In New Zealand, even a nondescript cutting in the woods can lead somewhere extraordinary. That magnetic pull to see what’s around the next bend, whether sparkling glacier or primeval forest, is my favorite thing about the country—its “round-the-corner-ness,” as I call it.
Here on a sheep farm on the North Island, in the valley of the rugged Kaimai Ranges, I feel the buzz. A clearing opens, and I step into a story. The vista in front of me also struck native filmmaker Peter Jackson. Recognizing the spot instantly as Hobbiton, the hobbit community written into legend by J. R. R. Tolkien in The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954), Jackson immortalized it on screen in six movies, the last of which came out in 2014.
As I survey the scene, I can see Gandalf, the stories’ sage wizard, driving his pony cart through the banked hills of the cutting. I imagine Bilbo Baggins racing out of the gate without his pocket handkerchief. In front of me are 44 hobbit holes nestled into rolling green hillsides. Paths lead up, down, and over the hills. Laundry dries on the line. Apple and pear trees hang low with the last of the summer fruit.
I feel a catch in my throat. Though I had steeled myself for an onslaught of souvenir kiosks, Hobbiton feels like more than a movie set for tourists: It’s my imagination brought to life.
As a 14-year-old in Minnesota, reading Tolkien under the covers by flashlight, I longed for the adventure and friendship found in the pages. Ten years ago, I followed my own quest to Wellington, the beating heart of New Zealand’s film industry.
In that time, as Lord of the Rings tourists flocked here by the thousands—quickly joined by Hobbitfans—filmmakers translated the remote country’s surreal landscape as the backdrop for movies ranging from King Kong to River Queen, The Chronicles of Narnia to The Last Samurai.
Even Hollywood tour de force James Cameron enlisted the technical prowess of Wellington’s Weta Digital visual-effects company to create the dystopian dreamscape of Pandora for his blockbuster Avatar. The North Island so enthralled Cameron that he purchased land in Wairarapa, east of Wellington, where he is working on a trio of sequels to Avatar.
In spite of all of that—or maybe because of it—I’ve never wanted to see New Zealand as a film set. I’ve always preferred to separate my love for Tolkien and the rumpled landscape that’s become my home.
But when my friend Lance Lones, a transplanted Californian who has worked in the film industry for 17 years, suggested we use film locations as markers on a road trip, he convinced me that the power of stories could help deepen my bond to both. “We have a real emotional connection to film. Don’t underestimate it,” he said. “Come with me to Hobbiton, and you’ll see.”
Each detail at Hobbiton is a labor of love of Jackson and his team of wizards—right down to the moss on the fences, explains our affable tour guide, Aidan O’Malley, on one of 17 daily tours. “Jackson decided to reverse the natural sunrise and sunset here, so he also changed the moss on the fences to reflect that,” O’Malley says, grinning. “Hobbiton only appears in The Hobbit for seven minutes, and in The Lord of the Rings for 35 minutes—that’s a lot of perfection for 42 minutes.”
After touring the grounds, Lones and I wind down the day at the Green Dragon, Hobbiton’s working pub that appeared in the films. A fire roars in front of us, the sunset glowing through the round windows at our sides. Massive macrocarpa beams cross the ceiling, carved with grapes, barley, and a serpentine dragon in faded green. Herbs hang in the kitchen. Celtic music pipes gently overhead. I settle deeper into my leather armchair, and take another sip from my clay mug of beer.
I strike up a conversation with Gemma Youlten and Tom Boreham, a British couple who are halfway through a round-the-world trip. I mention that the Green Dragon just might be the pub I’ve been looking for all my life. “This is the highlight, I have to say,” says Gemma in agreement. She lowers her voice as if confiding a secret: “And I’m not even a Lord of the Rings fan.”
Tom is. “I first read the book when I was 10—25 years ago—and it’s my favorite,” he says. “I was concerned, to be honest, that they would Disney-fy my beloved Hobbiton. But I recognized this pub straight away. It’s gobsmacking the way the idyll of the Shire is epitomized here. Only New Zealand could take a major movie attraction and make it feel like a place you’re familiar with.”
The next morning, I drive us south on state highways that wind through the Piopio and Te Kuitiarea, which stood in for the thick upland woods called Trollshaw Forest in The Hobbit—the lair of trolls, as its name suggests, and the site of several pivotal movie scenes.
The scenery melts effortlessly from jagged rocks to gentle undulations, wire fences, and weathered limestone formations—that constant change to the geography that I love. The famed greenness of the North Island fills the car windows.
I think of my friend Grant Roa. He’s a writer, producer, and actor who has been involved with most New Zealand-based films in one capacity or another, and he has a soft spot for this part of the country. “The South Island has that epic scenery, but I like the contrasts of things on the North Island,” he had told me as I planned my trip. “I like it when you see green rolling hills and turn around and there’s a snow-capped mountain behind you. Or you’re on the beach and behind you is all this native bush.”
About 140 miles south of the hills of Hobbiton, Tongariro National Park embodies those extremes. Home of three active volcanoes—Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe—as well as the Whakapapa ski field, the park was used to represent Mordor, the Land of Shadow, a blasted and desolate stronghold of evil in Middle-earth.
Tongariro is also a World Heritage area, and one of my favorite places in New Zealand. After half a dozen visits, I’ve hiked the Tongariro Crossing, skied down Whakapapa’s slopes, and reveled in white-capped views in crackling-crisp air from what feels like the rooftop of the world.
Today, though, Lones and I are alone in Iwikau Village at the top of the ski field and closed in by mist. The temperature has dropped 26 degrees since Matamata and hovers around freezing, with a swirling wind that whips at us from every direction. Lones finds it strange: “Mordor should be hot and dry,” he says.
My interpretation of Mordor is simply a thoroughly unpleasant place—and deceptive, which Tongariro is being. Every other time I’ve been up here the sky has been clear as glass. I know its weather can change quickly—and violently— but this is the first time Tongariro has shown me its wild side.
Now I see more sharply the landscape’s tangled heap of black and red lava rubble, where small, almost iridescent white-green vegetation struggles to grow. Rocks claw at the sky. I can imagine being utterly lost here. In reality, though, we’re only a ten-minute drive from the Chateau Tongariro, the granddaddy of New Zealand hotels in the historic Whakapapa Village.
Built in the 1920s, the elegant neo-Georgian structure emanates opulent, old-world ambience, a time of dinner jackets and crystal glasses, right on the flank of an active volcano. While sipping a glass of red wine from Gisborne, a vineyard region 260 miles away on the east coast, I reflect on the fact that I’m spending time with two good friends—not only Lones but a place that seized my heart the first time I saw it.
“That’s the good thing about film locations,” Lones says. “When you’re missing places you love, you can always revisit them in the movies.” That, and visiting Tongariro with Rings in mind allowed me to see it with different eyes: Tongariro has an unpredictability that’s grand and profound.
The beech trees jostle for position, crowding over the road that leads into the southern end of Tongariro from the alpine village of Ohakune. It’s hard to believe that this sleepy, winterwaiting ski hub sits just 45 minutes east of Pipiriki. There, at the edge of Whanganui National Park, lush forests set a moody scene for 2005’s River Queen about the battle between the native Maori population and European settlers in the 1860s.
A few minutes past Ohakune, most traces of the outside world recede in our rearview mirror. We’re headed toward the Turoa ski field, at the foot of Mount Ruapehu, 30 minutes south of the hotel, in search of Mangawhero Falls. I’ve skied Turoa several times, but I’ve never paid attention to either side of the road—I’m always focused on the slopes. Two miles before the ski field, on the right side, we spot the sign for the falls. Under a canopy of dripping beech trees, a peat-brown track, brightened with red mushrooms and bursts of white lichen, suddenly leads to a familiar scene.
Watching the little river navigate the rust-colored rocks in its path before plunging over the falls hits me the same way as hearing a favorite song. Here the duplicitous Gollum chased a fish in The Two Towers, the second film in The Lord of the Rings series. Stronger than déjà vu, my memory of this place is as clear as the water, although I’m seeing it for the first time. I wade into the stream, the water bitingly cold, making my feet ache.
I’ve driven this road a handful of times and never knew this was here. “And we would have missed it, except that it appeared in a movie,” Lones says. “Location scouts have already done all the work, hand-picking these stunning locations. It’s like a treasure map: All you have to do is follow it.”
We return to Wellington, the southernmost city of New Zealand’s North Island. This is where I first lived in New Zealand—home base for my early explorations—and it’s also the home of the cinematic geniuses who translated Tolkien onto the big screen. But I have one more stop to make.
I choose a path I haven’t taken before and find myself walking the eerie, pine-needle-carpeted trails of Wellington’s Mount Victoria. Climbing the slope, I’m suddenly pulled up short with a jolt of recognition. In front of me are the twisted tree roots where four small hobbits once hid from evil, cloaked Nazgul wraiths, after finding a shortcut to mushrooms in The Fellowship of the Ring.
I know this feeling now, like seeing a familiar face in a crowd, the thrill of spotting a long-lost friend.
This article first appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.