We head towards Turoa Ski Resort at the base of Mt Ruapehu about 30 minutes south of the hotel to look for Mangawhero Falls. I’ve skied a few times in Turoa but never looked left or right and always focused on the road in front of me. Three kilometers before the ski area, we discover the sign on the right side of the road that indicates the way to the waterfall. Under the falling canopy of beech trees, a path of brown grass dotted with red mushrooms and white lichen suddenly leads to a familiar sight.
As I watched the small river cycle over rusty brown rocks before rolling into a waterfall, the same way I did when I heard a favorite song on the radio hit me: Here was the two-tongued Gollum in the Two Towers, the second Lord of the Rings movie, catching a fish . My memory of this place was as clear as water, although it was the first time I saw it. I waded in the river. The water was very cold and my feet were hurting.
Here every fan’s heart beats faster
I’ve driven this road several times and never knew this place was here. “We would have missed him if he hadn’t been in the movie,” says Loons. “The site explorers have already done all the work and carefully selected these amazing sites. It is like a treasure map. You just have to follow it.”
We return to Wellington, the southernmost city on the North Island. This is where I first lived in New Zealand – the base of my early explorations – and is also the home of the film genius that Tolkien brought to the big screen. But there is one stop on my journey:
I choose a path I have never walked before and find myself in the scary, needle-strewn trails of Mount Victoria. I climb a hill and stop suddenly when I realize something. In front of me, I lie on the crooked roots of the tree where four evil young hobbits, the Nazgul, hid after finding a shortcut to some mushrooms in The Fellowship of the Ring.
I know that feeling now, like seeing a familiar face in a crowd; That excitement of finding a long-lost friend.
The article first appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler.
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