As the days go down in the West, behind the hills and into shadow, I’m going to be reflecting (i.e. catching up) on some of Ariel and mine favorite travel memories from our adventures. I figured I’d start with what is probably our favorite hike together of all time, finding the filming location for Edoras from the Two Towers.
Right off the bat, know that you do NOT need to be a Lord of the Rings nerd to appreciate this incredible place. At just about two and half hours from Christchurch by car, this is not the most remote location I’ve ever visited. But it sure felt like it was…
While planning our trip to New Zealand, Ariel and I had a list of places we really wanted to see, either because we really thought they were beautiful or because we wanted to re-create a scene from one of the films. Edoras fulfilled both of those items, but it was a bit out-of-the-way based on our planned travel route. Plus, the directions called for about an hour-long drive on a dirt road. Ugh. Ariel was a little skeptical, but I had come across an excellent article at the Dangerous Business blog that had me convinced it would be worth it.
First of all let’s talk location. “Edoras” is actually Mount Sunday, in the Ashburton Lakes region of New Zealand. Getting used to be something of a challenge due to poor signage, but if you just put the coordinates into Google Maps, you can follow turn-by-turn directions.
Our journey actually started for us, as most of our travel days do, about a five and a half hour car ride from our destination. We started our day at Lake Wanaka, which is surrounded the Southern Alps, AKA the Misty Mountains.
After stops at the Mount Cook overlook and Twizel we continued on. Eventually we came to the turn off the highway that led to the dreaded gravel road. It was only about 20 kilometers or so, but the slow going was a great example of why you should always do a reality check before trusting time estimates on your GPS when going to remote places.
The unexpectedly-longer-than-expected drive meant that we arrived as the sun was beginning to come down out of the sky. This was a benefit and a detriment as it meant we had to be a little rushed, but also that we got some amazing lighting and atmosphere. We were also nearly completely alone, only occasionally running into a few hikers on their way out.
After parking at the parking lot (believe me you really can’t miss it), we set off on a hike. This was a little tricky because the trail itself is not so clearly marked and you have to cross a few shallow streams without the benefit of bridges. I’m not sure if we veered off-course or not, but there were definitely some wet feet – so wear some waterproof hiking shoes if you have them.
Eventually we did find our way back to the trail (assuming we were ever off it) and had the benefit of bridges for the last two, much larger streams.
About 20 minutes from the parking lot, we stood at the bottom of the hill.
While this was no Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we were still nursing our wounds (and bruised egos) from that fiasco, so it took a little bit of resolve to push up the last 10 minutes of the hike. And really it was no big deal. Just a little huffing and puffing, one little stop and we were there.
And wow… Immediately, this became one of my favorite places on the planet. Maybe it was the incredible 360 degree, uninterrupted majestic views. Maybe it was the fact that we were there completely alone. Maybe it was just relief that we didn’t chicken out at the last second. I can’t say for sure what it was, but I was overcome with a euphoric feeling, that I have only experienced in a few places in the world.
No pictures, no video, nothing could truly capture the feelings we experienced in this moment.
More than anywhere else we visited on this trip, this was the most fantastical experience we had. Even our amazing sidequest to Poolburn could not compare – mostly because of how isolated and unspoiled all the views were here. Everywhere else we went, from the Hobbiton on the North Island, to Milford Sound on the South Island, but either had distractions from other people or buildings that occasionally took you out of the moment. Not here. Even if you have never seen any of the films, read the books or have ever heard of Rohan, I assure you that you will have a spiritual moment here. Seriously, go here. Now.
Of course, we had to (poorly) re-create our favorite Edoras scene while we were up there.
Look we weren’t going for realism here. But like, you travel 10,000 miles or so to get somewhere you might as well take advantage.
Anyway, we only got to stay at the top for about 30 minutes because we still had another 2 hours in the car (including the aforementioned accursed gravel road). I could have stayed there for a year.
After a quick descent and hike back, we were on our way to our final stop of the day at Lake Tekapo, where we got to see the Milky Way.
To sum it up, the movie set may not still be there anymore, but this is without a doubt one of the most “real” film locations out there. While the castle is gone, the surrounding landscape is identical to what you see in the movie.
And I tell you this, as someone who has been all over the world, there are few places as magical.
So go. Find Edoras. And share your experiences.
For more on our incredible trip to New Zealand check out our other posts!
They took the hobbits to Isengard. The question was, would we find WHERE they took the hobbits to Isengard from?
Anytime I’m going off on the road, I like to take on some side quests.
This comes from years of playing games like Fallout and Zelda and can range from simple things like finding the world’s biggest ball of twine (that’s in Cawker City Kansas, also near the geographical “center” of the lower 48 states) to more off-the-beaten path stuff like the original Joshua Tree from the U2 album cover (hint: it’s NOT in Joshua Tree National Park).
It’s usually not about the actual items – I’m not much of a U2 fan and I really don’t care about twine – it’s about the challenge of finding odd things that are outside my usual comfort zone. And anyway, if your only goal is to simply get from point A to point B, that’s a really poor use of the time you are given, isn’t it?
For our New Zealand trip, Ariel and I wanted to re-create the most famous of all Lord of the Rings memes. You know of what I speak…
THEY’RE TAKING THE HOBBITS TO ISENGARD
The trouble is, finding the precise film location(s) proved highly elusive and it appeared, shockingly, that no one had successfully recreated even a portion of the scene anywhere on the internet. After sifting through endless home recreations in random locations, as well as images from people’s trips on organized tours, it became clear that no one had managed to find the place.
This only hardened my resolved more. Now I turned to my old friends at theonering.net which I had last been to about 20 years ago. They recommended I purchase the Lord of the Rings location guidebook from Amazon. This was a great move because it gave us all kinds of other cool locations – and allowed us to at least pinpoint the general area we needed to head to. This book is a must for any fan of the movies going to New Zealand.
This is really a must-have for anyone on a Lord of the Rings adventure in New Zealand.
But it still didn’t give us the specific location of that scene.
So I took the next logical step and reached out to some really awesome bloggers who had been in the area. One of which, Amanda from dangerous-business.com (which is where I learned about how awesome the Edoras location was) recommended I reach out to a tour operator. The other one, Rikka from Deviating the Norm actually tried to reach out to people she knew from the area.
No luck either way.
At last, I just started reaching out to local hotel/motel owners. They too were unsure, but finally someone pointed me in the direction of the actual landowners where the shots were filmed. I reached out to them and…paydirt! Sharon Falconer, one of the landowners, not only knew the area but offered to take us there for a relatively small fee.
But still, my semi-OCD about the whole thing (this had now become a huge challenge that I was determined to overcome) was gnawing at me during the whole lead up to the trip so I tried reaching out to others in order to get some kind of secondary confirmation.
No one was able to guarantee anything and I’m sure everyone I asked thought I was completely nuts. Even on our tour of the Wellington film locations our guide (who himself was obsessed with showing us exact spots used in exact screen caps) didn’t seem too confident about anything. Worse, he painstakingly showed the tour how often multiple locations were used in creating certain shots, sometimes from locations hundreds of miles apart.
The morning of our tour arrived and Sharon picked us up from where we were staying. Her confidence and encyclopedic knowledge about the movies and region in general was very encouraging right from the start. Still… this was literally our only chance at this and at this point it had nothing to do even with the movies… I just wanted to WIN.
As we crossed over onto her property though, that feeling quickly faded. The whole Ida Valley and specifically the Poolburn Reservoir/Bonspiel Station area is simply magic. More than anywhere else we went, the landscape is utterly fantastical. Nothing was changed for the movies, aside for a few road improvements and the removal of some fences. This was really Rohan, home of the horse lords, with the unique rocks sticking out of the ground in all kinds of crazy formations.
Like hundreds of other places in New Zealand, you don’t need to be a Lord of the Rings geek to appreciate the amazing landscape. Who cares about some stupid video clip when you’re surrounded by views like this? I mean, really.
And Sharon proved to be an excellent guide. She took us to specific locations used in the filming and shared with us all kinds of interesting stories, not just about the movies, but about life in the Ida Valley in general. It was really cool.
It also didn’t take long for her to deliver on her confidence. One of our first stops was one of the exact spots where Legolas uses his “elf eyes” to see.
There was no doubt about it – we were there. This is where they freakin’ took the hobbits to Isengard.
The other locations in the clip were really just random rocks on the property, so we just picked a few that looked like them and did the rest there. Here’s the finished product:
Note: we weren’t exactly going for an exact representation (we didn’t use props or try to stay in character or anything). This was just for laughs. The point of the exercise was finding an elusive place. We’ll leave it to the true fans to go back there and do a proper recreation.
Sharon also took us into a few other shooting locations, which were maybe even cooler. We went to the canyon where Pippin drops his leaf pin and Aragorn does his whole “listening to the rock” routine. We did some more videos there, with Sharon’s help.
NOT IDLY DO THE LEAVES OF LORIEN FALL YOU GUYS
Finally we went out to the Poolburn reservoir itself for another cool movie location. This was also precisely as it looked in the movies and a beautiful place in and of itself. Of course by this point it was starting to rain so it was time to pack it in for the day and move on.
In the end, I was really happy with the day and the tour itself. We ended up being with Sharon for over two hours and she was really cool, taking pictures and video of us even without us needing to ask. She also knows EVERYTHING about the region. She also apparently got questions from every tour guide and hotel/motel operator in the neighborhood about the location… since everyone I asked had to ask her… since it’s her property…
Well whatever, at least I can save you the trouble if you’re going to the neighborhood without a tour and want to find this most elusive of meme locations.
Side quest: COMPLETED.
And while it didn’t help us find the place they took the hobbits to Isengard…the Lord of the Rings location guidebook did help us find tons of other really awesome places. Must-buy for anyone going to New Zealand who has ever seen the movies.
One does NOT simply walk into Mordor… Or traverse the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
On Wednesday, Ariel and I traversed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Or in other words, we attempted to simply walk into Mordor.
We had known this day was coming for months and even made some half-hearted attempts to “train” for it by doing a few hour-long hikes around New Jersey.
We were unprepared.
Our bus picked us up from the Park Hotel where we were staying at 7:30 am and dropped us off at the start of the trail around 8 am. We began our trek surrounded by hundreds of people of varying ages, from children all the way to their literal grandparents. Most of the people were in their 20’s. Disappointed to be surrounded by so many people but excited to get going, we embarked on our journey into Mordor.
We were told the bus would meet us on the other side at 3 pm and that if we were running late, we could catch a later bus at 4:30. If we needed more time than that, we could make arrangements for a private pickup for $150. No thanks. Generally it takes people about 7-8 hours so we had nothing to worry about.
The first kilometer was really easy. We were both thinking that the whole thing would be no sweat and that we’d easily make the 3 pm bus.
Somewhere between the first and second kilometer the trail began to turn uphill. It was still pretty easy, but there was a definite change. Ariel and I both have some respiratory issues, with her having full blown asthma and me having…something like asthma that I’ve never really gotten properly diagnosed.
We began falling behind people at this point. But still, no big deal. Nothing we hadn’t already seen on short stints on the Appalachian Trail or other hikes back home.
Then we came to this sign…
…which we had precisely zero respect for as you can see from Ariel’s expression.
Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t lying because this is where the real ordeal began. For the next two hours it was a nearly 45 degree climb of stairs. With our aforementioned breathing issues, that meant stopping every 20 steps or so to catch our breath. Now anyone who has ever gone uphill will tell you that is an absolutely disastrous approach to climbing. We knew this. It didn’t matter though. We had to keep stopping as our hearts were pounding in our ears.
To be sure, we weren’t the ONLY people suffering, but we were definitely among the worst. People were hopping and skipping along past us as we sat, panting. Some people even jogged and RAN past us. Lord how I hated those people.
The views though…
Absolutely spectacular. And truly otherworldly. This WAS Middle Earth.
At times the trail actually leveled off and we had bursts of energy and excitement. Highs and lows (literally) is the name of the game. We even got to take some fun pictures along the way when we weren’t feeling crushed by the experience.
The trouble was that after two hours, when we were in the midst of what I was calling the “plains of Gorgoroth” there was still one more major ascent. This time with no steps. We literally needed to pull ourselves up by chains.
Absolutely brutal. More than once we both thought about turning back. I was trying to keep it together and push us both across what I thought was the finish line. We took our last break, had our lunch in a rocky outcropping that was our only shelter from 30+ MPH sustained winds and pushed forward.
By this point it was clear that the 3 pm bus was never happening and that even the 4:30 bus would be a long shot.
Then, after one last push, finally, we were at the summit. From here we had an incredible view of the blue lakes, emerald lakes, red crater and of course Mount Doom or Mount Ngauruhoe for people who prefer real world names for their deadly volcanoes.
Unfortunately for us, what goes up, must come down. And unlike Frodo and Sam, there were no giant eagles to come and fly us back to Rivendell. Or in this case, the car park.
From the top it was a steep (around 30-40 degree) descent, on thick brown sand. Poor Ariel fell a couple of times, but luckily the ground was really soft so it was no big deal. And still people of all ages kept zooming past us, just casually jogging down, looking like they were skiing past us.
At this point I had developed some knee cramps, a heel blister, some pain in my groin muscles and thighs on the ascent, so going downhill was a relief for a while. Eventually though, the “downhill muscles” started acting up too and I started developing a blister on my right pinky toe.
The landscape also changed dramatically from the ascent as well. Whereas on the ascent, we were surrounded by volcanic rocks, on the downhill portion the landscape turned green, with some steam geysers emanating from some places on the mountain. It was very atmospheric and cool looking. At this point we were doing pretty well as the trail eventually leveled off and began lazily winding down the mountain at just a few degrees.
By the time we arrived at the next rest area, we felt great. With just a few kilometers to go – all downhill – seemingly at a leisurely pace, we felt like we might even make the 4:30 bus. Just to be safe, we called to find out if there was a later bus and lo and behold there was actually a 5:30 bus we could take for free.
Feeling great, we continued on down.
After about an hour of easy descent, we entered what I can only describe as Mirkwood. No this was not the film location. And no, Mirkwood is not a real place. But man, did it feel like we were trapped in an endless, enchanted rain forest with no way out. The air was utterly still and stifling.
And the stairs. My God, the stairs. Hundreds, thousands of stairs going down into the green gloom. Visibility varied from 50-100 feet at most as the trail made sharp 90 degree turns every few dozen steps. And all stairs all the time.
After about an hour of this, Ariel’s knees began locking up. I was barely in better shape. Our water was mostly gone. Feet were rebelling with every step. With no markers along this stretch we had no idea if we were even making any progress at all. Our pace slowed to a crawl, as Ariel was nearly unable to put any weight on her left knee and I tried to support her weight by having her lean on me as we trudged down, one step at a time.
By now it was becoming clear that we were among the last people left on the trail as we were all alone for 5-10 minutes at a time. At last we came to (what was unbeknownst to us) the last round of stairs. Ariel had to stop a few steps from the bottom and for the first time I started ACTUALLY worrying we wouldn’t make it. As people walked by I was asking them for pain medication and basically decided we would just hitchhike back to the hotel whenever we got to end. Instead of catching the bus, my only goal now was to beat the darkness.
But in the end, Ariel rallied and we got down the last few steps. From this point on the trail leveled off a lot and the last 20 minutes could even be described as pleasant if we weren’t both limping across the finish line. One of the couples that passed us (and graciously offered to drive us to our hotel) reached the end a few minutes before us and called out to us that it was almost over.
Suddenly the trail turned to the left and DAYLIGHT.
It was 5:40. The bus had waited for us. I had to take a selfie by myself at the end of the trail because Ariel just couldn’t stay on her feet anymore.
And just like that it was over. We won. A few days later and we are mostly healed. Ariel’s knee pains faded with some Ibuprofen and my only continuing injury was an absolutely disgusting pinky toe blister and a sunburned neck and face. Whatever, I’ll live.
So would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It really seemed like we got the worst of it when compared to everyone else. It seemed like if you had ANY climbing experience or were a regular hiker it was no big deal. But for people who are mostly used to hiking/walking on flat ground this was no picnic. You need to be prepared for a tough time. And if you can, spend some time building up your leg muscles in advance of the hike.
But if you’re up for it, the views are really and truly amazing.
In terms of supplies, I felt like we had brought about enough food/water to get through the nine hour journey. We had about five liters of water between the two of us, so we probably should have had another liter or so for the last stretch when we went into overtime. I packed two sandwiches, an apple, a granola bar, some carrots and a cucumber. Ariel did the same, minus a sandwich.
By the end of the journey I started feeling like I do at the end of a day of starving myself on Yom Kippur, but I’m not sure if that was due to lack of food or general over-exertion. Other people we saw definitely packed less than us.
You will definitely want a first aid kit with some band aids, anti-bacterial cream, pain medication. If your lips often get chapped, you’ll definitely want to bring something for that too. Also, don’t be an idiot like me – wear sunscreen on all exposed skin.
We both wore backpacks with water bladders and easy access straws. I really liked mine, an Osprey pack with the optional 3 liter bladder attachment. It was light and I barely even remembered I had it on. With all the pains I experienced, back pain was not one of them despite dragging around at least 20 pounds of gear (including 6.5 pounds of water). Highly recommended.
Most importantly you’re going to want to bring lots of layers. We went from thermal fleeces to t-shirts, back to fleeces and back to t-shirts by the end. The temperature changes were nuts.
Also something to keep in mind is the fact that there are only a few places to stop with toilets on the entire journey. That means unless you can hold it for 3+ hours at a time, you’ll either want to limit your water consumption or get used to doing your business in the field, often with little to no privacy. Although I suppose there is some novelty to being able to tell people you took a leak on Mount Doom.
Finally, don’t worry about making your bus. That’s a great way to panic, rush and get yourself seriously injured. And don’t waste your money on “making special arrangements” – first of all there are constantly buses taking people back so that even if you miss yours you can probably hitch a ride with a different bus. They’re not just going to leave you to die. And people who do these treks tend to be really friendly – I have absolute confidence that we would have gotten a ride back from someone who had a car in the lot.
And on that note, we didn’t come across any park rangers at any of the rest areas or anywhere else on the trail. So if you run into trouble like we did (hopefully not worse), you’ll have to rely on your own wits and/or the kindness of strangers.
I’d suspected, despite continual reassurances from local New Zealanders that we would be “fine” and that it would be no big deal, that we actually would be way in over our heads. It was that nervousness that had me asking everyone we met here what it would be like. The response was always something along the lines of “don’t worry, you can do it.” Well that was technically true, we DID make it and we did live to tell the tale. But if either of us had any kind of chronic knee or other leg/foot issue we would have been doomed.
In retrospect it was absolutely worth it. In the moment, it was a nightmare. Would I do it again? Not really – at least not without building up to it with a year or so of regular uphill hikes. Having said all that, if I could do it you can definitely do it. Just know what you’re getting yourself in to.
Because Boromir was absolutely right, one does NOT simply walk into Mordor.
Well, it certainly has been a pretty nutty first few days for Ariel and I on our trip. Our goal has been to combine the Tolkien stuff with some of the, you know, actual real New Zealand. Renting a car (or taking buses) is a great way to see how the country really works. This is a major reason why we didn’t just book ourselves on a Lord of the Rings type of tour. Also, we want to see what we want to see.
Having said that… NOT being on a tour has its disadvantages as well…
Like hypothetically, if you were a couple of not-quite-in-shape Americans with limited hiking experience, you might want to think twice before doing the Tongariro Crossing… I’m not saying it nearly killed us, but I’m also not saying it didn’t. We’ll have the full story (with some AMAZING pictures) on that later on.
In the end it was worth it both for the incredible views and the sense of accomplishment.
So here’s a quick recap of what we’ve done so far.
On day 1, after stocking up on kosher deli meats at Gray’s Deli in Auckland (where we went straight from the airport), we drove around Auckland and got some pretty scenic views of the city at the Mount Eden overlook. After some pretty awful driving (on the “wrong side” of the road mind you) experiences in the city proper we were off to our first major film location.
This place was pretty awesome and not that hard to get to. We stayed on the road to avoid the ring-wraiths. Actually it was private property. But the wraiths too.
From there we went to Matamata where we stayed for the night after our first decent meal in about 40 hours at the Redoubt Bar.
On day 2, it was time for our tour of Hobbiton.
There’s not much more to say in a quick summary like this other than that it. Was. AWESOME. I’ll do a full post on this later on when we have some more time, but suffice it to say, if you’re in New Zealand, you have to come here. Even if you aren’t so into the Tolkien stuff, what they did with this set is nothing short of incredible.
From there we went to Rotorua where we learned a bit about Maori culture and saw some amazing geological features.
They have a couple of really cool geysers there (not QUITE Ole Faithful, but still…) and the whole area is a smoking, bubbling cauldron of boiling mud pits and steam vents. Really really cool.
We then stopped at Lake Taupo on our way to our destination for the next two days, Tongariro National Park. THE VERY SLOPES OF MOUNT DOOM.
On day 3, we did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
This will be fully detailed in its own blog post. But for now, suffice it to say that one really REALLY REALLY does not “simply walk” into Mordor.