Wellington, Part Two: LOTR Edition

Sunday arrived at last: my long-awaited Lord of the Rings tour!  Wellington and environs are home to many, many filming locations from the trilogy—and Weta Workshop too, of course.  And there are several companies that provide half- and full-day tours for movie buffs and/or Tolkien fans.  After reading reviews of the various options, we decided that some of the imagery might be too unnerving for Penelope, and so I elected to attend the tour solo while Penelope and Jeremy enjoyed a day together in Wellington.  They took in a morning show of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, which has been out here for a few weeks, and off I went to join my mini-bus, along with eighteen other LOTR fans.

Our tour guide/bus driver, Jack, was fantastic.  He actually works at Weta as a 3D modeler, and leads tours once a month or so, just for fun.  He had an impressive store of behind-the-scenes tales about the locations, the crew, and the cast, and the day sped by.

We began by taking in the vista from the top of Mount Victoria, then descended just halfway to see the spot where the very first scene of the trilogy was filmed: where the four hobbits tumbled down the hill after stealing from Farmer Maggot… and a few steps away, where Frodo said “Get off the road!”  Here’s me, ridiculous happy to be standing in pretty much the exact same spot:

and then pretending to hide from a Ringwraith in the very hollow the hobbits hid in (minus the enormous tree added to enhance the proper sense of scale, of course) (and plus extreme drama for reenactment).

After talking a bit more about those scenes in the movie, we boarded the bus and drove to the Miramar neighborhood, where Weta Workshop (and all of its related subdivisions, like Weta Digital and Park Road Post Production).  There I admired a life-sized versions of Gandalf, Azog, and Gollum before we went on our tour. 

Alas, no photos are permitted on tour, as many of the artifacts shown don’t belong to Weta, but to the movie studios that produced the various films.  But seeing weapons, prosthetics, costumes, and animatronics from the LOTR trilogy, the Narnia films, District-9, World of Warcraft… it was all pretty dang cool.  My favorite piece was probably the elf armor—handmade chainmaille with adornments on top.  Just gorgeous in person.  And so fun to hear about the process of design and creation in each of these departments at Weta.  We also had a chance to see a short documentary about Weta’s beginnings and a glimpse at the many projects they’ve been involved with over the last 20+ years.

After the workshop tour, we headed to the River Anduin, also known as the Hutt River, to see the location of some of the water scenes, then to Rivendell for a picnic lunch.  And after lunch, it was time to walk the paths of the elves. 

Rivendell (also known as Kaitoke Regional Park) is unusually well-signed for a filming site—in fact, our guide told us it’s one of just a handful of sites in New Zealand that have any signs at all to mark their location.  But so many fans have made their way to Rivendell that paths and signs were set up in order to better corral them… and to keep wandering feet from damaging tree roots and ferns.  Nothing at all remains of the filming, as that was part of the agreement—that every shrub and stone would be replaced exactly as it had been.  But two years ago, an elven arch was installed, at half the scale of the original from the film.  Just in case you don’t immediately recognize it, it’s the arch behind the Fellowship as they leave Rivendell for Moria, and Frodo says, “Mordor, Gandalf, is it left or right?”

I fully embraced my elfhood under one of the most famous trees—Legolas stood just where I did, though alas I didn’t have a bow and arrow.  But an elf-cloak would do. 

Our last stop of the day was the Gardens of Isengard, where Gandalf the Grey arrives to seek the counsel of Saruman the White.  Harcourt Park is a beautiful location, and you can still see exactly the path the two wizards took on their walk through the gardens.  So obviously we all engaged in a bit of reenactment as well. 

By then the hour was growing late, and so our happy band returned from Middle Earth to Wellington.  What a day!  Such a wonderful experience… and it made me all the more excited for our family visit to Hobbiton in a few days’ time.

Back at home, I joined Jeremy and Penelope for a family dinner and then we spent a lovely hour at the Central Park playground, just up the hill from our apartment.

On Monday we were scheduled to pick up our car, but not until noon.  So we decided to spend the morning hours at Zealandia, an urban eco-sanctuary.  It’s a fully fenced, mammal-free park designed to reintroduce and successfully protect native New Zealand species—and it was just a beautiful place.

We spotted eight different bird species in our short visit: the saddleback, tui, little shag, bellbird, kaka, north island robin, quail, and takahe.  The tui’s song is still my favorite, though the kaka is quite an impressively-sized parrot!  And we also saw some of the giant weta…aka cave crickets…which were also impressively-sized.  I am very glad we didn’t spot those in the *actual* wild. 

After our morning hike through the reserve, we hopped in our new rental car and headed over to Miramar, just in time for Jeremy’s tour of Weta Cave.  While he took the studio tour, Penelope and I inspected the various items in the gift shop and the mini-museum.  Though Penelope never quite warmed up to Lurtz, she did ask to have her photo taken with the Smaug-dragons over the Weta sign.

After Jeremy finished his tour, we all headed over to the Miniatures Tour.  Weta has revived the ’60s series Thunderbirds Are Go, and some of the hundreds of sets are kept in the warehouse where they did the filming.  Though none of us has seen any of the old—or new—series, the sets were well worth the tour.  To see how the model makers used everyday materials to create such amazing sets was incredible—and I so appreciated the tour guide’s constant reminder that anyone can do this work.  He said again and again that the most important ingredients were imagination and a willingness to take things apart and put them back together in different ways—such an awesome message.  Especially for a certain seven year old who was listening wide-eyed.  🙂  And who also enjoyed playing Godzilla at the end of the tour.

After the miniatures tour ended, we bid a fond farewell to the trolls in the Weta garden and headed to the Wellington airport for our last bit of Tolkien magic… at least in Wellington.

And the airport did not disappoint.  An enormous Smaug-head (with an animatronic eye no less!)  greeted us as we entered. 

Only a bit further, around a corner, and we caught our first glimpse of Gandalf flying with the Eagles—at life-size scale.  Truly tremendous!

We ended the day with a drive around the Wellington peninsula—beautiful coastal scenery—before returning to have dinner at home and begin packing. 

Tuesday morning it was time to say farewell to Wellington and begin our long drive north to Rotorua… but I didn’t want to leave without seeing the Katherine Mansfield house.  So after we’d packed our car up and checked out of our wonderful AirBnB, we headed just a few minutes north to the museum.  Jeremy and Penelope, less keen to visit a small museum filled with breakable antiques, read in the car while I toured the house.

It’s a relatively small house, but nevertheless a lovely recreation of the home into which Mansfield was born in 1888.  Many of the artifacts on display belonged to her family, who lived here for the first five years of her life. 

Mansfield recalled this house most clearly in her short story “Prelude.”  When I mentioned to the docent that I frequently teach “The Garden Party,” she told me about the gardens in Hamilton, one of which is devoted specifically to that story.  So we’ve happily added a stop to our itinerary.  Stay tuned for those pics next week!

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