Lord of the Rings, Edoras tour: Lost in Middle Earth
When travelling abroad, tell anyone you live in New Zealand and they are likely to respond with four words: Lord of the Rings.
More than 15 years after the first film in the original trilogy was released, the country is still synonymous with hobbits, orcs and wizards.
In promotional interviews for the first film in 2001, Gandalf actor Sir Ian McKellen helped blur the distinction between a fantasy land and New Zealand's very real and rugged landscapes.
"Middle Earth is a real place and it is New Zealand," he would say.
For many people, the only time they have seen New Zealand is in the Lord of the Rings films. Visiting this country is a chance for tourists to stride into a landscape that feels like a cinematic fantasy. So it is perhaps unsurprising that a Christchurch company offers a way for tourists to easily visit one of the most dramatic South Island locations to appear in the films.
Hassle-free Tours runs a day trip in a six-wheeled Toyota Land Cruiser from Christchurch to Mt Sunday, a rocky outcrop in the centre of a dramatic valley about 70km west of Methven in Mid-Canterbury.
The location, a 2½-half-hour drive from Christchurch, became Edoras for the Sir Peter Jackson trilogy. Production crew members spent eight months constructing grand-looking buildings on the hill to transform it into a city that until then had only existed in the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's novels.
Our journey to this mystical land begins at 9am outside the Canterbury Museum on Rolleston Ave.
Our guide for the day, Jackson Taylor, pulls up in the distinctive six-wheeled vehicle and greets us before we climb aboard. The seats in the vehicle are higher than in the average mini-bus and the windows are large, giving us a great view of the Canterbury Plains as we head south on State Highway 1 to our destination.
Along the way, Jackson provides a running commentary on everything from the history of the earthquakes and rebuild, to the geology and wildlife of the South Island.
It is pitched at tourists, but some of the information is new to me and it is novel to see Canterbury through the fresh eyes of a visitor. I did not know, for example, that each section of those giant wheeled irrigation rigs roaming the Canterbury Plains costs about $30,000.
Jackson also plays short films on two small video screens that hang from the ceiling of the Land Cruiser. Behind-the-scenes featurettes from the Lord of the Rings DVDs and television shows about the making of the films give insight into how Mt Sunday was used in the movies.
After a brief coffee-and-loo stop at the Salmon Tales Cafe and Bar in Rakaia, we head inland towards the Southern Alps.
Soon, the landscape starts to transform around us. The flat plains give way to foothills, while green irrigated pasture slowly mellows to golden tussocks rippling in the wind.
The road snakes into the Ashburton Gorge, which opens out on to the tussock-laden Fagans Down. The road then passes a cluster of remote cribs on the shores of the wind-rippled Lake Clearwater before edging into the Hakatere Valley. This mountain-lined valley is where the Clyde and Havelock rivers combine with the braided Rangitata.
The road climbs slightly to reveal a panoramic view and the first glimpse of our destination. Dappled cloud shadows move across the mountain scree and shafts of sunlight make the river shine like silver. In the centre of this valley lies Edoras.
Mt Sunday, as it is known in real life, is a large stony hill surrounded by braided rivers on the valley floor. It got its name because boundary riders – people employed to maintain fences on the surrounding cattle and sheep stations – would meet on the small hill every Sunday. The landmark was perfectly cast as Edoras.
In the original books, Edoras is the capital city of the Rohan region, an area populated by people known for their horsemanship. Tolkien described Edoras as a walled city on a tall peak "like a sentinel" surrounded by mountains "white-tipped and streaked with black".
"About its feet there flowed, as a thread of silver, the stream," he wrote.
Tolkien could be describing Mt Sunday in the Hakatere Valley. It is uncanny how well New Zealand landscapes fit his lyrical descriptions of fantastical Middle Earth locations.
But it was complete chance that led the film's location scouts to this uncanny valley.
Touring the South Island by helicopter looking for a suitable location, the scouts had to go off course to avoid a storm and discovered Mt Sunday in the process.
We continue our journey, stopping briefly at nearby Mt Potts Lodge for a rest.
Once we are close to Mt Sunday, we pass through a locked gate that marks the start of Department of Conservation land. Hassle-free Tours is the only tourism operator with permission to drive on to the mount itself. The rough stony road beyond the gate is where the six-wheeler really comes into its own, even crossing a couple of crystal-clear streams hidden among the tussock along the way.
The stony track leads us around the back of the hill, where we stop just short of the summit.
We park and walk the final distance to the top, along a gently climbing track.
Jackson heads to the boot of the Land Cruiser and brings out two large replica prop swords from the films and the flag of Rohan – a white horse emblem on a dark green backing.
We reach the top and one of the most stunning views I have ever seen in New Zealand. We are also met full in the face with the howling wind that pretty much constantly funnels through the Hakatere Valley, making the summit almost literally breathtaking. We are blown away figuratively and nearly blown away literally. The gale is so strong, you could almost lean into it without falling.
The strong winds, the stunning 360-degree view and the hill's magical cinematic lineage make reaching the summit a special and exhilarating moment.
Distracted by the daily hustle of commuting, working, eating and sleeping, it is easy to forget that Christchurch is just a few hours' drive from some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
We spend about 10 minutes taking in the views, bracing against the boisterous winds and posing for silly photographs with the swords and flag. For a moment, we are the kings of Rohan. There is certainly no lack of wind to get the flag rippling dramatically.
We are not the first to discover that wind pummels Mt Sunday. Film crews on Lord of the Rings faced gusts up to 180kmh. At one point, the gusts knocked Sir Peter Jackson's glasses from his face, according to our guide.
On the summit, Jackson shows us photographs of how the hill looked during filming, pointing out where the different buildings were constructed and showing which parts were added later with computers rather than built in real life.
The buildings were dismantled and the hill restored to its natural state once filming was complete. Nothing remains on the summit to indicate it was once home to Edoras.
We climb back into the Land Cruiser and nip down to Mt Potts Lodge, where we have sandwiches, a slice and a glass of orange juice or sparkling wine for lunch. The lodge's rustic dining and bar area has wooden sash windows that frame views of the valley to accompany our lunch.
Even the sign for Mt Potts Lodge acknowledges the double life of the local geography.
"Mt Potts Lodge. Caretakers to Mt Sunday – Edoras from Lord of the Rings," it reads.
After lunch, feeling weary and windswept, we start our journey home.
On the way back, the blustery and intense time atop Mt Sunday seems like a strange dream compared with the flat, irrigated Canterbury Plains.
By the time we arrive back in Christchurch, we have spent about three hours on the road for less than an hour on the summit.
Also, thanks to various Lord of the Rings blooper reels and television specials screened on the return journey, I am quite ready to stop thinking about Middle Earth. It is a lot of driving for one day. I end the evening exhausted and with the sensation that, although I am sitting on the sofa at home, I am somehow still moving.
Was it worth the journey there and back?
Mt Sunday is a stunning and special place. And it is always rewarding to get out into the South Island back country, even if it is just to act out a geeky fantasy on a blustery hilltop, drink in the views and blow away those city cobwebs.
More information Lord of the Rings: Edoras tour. From Christchurch, adults $259 and children $179. From Methven, adults $239 and children $167.
The tour departs Christchurch at 9am and Methven at 10.45am. From Christchurch, the round trip is 8½-half hours and from Methven, 5½-half hours. The tour price includes pick-up from and return to central Christchurch accommodation and a picnic lunch.
Which of these mountainbike tracks is your favourite?Related story: Five easy mountainbike tracks in Christchurch