The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey is on TV tonight (7.30pm, ITV). It wasn’t Peter Jackson’s finest film about Middle-Earth but that’s no fault of New Zealand, which played a starring role. Or as location manager (and proud Kiwi) Jared Connon put it: “This place is scenery on steroids!”
Back in 2014, Connon and cast members Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Evangeline Lilly revealed to us the real places behind the shoot…
THE TROLLSHAWS FOREST
Piopio, which doubles in The Hobbit as the Trollshaws forest, is a picturesque village in the King Country of North Island, with forests, pretty farmlands, exotic fauna and the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Many scenes from the first film, An Unexpected Journey, were filmed at Piopio, including the Wargs and Orcs’ attack; the Troll Hoard Cave; and Gandalf ’s gift to Bilbo Baggins of a magical weapon. “The King Country was certainly one of my favourite locations from the film,” says Connon. “I loved scouting there as I got to explore the amazing cave systems.” Richard Armitage, who plays Thorin, also made the most of his time there: “I visited the Waitomo Caves and saw the glowworms,” he says. “And I skied down Mount Ruapehu, and the ski locations of Queenstown [on South Island]. I took a helicopter out to the marine volcano of White Island and to the fjord of Milford Sound – this was all in my playtime!”
THE MISTY MOUNTAIN
Paradise, in the Otago region of the South Island, overlooked by looming Mount Earnslaw, was the setting used for filming the journey through the Misty Mountain in the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. Paradise is also where shape-shifter Beorn’s house was captured in the second film, The Desolation of Smaug. And Jane Campion set her harrowing BBC2 drama Top of the Lake here, too. “The name says it all really,” says Connon.
When you’re not transfixed by the view, there’s plenty to do – from lounging in hot pools and trekking on volcanos to visiting geysers and watching wildlife, including whales, dolphins, seals and penguins. Evangeline Lilly, who plays the elf Tauriel, managed to sneak off to explore. “I’d heard it was incredible, and of course it is more incredible than you can describe,” she says. “Truly and utterly breathtaking.”
In The Desolation of Smaug, dwarves go bobbing down the rapids of the Forest River in barrels. The action was actually filmed on the Pelorus River in the Marlborough region of South Island. “I loved spending time on the rocky river edge, staring into the crystal-clear waters, looking for trout and reminiscing about swimming here when I was younger,” says Connon. Visitors, thankfully, can take to the water by kayak, rather than trying the barrel option. River tours go to the exact spots where the young dwarf Kili was filmed and where the dwarves clambered out of their barrels.
Doubling for Hidden Bay and the entrance to the Lonely Mountain in The Desolation of Smaug, staggering Mount Ruapehu in the Tongariro National Park on North Island is an active stratovolcano that last erupted in 2007. “This is probably one of the most surreal and incredible landscapes in New Zealand,” enthuses Connon. “There’s hardly a soul around, and it really offers a great rugged wilderness experience for people who love the outdoors.” It’s possible to hike to the crater or take a scenic chairlift ride into the clouds and have lunch at New Zealand’s highest café.
To re-create Lake-town or Esgaroth for The Desolation of Smaug, the film production team built a giant set of higgledy-piggledy, Tudor- style houses against the turquoise Lake Pukaki. The water here originates in a glacial feed, which is what gives it that otherworldly colour. The area attracts stargazers, cyclists and winter sports fanatics. Martin Freeman says the beauty of the landscape wasn’t lost on him. “It looked like CGI,” he says. “It looked more perfect than nature. We were just looking at mountains thinking, ‘No one is going to believe this is real’.” To see this mesmerising lake in all in its glory from the air, local helicopter companies offer flights over it.
Matamata, in the Hamilton and Waikato region of North Island, is a must on any Hobbit pilgrimage. This once-sleepy, horse-breeding town now houses the Hobbiton film set, with Hobbit-sized doorways cut into the side of the hills, and a Green Dragon Inn where you can stop for a tankard of ale and hearty Hobbit grub, such as homemade stew, beef and ale pie and a ham and cheese mousetrap. Hobbit attire is encouraged.