Finding the real Middle-earth
Tolkien fans fascinated by the world Peter Jackson captured on film during his Lord of the Rings trilogy continue to travel New Zealand searching for the real Middle-earth.
For many so-called ‘Ringers’, the journey fulfils a life long dream as they re-live favourite scenes, walk in the actors' footsteps, and explore the intricacies of movie production.
For others, visiting New Zealand reveals that the mythical Middle-earth really does exist in the dramatic scenery, wide open spaces, rare flora and fauna of Aotearoa - 'the youngest country on earth'.
Jackson’s multi-award winning trilogy had a major impact on tourism in New Zealand, and several companies now specialise in Lord of the Rings tours.
These companies are now gearing up for another wave of ‘Ring’ fever with preliminary work underway on the two movies that will make up Jackson and Guillermo del Toro’s much anticipated prequel, The Hobbit.
While the Hobbit movies are not due for completion until December 2011 and 2012, interest is building and the world’s best known Tolkien fan website theonering.net (aka TORN), is experiencing brisk traffic.
This wealth of fan enthusiasm is no surprise to New Zealander Erica Challis - long time Tolkien scholar and enthusiast - who helped found theonering.net website in 1999.
Realising the internet was the perfect forum for spreading information and discussion about production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand, Challis set to chasing leads all over the country, following rumours and scouting possible filming locations.
The musician and freelance writer posted her findings on theonering.net and the non-profit, volunteer-run website is now the world’s most popular site for Tolkien followers, attracting two million-plus hits per month.
Red Carpet Tours
Around the same time, Challis also became involved in a New Zealand tour company - another success story based on the Lord of the Rings, and perfect timing.
Red Carpet Tours came about when boutique holiday specialist Vic James realised the impact LOTR was having on New Zealand and tourism.
Although he had heard nothing more than whispers and rumours, James could see the way the wind was trending. New Zealand was buzzing with local ‘Ring’ fever, and the world was pricking up its ears to what New Zealand had to offer.
Having never read the trilogy, James realised he needed someone who not only knew it by heart but who also knew New Zealand. His search took him to the press where one name kept coming up.
Erica Challis, an avid fan who was leading a quest to find out what was going on with LOTR filming, had been served a trespass notice for trying to access movie sets, including Hobbiton - the original Hobbit village set, near Matamata, in the Waikato.
Hunting for Challis
With nothing but a name to go on, James checked Challis in the Auckland phone book and hit the jackpot, first time.
Over coffee, Erica Challis admitted the Red Carpet Tours idea was the answer to her prayers. She had scores of fans writing to her wanting to come to New Zealand "to find Middle-earth".
Armed with the confidence that he was on to something, James took on the challenge of putting together itineraries that didn’t breach film industry protocols or overstep boundaries, yet still gave fans a sense of Middle-earth magic and the true stories behind the box office hits.
For six months James, and wife Raewyn, toured New Zealand selecting LOTR filming sites, and gaining approval from private landowners for access.
When James talked to the Matamata farm owner where the Hobbit village had been built for LOTR, he was alarmed to hear that the bulldozers were due the next day to fill in the famous Hobbit holes.
In the nick of time, thanks to unsavoury weather conditions and some strong persuasion from James, the unthinkable didn’t happen and Hobbiton is now the highlight of Lord of the Rings tours.
LOTR fans come to New Zealand to fulfil their dreams, and many do so on a Red Carpet tour.
Red Carpet has fine-tuned a nationwide itinerary that not only brings alive Lord of the Rings movie locations, but reveals secrets and stories behind the scenes, and introduces New Zealand cast and crew who were involved in the production.
Staying in the same hotels as the cast and film crews used, the Red Carpet trail moves from Auckland to Queenstown taking committed ‘Ringers’ to Hobbiton and the iconic landscapes of the epic movie tale: Mt Doom, Mordor, the River Anduin, Lothlorien, Rivendell, Isengard, Gladden fields, Edoras, Pelennor fields, the great East Road, Rohan country, Nen Hithoel, Fangorn forest, and many others.
Though, of course, visiting the waterfall where Gollum caught a fish, the ash fields of Mt Ruapehu, the mountains, lakes, rivers and plains throughout the North and South islands that became famous scenes for great battles and moments of quiet reflection isn’t just reserved for fanatical Ringers.
As well as visiting film locations, the tours offer visitors a broad view of New Zealand life with Māori culture, food and wine experiences, scenic highlights and optional adventure activities included in the itinerary.
Vic James says the tours attract all ages and include something for everyone, whether they’re dyed-in-the-wool film fans or visitors who want to tour parts of New Zealand not normally accessible to travellers.
Tours are also filled with meetings, little-known behind-the-scenes stories and encounters with many-faceted actors and film crew - mostly every day, down-to-earth Kiwis but who played major roles in the making of the trilogy, James says.
Daniel Reeve - now a world renowned calligrapher, cartographer and artist - who was responsible for maps and every letter, word and pen mark seen in the trilogy, entertains visitors at his base in Wellington. He shares his behind-the-scenes experience and extensive evidence of his work - the maps, sketches, parts of books, scripts and lettering used in LOTR.
The lead 'Black Rider', who also rode double for the stars and acted as riding instructor and horse trainer, welcomes Red Carpet groups to his property as part of the tour through the lower North Island.
The chance to meet the person who doubled for Gimli is another tour highlight. Brett Beattie, who sports the 'Fellowship tattoo', now runs an organic farm near Christchurch and has fascinating stories about his involvement in the movies. He spent 189 days on set, and worked closely with Peter Jackson, Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom.
A trip to the factory where the Elven cloaks were made is also a major hit with fans. As well as seeing the 19th century looms used to create complex fabrics, they meet the weavers who explain their craft - from the animals they breed themselves to the wool used for the special yarns.
Red Carpet Tours still hosts groups of up to 18 fans a month - from the USA, UK, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia and other parts of the world - to experience the place that millions now recognise as the living reflection of Tolkien's imaginary world.
Vic James says the impact the experience has on avid fans is extraordinary and has moved some to form a lasting bond.
"One group of five young people from various parts of the world formed their own fellowship at the end of the tour, and so that they didn’t ever forget the experience they all had the Elvish symbol for ‘five’ tattooed on their bodies - of course, by the tattooist who did them for the LOTR cast."
"It just shows the depth of fellowship that is created during the tours. Total strangers become friends and we’ve known of groups meeting up for a reunion, years later," he says.
This depth of fan enthusiasm is what Erica Challis believes will make The Hobbit even more of a major happening for New Zealand than the LOTR trilogy. But, she says, this time the country will know what to expect.
"The Hobbit is going to be so different - the groundswell of interest will continue and be even bigger than for LOTR. Before the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ came out, people didn’t take much notice and most New Zealanders didn’t really realise the extent of what was going around the country. This time everyone is going to try to claim some connection," says Challis.
Theonering.net will handle news, rumours and information about The Hobbit as it did for LOTR, though Challis says the relationship with the movie makers is now much stronger and enjoys the benefit of trust.
Film première plans
In anticipation for The Hobbit, Red Carpet Tours has set up a register for pre-bookings for the 2011 première. More than 140 people have already signed up.
They’re confident those who want to visit New Zealand and the fans who’ve already been to "Middle-earth and back again" will be ready for more.
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