Queenstown tops the list for adventure travel in New Zealand, without question. What I didn’t know before I pencilled three days in Queenstown into my South Island self-drive tour is just how amazing the area is for visiting Lord of the Rings filming locations.
Day 1 of my Lord of the Rings tour around Queenstown
I arrived in Queenstown after a long but lazy day driving from Christchurch. After hours drifting through golden amber grasslands and unpopulated alpine peaks, driving into Queenstown was like hitting the Strip in Las Vegas. However, I was not to be tempted by Queenstown’s nightlife. I had an early start.
I reported to Extreme Green Rafting the next morning at 7:45 am, ready for a half-day white-water rafting tour on the Kawarau river. The Kawarau River cuts through a sheer gorge with incredible rocky scenery stretching up on either side of it. It has a mixture of grade 2 and 3 rapids – including the longest rapid you can raft in New Zealand – and I didn’t get much chance to take in the filming location of the imposing Pillars of the Kings in The Lord of the Rings as we drifted past.
After returning to Queenstown and reuniting with my car, I again headed out in the same direction as we’d driven earlier, around Frankton Arm at the eastern bump of Lake Wakatipu towards what would be my next stop for the night: Deer Park Heights. Overlooking the Queenstown Golf Course at Kelvin Heights just a 20-minute drive from town, Deer Park Heights is a working deer station that surely has the most picturesque setting of any farm in the world. Unspoilt panoramic views show the Remarkables ski area (the slopes of Dimrill Dale in The Fellowship of the Ring) in one direction, Lake Wakatipu in another, and the flat green patches of the Kawarau River basin in another, all fringed by dramatic snow-capped peaks.
Peter Jackson wasn’t going to miss taking advantage of this incredible natural setting, and there were many Lord of the Rings scenes filmed here. The most famous is the warg attack and the cliff Aragorn gets dragged off in The Two Towers, though this is also the film location for part of Gandalf’s ride to Minas Tirith. Unfortunately for day-touring Lord of the Rings fans to Queenstown, Deer Park Heights has been closed to public visitors for almost a decade now.
However, one way you can enjoy this amazing part of the world is their new ‘glam camping’ site. Glamping is becoming more and more popular throughout New Zealand, as people are rightfully enchanted by the chance to have the rugged beauty of untouched natural surroundings, away from city lights and the sounds of civilisation, combined with all the modern comforts you’re used to (plus some extra luxury you may not be so used to).
Having read online reviews about the sunsets from Deer Park Heights, I had been sure to arrive in plenty of time. Once I had settled into my spacious canvas tent (and grilled up the lamb and mint sausages I bought earlier) I took a short walk to the western summit of Deer Park for one of the best sunsets I’ve ever encountered. After that, I sat outside my tent under the vast, unspoilt sky for a long time, before I managed to pull myself away from gazing at the stars and into my big, welcoming bed. I needed a good sleep for another early start and packed day of LOTR sites and activities.
Day 2 of my Lord of the Rings tour around Queenstown
After an amazing sunrise it was even harder leave Deer Park Heights. However, I had plenty to look forward to for the day ahead with a visit to Arrowtown.
Arrowtown is a sleepy, leafy village that is one of the best places to get a feel for what small-town New Zealand was like in the 19th century. The busy little main street feels like they still have places where you could tie up your horse. They don’t. Though they do have a cute cinema, a French restaurant, and a bakery on the corner whose pies (I’m told) are legendary. Unfortunately, it was a bit early to justify eating a pie as I arrived in Arrowtown just before 9am, giving myself plenty of time to tackle the 6-hour return hike to Macetown.
The Arrow River, from which Arrowtown takes its name, featured prominently in one of the most memorable scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring. Walk just a few minutes from the main street and you’ll find the filming location (with a small visitor centre) for the Ford of Bruinen, across which Arwen carries a poisoned Frodo before challenging the Nazgul to “come and claim him”. They do. Well, at least they try. But Arwen mutters something in Elvish and the river cascades in rapids led by galloping horses, washing the Ring-wraiths away.
The dramatic rocky gorge through which the river smashes was not shot at the same location as the ford on the Arrow River where Arwen and Frodo cross. It’s not far away though, on the Shotover River up Skippers Canyon, which is accessible by a treacherous, often closed 4WD track from Arrowtown. Where I was headed – Macetown – was straight in the middle of these two rivers, at least on the map. There was not much straight about the walk there though, following a winding shingle trail through some stunning landscapes and across several rivers (I lost track of which direction I was facing after the second). It’s a well marked, well used trail, however, and I made it to the historic gold mining settlement at Macetown (replete with some interesting 19th-century relics like the still in-tact, stone-built ‘Bakehouse’ and ‘Schoolmaster’s House’, as well as the remnants of vegetable gardens created by Macetown’s early Chinese settlers) in a time not too far off the allotted 6 hours.
Back to civilisation around 4pm and (for some crazy reason) still feeling in the mood for walking, I decided to take a little stroll from my cosy AirBnB Arrowtown accommodation to see more of the town. Beyond the main drag, there’s not a lot in terms of activity, but there’s certainly no shortage of photo ops. I was told that the park across the road from where I was staying (Wilcox Green) was the filming location where Isildur, wearing around his neck the ring he had just recently pulled from Sauron’s severed finger, tumbled down a hill into the river, where he lost the ring (and his life, to several orc arrows in the back). I couldn’t find the exact spot where this seemed to take place, though several parts of the wooded area I explored between the park and the river could easily pass for it, so I’ll take their word. I had planned to try the French restaurant and catch a movie at the cinema, but my arrogance at taking a walk straight after taking a long walk caught up with me and I collapsed into bed early. I never made it to the bakery either. Plenty to come back to Arrowtown for, then.
Day 3 of my Lord of the Rings tour around Queenstown
Good thing I had a good sleep, because my biggest driving day of the whole trip was ahead of me – a whole one hour, back through Queenstown to the northern edge of Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, where I would be glamping that night. Here, where the lake splinters into sandy fingers creeping up into the Southern Alps, is where Peter Jackson chose to be Isengard and the realm of Saruman. I found it surprisingly hard to find a location tour that didn’t leave from Queenstown. Since I had already booked my glamping accommodation (after hearing rave reviews about it) in Glenorchy well in advance, I decided to do it on my own.
To help with my self-drive Glenorchy Lord of the Rings tour, I made a point of stopping into a bookshop on my way through Queenstown to pick up a copy of Iad Brodie’s Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook. Released around the same time as The Fellowship of the Ring, this pocket-sized publication is an oldie (and obviously pre-dates any The Hobbit film sites) but still seems to be one of the most trusted for anybody planning their own self-drive LOTR tour in New Zealand. Having thumbed through the Glenorchy-relevant parts of this guidebook over coffee at a Queenstown lakefront cafe, I made a stop earlier than planned on the road to Glenorchy.
Just 10 minutes beyond the edge of Queenstown’s sprawling building construction is a tiny spot on the map known as Closeburn. It was here, with the peak of Mount Crichton lurking just around the corner, that became Amon Hen on the big screen, and so it was here that Merry and Pippin were captured by orcs following the death of Boromir.
I got back in the car and continued following the thick dark blue of Lake Wakatipu around to Glenorchy, making myself known to Mrs. Woolly’s Campground, an impressive glamping location at what used to be the Glenorchy general store where I would be resting my head later. The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook then directed me further on past the head of the lake towards the aptly named Paradise – unsurprisingly, the sign telling you you’ve arrived in Paradise seems to be a very popular place to take a profile photo. Before being the setting for Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed TV drama Top of the Lake, Paradise was also a favourite filming location for Peter Jackson: among other things, the beech forests on the road leading towards Paradise are the Elvish realm and woods of Lothlorien, which Legolas claimed to be “the fairest of all the dwellings of my people” – pretty big words for an immortal being.
A short drive further on I reached the main event: the Isengard Lookout. Here, far more so than at the site of the Pillars of the Kings on the Kawarau river, you didn’t need to imagine computer-generated graphics. Seeping out in front of me was the flat, grey, marshy land edged by jagged mountains that even I (a mild Lord of the Rings fan throwing my memory back a decade or so) could instantly recognise as the desolate, treeless circle emanating from Saruman’s Tower of Isengard, surrounded by fiery holes gauged into the ground where Uruk-hai slap white hand prints on each other in that scary scene etched into my memory from the first time I saw it nearly 20 years ago.
I have a feeling that the images I’ve taken in over these few days visiting Lord of the Rings sites outside Queenstown could stick around in my mind for just as long, at least.