New Zealand Diaries #10 (Courtesy Laura McCullough)

New Zealand part 8: LOTR site tour

5 Jan. Get up at 08:20 for a 10:00 tour. Eggs and cheese for breakfast again. Walk to the iSite, drop off postcards, get free wifi for 30 minutes! Yay! The NZTelecom on our phones doesn’t let us access Facebook, so we have to wait for wifi to get to FB. Kelly can post on Twitter, though. Wait for the bus outside the building, in the windy rainy weather. This was one of the few bad weather days we had. Our  luck tends to run to the sunny side. And it held for this trip: only 3 days with any significant rain. At least today we’re not driving.

We are picked up in a small 11-passenger van. There are 8 total passengers: a cheery, chatty pair of women from LA, a couple from Sydney, a young German woman and a guy who claims both Germany and Holland as home. The cheerful guide is named Alice. She doesn’t like the rain, but keeps up a good patter for the 3 hour tour. We drive out of Welly to the Dry Creek Quarry’s entrance. It’s a working quarry, but they built first Helm’s Deep and then Minas Tirith here. After the HD filming, the crew cut down much of the set and on the bones of Helm’s Deep built Minas Tirith. After that filming, much of the polystyrene was recycled into under-floor insulation. The only remaining piece of set is a 112-step staircase cut into the rock and now buried and grown over. It took one stone cutter 3 weeks to cut the staircase, and it’s on film for about 4 seconds.

During travel times, there is a TV in the van that shows film clips, Hobbit video blogs, LOTR ads, and the Jack Black easter egg clip. It’s rainy and windy still. Kelly’s new windbreaker turns out to be water-resistant but not water-proof as advertised. He gets soggy, unfortunately. Our guide has a large portfolio (plastic, thank goodness) of film stills and photos of movie bits to show where we are.

We get to the park where Isengard’s gardens were filmed. The lane that Gandalf gallops up is short, so they filmed him riding one way then back the other to make it look longer. The stone lane was taken up and replaced with different grass, so you can still sort of see where it was by looking at the grass. The bridge/gate of Isengard was a miniature. Gandalf and Saruman walking in the gardens: we re-enact the scene with two staves that the guide pulls out from the shrubbery nearby. Park bench was digitally covered with a bush: look for it! A power pylon in the sky was covered up by Saruman’s tower.

It’s quite soggy out, and when we get to the banks of the Hutt river, it is flooded. There is no stony beach visible where Aragorn was washed up and Brego knelt down to help him up. Did I mention how cool this is? We are grinning like madmen at each stop. [Possible movie spoiler: if you watch the direction of the river as Aragorn is floating, the South Island river flows to the right, but the Hutt river where he is washed up flows to the left. Two different locations!]

On to Kaitoke Park, wherein lay Rivendell! The park sign at the entrance says “Rivendell”, which makes us squeak. We eat a Subway lunch in a pavilion, during which the rain stops and the sun appears. Alice says the elves are at work for us. We drive to the ending car park and follow the signs to Rivendell. A large sign shows where the set was created, pointing out the one tree that was left. Yup, one tree. The other plants? They took pictures, removed the plants to a greenhouse built nearby, and after filming returned them to their proper place. Yes, Peter Jackson is an awesome control freak. The Gate the Fellowship leaves by is under re-construction; we get a picture of the partially completed icon. Frodo’s bedroom was one of the few indoor places that was actually on site. Just a few steps from where we were standing!

The guide has a bag of…something. She asks if we recognize a tree behind her. Nope. It’s where the Legolas promo pic was taken: this one. Our sneaky guide asks if anyone wants to recreate the scene. One of the LA women jumps at the chance. Alice pulls out a bow and arrow, a wig, and a cloak. Oh, and elf ears! We have lots of laughs as most of the group gets a photo op wearing the elf rig. I didn’t do the Legolas thing: I was Tauriel. I pulled my hair out of its braid and took off my glasses, and poof! instant elf!

Then we had about half an hour of free wandering time. We crossed a swingbridge over a fierce flooded river, lots of wobbly motion. More pictures, a walk through the forest, then back to the van. The 45 minute drive back to Welly was entertaining because of the TV in the van. Overall the tour was well worth it, at $170 (NZ) for two people. We get dropped off at the iSite while the rest of the crew stays for the other two-hour portion of the tour to locations around Welly—we’ve mostly already visited them.

There are three outdoor gear outlet stores juxtaposed, so Kelly looks for a real raincoat, but no luck. Then we walk to Molly Malones’ pub, where Sean Bean hung out during filming. I have Monteith’s cider again, while Kelly finally gets to try a NZ whisky: Milford 10 year. It smells briny but tastes smooth.

Then it’s off to the Embassy Theatre where the world premier of the Fellowship took place. They are currently showing Hobbit 2, but we don’t partake. Instead we head a block up to Strawberry Fare where our guide had recommended we try the pavlova. It’s the national dessert of NZ. Now, I’m a sugar freak with a sweet tooth, but this thing was nearly too much for me! It is a meringue of egg whites, corn starch, and sugar, with a crunchy outside and a soft interior. Mine was topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit. It was also the size of a small cat. Kelly had a creme brulee that was just divine.

We needed to walk off the zillion calories we just ate, so we headed along the harbor for perhaps a mile. Lots of good walking space, past the Te Papa museum, past ships and interesting stuff in the water. A pedestrian bridge had padlocks of all shapes and sizes attached to its rails for no apparent reason. Down a few blocks we see something that looks like a crowd around a splash of water. Hmmm?

There are three people, very Maori looking, who are using a public jump platform to dive into the harbor water. Never mind that the platform is closed because of pollution in the water. They climb up the 20 or so feet to the top of the platform, wait for encouragement from the crowd, and then jump in. Sometimes they cannonball, sometimes it seems they intentionally bellyflop. Their goal is to get really big splashes that hit the crowd some ten feet above the water level. It’s almost unimaginable to us and our litigious US society: a public diving platform into a busy harbor.

Another little inlet of the harbor has paddleboats for rent, and you can add a water cannon to your rental! There is a memorial with the mast from a ferry that foundered in the harbor in 1968. It’s sunny and, you guessed it, windy. Apparently Welly is the windy capital!

A slow meander back to our hotel takes us to Chow, an Asian fusion restaurant with tapas-style dishes. Again, GF is labeled. That was a real pleasure in NZ: most places had GF labeled, or at least knew what was GF. I got into the habit of looking for a pub and checking the menu. Another English culture thing in NZ: most restaurants had their menu posted outside. It’s such a good idea! A disappointment was the kebab shops: the lamb was all gyros-style meat, which has gluten. There were a lot of kebab shops to drool at as we passed by.

Chow provided me with chicken satay and banana-leaf-wrapped tarahiki fish, both excellent. Kelly has lamb curry, also great. Such a treat to have Asian food! Then back to our room for packing up. Tomorrow we take the ferry to South Island.

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I’ve been traveling in Hawaii and New Zealand and will be posting links to the pictures soon.

Whenever we travel my wife does a travel diary while I take most of the pictures. I use her notes as my references for later use for books and other things. She has been gracious enough to allow me to share them here on my site for those who are interested.