A Guide to Canterbury's Middle-Earth

A Road Less Travelled


“Wow – David, we’ve never met celebrities before.”


“So. Um. Who do you guys play in the new series?”


As I stood there, atop of Edoras, my feet bare and cold, my regal dress blowing gently in the wind, and my headpiece catching just the right amount of light, ready to deliver a cheeky wee white lie, Frodo, or I guess I should say James; my husband, the other half to my 'fellowship', was already assuring the travelling couple that we were just a Kiwi girl and an Aussie bloke, embarking on their own road-trip journey through Middle-earth™.


Middle-earth™, but right here in Canterbury.

Edoras Mount Sunday valley mountain lord of the rings rohan
Edoras - Also known as Mount Sunday

In anticipation of the upcoming [Amazon] Lord of the Rings series being released, and the immense excitement building within the two of us, we thought what better time than now, to go on our own quest and discover Middle-earth™ right here at home.


Canterbury’s Middle-earth™.


The road less travelled.


But, as we very quickly discovered, so much more worthwhile.


Enlisting the help of our very own Gandalf the Grey, off we went.


Hiring out costumes from Petticoat Lane.

James to be Frodo.

Me, Charlotte to be Galadriel.


Packing our 44-year-old Ford Transit Camper – Eggy. (Using my best Galadriel voice to warn him about what would ensue should he choose to break down during our road-trip).

Matipo Street in Christchurch

Buying chains, jerry cans, shovels, and max-tracks. We wanted to be extra prepared as we had decided to embark on Middle-earth™ in Winter.


“Have you got your first aid?”

“Yes”

“Your locator beacon thingy?”

“Yes”.

“Extra water?”

“Yes Mum, I think we’re good to go”


“And have you got your ring?”


As we waved Mum off, ready to leave Christchurch and go on, what we quickly realised would become the most memorable adventure of our lifetime, we couldn’t help but laugh.


Hanging on a silver chain, dangling gently from our rear-view mirror (where we could still see Mum waving,) was the ring.


The one ring to rule them all.


And so it began.

 

Canterbury's Middle-earth™ Locations

Our top five must visit locations on our journey through Canterbury's Middle-earth™ are:

  1. Edoras

  2. Lake-town

  3. Pelennor Fields

  4. Castle Hill

  5. Minas Tirith

Use the map below to plan your journey.


 

Location 1: Edoras

“I can’t believe I’ve lived in Christchurch most of my life and never been out here. This is stunning”.


First up on our journey through Canterbury’s Middle-earth™ was Edoras, capital of Rohan, or for those using an Aotearoa/NZ map, “Mount Sunday” out in Mount Potts Conservation Area. Mount Sunday, nestled deep within Canterbury’s high country is just over two hours’ drive from Ōtautahi Christchurch (or perhaps closer to three hours if you’re in a 44 year old camper like us), but the journey starts well and truly before it comes into view. In fact, it starts well and truly before it’s even close to coming into view.


Starting our road-trip with a fresh Cookie Time in our hands (and then promptly after - our bellies), Eggy, took us over the Rakaia Bridge. A crossing we have made together countless times, but one that always leaves us speechless as we take in the views of our beautiful braided rivers intertwining and dancing with each other.

Rakaia river braided river aerial drone new zealand
The beautiful Rakaia River

rakaia river aerial top dow blue water new zealand
Top Down Aerial of the Rakaia

Continuing on along the asphalt, pulling Eggy over to let the mountain of traffic behind us pass, and of course, like all other travellers in 2022, discussing how amazing it was to travel freely again, we both suddenly felt a powerful change. A powerful presence.


A powerful shift.


Was this the power of the ring?

Or was this us hitting the gravel?


Were we already about to embark on break-down number one?


But as we stopped and looked, the two of us fell silent. The mighty, and in our humble opinions, majestic, Southern Alps were slowly revealing themselves.

Within minutes, we were all but surrounded by them.

Mountain reflection in Lake Camp Hakatere
Morning reflection at Lake Camp

Much better than a breakdown.


From there, the two of us travelled in complete and unintentional silence, both desperately trying to commit every mountain, every slope, every inch of the spectacular scenery to memory. As we did, Eggy continued to carry us on our way.


The road snaking its way into Ashburton Gorge, with endless views of different lakes on either sides, and then over the one-lane bridge through the valley.

Campervan driving to Mount Sunday Edoras
Driving through the Rangitata Valley

Where right in the centre, stood Edoras.


Tolkien initially described Edoras as a walled city, sitting upon on a tall peak, surrounded by mountains that were “white tipped and streaked with black”.


As we awkwardly manoeuvred Eggy into the Mount Sunday carpark (having our pick of the lot), we couldn’t help but keep looking out to Edoras.


It really was standing tall and proud in the centre of the Rangitata Valley with the snow-capped mountains twinkling behind.

Edoras Mount Sunday snow capped mountains in rangitatavalley
Edoras - The Capital of Rohan

It was truly breathtaking.


Quickly unbuckling our belts, opening our doors and jumping out of Eggy, the two of us suddenly felt a jolt as our double-socked feet excitedly hit the ground.


“Well that was weird”.

“Did you hurt your knee too?”


Since embarking on our journey through Canterbury’s Middle-earth™, I have thought about this jolt a lot. What it was exactly. Why it happened. What it meant.


When you’re travelling with a ring this powerful, a ring that has a 'will of its own', it’s easy to be constantly on the lookout for connections. Drawing conclusions. Making assumptions.


But over the weeks, I have come to believe, with absolute certainty, that this jolt was in fact a connection.


I believe, with every inch of me, both as Charlotte and Galadriel, that this jolt was the power of Tolkien. We were feeling the thoughts that were going through his head when he dreamed up Edoras. The views. The scenery. The landscapes.

Aerial image Mount Sunday Edoras in Rangitata valley with mountains
Aerial view of Edoras

We were feeling the power of an entire world he had dreamed of. Now, being brought to reality, right in front of our very own eyes.


Quickly grabbing our costumes, puffer jackets and more camera gear than we would ever care to admit, we eagerly began our journey to the summit.


“Have you got the flag of Rohan?”

“Yes Galadriel”.

“Great Frodo! I can’t wait to throw it up the top. I want to watch it fall, like Éowyn did”

“You know you’re not Éowyn right”


[There’s always that one person right. The one that has to make you subtly aware (or perhaps not so subtly) that they have watched Lord of the Rings more times than you.]


“Yes. But just let me live this fantasy out ok. The flag. And Rohan’s impending demise. It will be great”


Meant to be only a short (30 minute) walk to Edoras; the Department of Conservation (DOC) track to Mount Sunday gently takes you through the twisting and turning valley, over two beautiful wooden bridges (with unbelievably clear waters running below), and then onto rolling farm land where you make the brief (5-10 minute) ascent to the summit.

Swing bridge mount sunday edoras hiking track
The swing bridge en route to Edoras
Blue river in front of snow covered mountain from swing bridge on hike to mount sunday edoras
View from the Swing Bridge

Ours, however, suddenly became much longer as we abruptly realised we had forgotten something important.


Very important.


We had forgotten the ring.


Dropping our gear down on the least poo-covered bit of farmland we could find and nervously asking the big bulls not to touch our camera, we quickly ran back to Eggy.

Hastily turning the key in our lock and thrusting open the doors, we both anxiously looked up.


And of course, there it was.


Still gently dangling from our rear-view mirror. Right beside our tutti-frutti air freshener. Twinkling as the soft afternoon light hit it.


It almost felt as if it was mocking us.


Snatching it up quickly, and then shuddering as the action made me feel awfully Gollum-like, we went for round two at Edoras.


As we made the last few steps to the summit (again), we were both filled with indescribable glory.

edoras mount sunday snow view aerial blue river with mountain covered in snow behind
A snowy sunset near Edoras


Looking out to the towering mountains glistening with fresh snow. Seeing the valley snaking its way down below. Watching the dappled light transform every inch of the incredible landscape in front of us.


It was almost too much.


So untouched.


And so, so beautiful, in absolutely every sense of the word.


And for four hours, the two of us were the horse-lords of Rohan.


I stood carefully on the edge and threw the flag down.

We laughed.


Frodo found the perfect rock to sit on and fondle the ring.

We laughed.


We picked up Aragorn’s sword and battled – agreeing the loser would have to go and retrieve the fallen flag. Admittedly, this was much more thrilling than our usual style of conflict resolution [papers-scissors-rock].

Again, we laughed.

Frodo cosplay Edoras Mount Sunday sword and mountains in background
Frodo atop Edoras

And then David and his wife came up, momentarily transporting us back to reality as they asked us about the upcoming series on Amazon. Continuing on with the theme, we, once again, laughed.


Both agreeing that we would hold this day, this adventure, this perfect beginning to our Middle-earth™ journey, in our memories forever.


 

More in Middle-earth™ - Edoras


Dwarf Directions

  • Mount Sunday/Edoras is 160 km (2hr 20 min drive) from Ōtautahi Christchurch. The last 26km (approximately 40 minutes) are on an unsealed road.

  • 9km past Clearwater village, descend into the Rangitata Valley. A single lane bridge takes you over Potts River, leaving just two ford crossings to tackle before you arrive at the Mount Sunday carpark. The fords are usually small but drivers take care.

  • From the carpark, follow the DOC maintained track for 30 minutes, crossing two wooden bridges (including one swing) before making the ascent up the southern side of Mount Sunday/Edoras.


Hobbit’s Handy Hints

  • Be aware there is no cell phone service out here! Make sure you have saved the film scenes of Edoras and set Google Maps running before you reach Mount Somers (this is typically the last patch of reliable service).

  • It can get extremely windy (and cold) at the top of Mount Sunday/Edoras. Check the weather forecast before planning your visit, paying particular attention to the wind.

  • The road to Mount Sunday is typically fine for a 2WD but is susceptible to wash-outs after heavy rain, and can be covered in ice after heavy snow. The Ashburton District Council keep a very informative and up-to-date road closures map here (scroll to the bottom for interactive map link)

Aerial image of Edoras Mount Sunday with snow and mountains in background
Edoras under snow
  • Be sure to pack snow chains if you are visiting during Winter and/or snow is forecasted/fallen recently.

  • For an indication of current weather conditions, you can check the Arrowsmith Webcam here (this is located at Lake Heron – just 23km from Mount Sunday as the crow flies).


Galadriel’s Guide

  • To bring some extra Middle-earth™ magic and cosplay connection to your road-trip, Petticoat Lane in Ōtautahi Christchurch have an incredible offering of medieval and Lord of the Rings inspired costumes you can hire out. Pop in and visit their friendly store in Papanui to find your character. You will be amazed when you discover that most of their garments and glad-rags are made locally too.

  • As you drive out to Mount Sunday, you pass through Hakatere Conservation Park, brimming with beautiful walks around a number of spectacular high-country lakes. We recommend spending at least a full day here and packing a picnic to enjoy after a lakeside walk. Some favourites are Lake Hill Track at Lake Heron or the Lake Clearwater Circuit. Alternatively, if relaxation is more in your realm, take some time to relax at the stunning Lake Camp . If you can nab a still day, the mountainside reflections are simply perfection.

Mountains in snow reflecting in Lake Camp at sunrise in Hakatere conservation park
Sunrise reflection from Lake Camp
  • Mark from Hassle-free tours runs an incredible Lord of the Rings – Edoras day tour - from Christchurch or Methven. He has genuine replica props so you can get the most out of your photos! Plus, he shares behind-the-scenes information on how Mount Sunday was portrayed as Edoras.

  • If you are looking for somewhere special to stay after exploring Edoras, we absolutely loved the Red Cottages in Staveley. There are two cottages to choose from, both offering twin outdoor bath tubs and cosy fireplaces, plus the most unique cinema we have ever set foot in. Get ready to watch a movie (perhaps a well-known trilogy?) in the cleverly converted old woolshed. It is an experience in itself. Red Cottages are 58km from Mount Sunday.

Inside bedroom of cabin at Red Cottages in Staveley
The cosy Red Cottages
  • If you have a certified self-contained campervan, you can freedom camp on the edge of Lake Camp which is truly stunning. Alternatively, camping is available at Lake Clearwater Reserve for $10 per camper (or tent).


Frodo’s Facts

  • While production crew members spent a whopping 11 months to build the set for Edoras, Sir Peter Jackson and his film crew only had three weeks to film everything they needed! The buildings were then dismantled and everything was returned to its natural state.

  • The location of Mount Sunday as Edoras was discovered by pure accident. A storm had caused a diversion to the location scouts’ intended route, and as they flew over Mount Sunday, they couldn’t believe how perfectly it matched up to Tolkien’s description of Edoras.

  • Mount Sunday initially got its name as the boundary riders from nearby high-country stations would all meet here on a Sunday.


Movie Madness

  • Before you begin your ascent to the top Edoras, you can picture Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli as they first approach Edoras on horseback. It’s even more special during winter (or early spring) when the surrounding mountains are covered in snow.

  • From the top of Edoras, look south to see the Southern Alps, just as Éowyn did; devasted about King Théoden’s condition, she steps out of the Golden Hall to see the Rohan flag drift through the sky.

  • You can also picture little Éothain and his sister Freda who make it all the way to Edoras on horseback, warning Théoden that Rohan is under attack.

A Bilbo Bonus

  • Only 6km further north-west from Mount Sunday/Edoras, is the hill that was used to film the powerful scene where Aragorn looks out over Helm’s Deep.

  • This hill is located on Erewhon Station and with prior permission from the landowner Colin, you can climb to the top.

  • This scene from the movie is one of the longest single clips in the entire trilogy. It is 23 seconds and was filmed in a helicopter, rotating around Aragorn while he was on horseback.

Frodo cosplay Helm's Deep lookout with sword Aragorn horseback view
Frodo overlooking Helm's Deep
  • Be sure to park well away from any gates as Colin operates a working farm. He will be able to advise the best route to take based on his current farming operations. When we visited, we walked around the south side of the hill and then climbed from the western side.

 

Location 2: Lake-town

Second up on our road-trip through Canterbury’s Middle-earth™ was Lake-town, a key location in the Hobbit trilogy. And a place, that once again, we couldn’t believe, we had never visited before.


While most know (and understandably love) the spectacular drive out to Aoraki Mount Cook, which travels along the Western side of Lake Pūkaki, very few take the road along the Eastern shores. Ourselves included.

Aoraki Mount cook reflecting in lake pukaki blue sky with clouds
Our favourite view from Lake Pūkaki viewpoint

To get here from Ōtautahi Christchurch, is just over three and a half hours drive and will take you through Geraldine, Fairlie and Lake Tekapo along the way.

church of the good shepherd at lake tekapo at sunrise pink sky
A fave stop at Tekapo - Church of the Good Shepherd

Four hours if you stop for a world-famous pie from the Fairlie Bakehouse.

And four and a half hours once you turn back for a second. (Galadriel’s pick is the creamy veggie and Frodo’s is the salmon and bacon!).


Once you have reached the Lake Pūkaki Viewpoint (and stopped for your obligatory photos!), take Hayman Road (on your right) and follow it for 20km. The views along this part of the road instantly took our breath away. (And it had nothing to do with the two-degree temperature.)


With blues upon blues, carefully layered between the domineering snow-covered mountains (Aoraki, of course included), and elf-inspired forests dotted everywhere, we couldn’t help but feel a true sense of Middle-earth™ magic on the drive.


But the real Middle-earth™ magic happened when the asphalt turned to gravel. When the straight roads became winding and bumpy. And the only traffic we encountered was a lone farmer and his four sheep dogs travelling in his tractor.

Lake Pukaki roadtrip campervan driving snow and mountains
Driving the Eastern shores of Lake Pukaki

As we carefully pulled Eggy over on the side of the snowy road, we were both filled with immense feelings of peace and calmness.


The landscapes sitting right in front of us were spectacular.


Glistening blue lakes gently rippling in the wind.

Snow-capped mountains glittering in the sun.

Quiet pitter patters of snow as it fell from the tall pine trees.


While I have always believed that Aoraki is the live, and beating, heart of Aotearoa, seeing it standing tall, and proud, from a completely different angle and viewpoint was an entirely unexpected, and yet very special, experience.


It never fails to amaze me, the feeling, the emotion, the sheer power Aoraki holds; frequently reducing me to tears. But this time, as we arrived at Lake-town, I looked over at James, and noticed he too was frantically trying to blink back something.


After five pure minutes of us staring out at the landscapes, and neither of us admitting the wet eyes we had, I decided now was the time to dip into my collection of (epic) Middle-earth™ puns and hopefully pull us out of the slightly transcendent state we had found ourselves in.


“Now that’s what I’m Tolkien about! Let’s go Frodo!”.


Our gumboots crunching loudly as they navigated us through the snow, we had broken character in our costumes, holding hands as we wandered through the towering trees.


But within minutes, our hands, along with our jaws, had completely dropped.


We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. What was standing right in front of us.


“Now that’s what I’m Tolkien about”.


“You’ve already used that line”.


“I know, but now I really wish I saved it”


Right in front of us, to our complete and utter shock, was part of the set from the Hobbit Trilogy. The top of a wee wooden hut, a little wooden door (perfectly sized for hobbits to make their grand entrances through), and several triangular tent frames.

Lake-town Hobbit filming location wooden structures left behind
Part of the Hobbit set left behind

Within seconds, the two of us were climbing, exploring and discovering; both our curiosity and imagination reaching new heights. In all our Middle-earth™ planning and researching, not one online source had mentioned this. Yet another incredible hidden gem we had already discovered on our journey through Canterbury’s Middle-earth™.


Three hours, two feet at severe risk of frost-bite (Frodo takes his cosplaying very seriously) and one drone crash later, we decided to climb down the bank and get as close to Lake-town as we could.


The two of us running up and down the shoreline, Galadriel spinning on the water's edge as Frodo climbed up the solo rock in the middle of the lake, we suddenly realised the sun was starting to set. The day was nearly over? But it felt like we had only just arrived?

Galadriel cosplay spinning on the shores of Lake-town Lake Pukaki with snow covered mountains behind
Galadriel on the shores of Lake-town
Frodo cosplay holding sword on rock in lake pukaki
Frodo in the Long Lake

As we reluctantly began our walk back to Eggy, we decided to send Mum a quick selfie of us in our Middle-earth™ attire. Grinning and standing gawkily in front of the breathtaking backdrop.


Much to our shock and surprise, (just like when we had stumbled upon the film set earlier), Mum’s reply came quick and fast.


“That is absolutely stunning”.


Mum has lived in Canterbury most of her life, but just like us, she too had never travelled the Eastern side of Lake Pūkaki.


Her reply was the perfect reminder – even if you’re not a Middle-earth™ buff, these landscapes, are so spectacular, in fact, so dramatically so, that they alone, are worth a visit in their own right.

 

More In Middle-earth™ - Lake-town

Dwarf Directions

  • Lake-town is 285km (3.5 hours) from Ōtautahi Christchurch, or 59km from Lake Takapō/Tekapo. The last 14km is unsealed (but in good condition).

  • When you reach Lake Pūkaki Viewpoint - our favourite view in all of Aotearoa - take a right onto Hayman Road and follow it for 20km, of which the last 14km is unsealed.

  • Once you arrive at Lake-town, it’s only a few minutes to walk to the set.


Hobbit’s Handy Hints

  • Lake-town is not signposted and there is no designated parking area, so use the Google Map pin “Hobbit Film Lake-town location” as that is accurate. Make sure to pull off the road completely.

  • Take your time on the unsealed portion of the road, it is narrow in places and occasionally used by logging trucks. In the winter this can become icy and slippery.

  • Be sure to allow enough time to explore the remaining structures of the Hobbit set. If you have kids, prepare for an epic game of hide and seek – Middle-earth™ style!

wooden hut structure from hobbit filming location lake-town shores of lake pukaki
Part of the Lake-town set
  • For real-time weather conditions and to see whether Aoraki is visible before you arrive, there are several webcams in the area. The closest to Lake-town is at Glentanner here otherwise the Hermitage in Mount Cook Village has one here.

Galadriel’s Guide

  • If you are visiting Lake-town from Lake Takapō/Tekapo, make sure to have a soak at Tekapo Springs. With three delightfully large hot pools, it’s a true oasis that you won’t want to leave (especially in winter). If you want to take this experience to the next level, we recommend the Soak under the Stars (best on a clear night).

girl in hot pool at tekapo springs snow mountain in background
Hot pools with a view at Tekapo Springs
  • If you are driving from Ōtautahi Christchurch, make sure to stop in Fairlie at the bakehouse for their utterly sensational pies . See the menu if you fancy a dribble.

  • If you have a certified self-contained campervan, there are several spots around Lake Pūkaki where you can freedom camp, and in our humble opinion, they offer some of the most scenic camping in all of Aotearoa. On the south side of the lake is a dedicated freedom camping area with toilets.

Couple freedom camping with kombi van on shore of lake pukaki
A favourite camping spot on Lake Pūkaki

Movie Madness

  • In The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Bard shoots the last black arrow and kills Smaug. The next few scenes show the people of Lake-town clearing up what they can salvage on the edge of the Lake.

  • If you watch closely enough, you can recognise the wooden structures in the movie as those that are still remaining at the site today!

 

Location 3: Pelennor Fields

The first two locations on our road-trip had well and truly ignited the Middle-earth™ flame within us both, the beacon burning bright and steadily each day.


But our next location, the third spot we had excitedly researched and pinned on our map, was one we had been eagerly anticipating since the very first day we left Ōtautahi Christchurch.


We drove through the quaint Twizel township, waving hello to Four Square’s Cheeky Charlie, before continuing along the azure blues of the Pūkaki canals, and then, finally through the rickety old farm gates, our anticipation continuing to grow.

Campervan driving along canals twizel mountains snow reflecting in water
Driving the Pukaki Canals

We even pulled Andúril out, Aragorn’s sword, so it was riding front and centre in the camper with us.


We were ready.


We were ready to battle.

We were ready to fight.

We were ready to run down the hills in triumph.


We were ready, for Pelennor Fields.


And we simply couldn’t wait.


But within minutes, we couldn’t believe it.


We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Or, more accurately, what we weren’t seeing.


It was gone. All of it. The rolling hills, the towering peaks, the vast plains. Even our shadows had ceased to exist.


As the blanket of fog set in thick and fast, so did the realisation that we weren’t going to be doing any battling, fighting, or even running at Pelennor Fields that day.


But with Andúril sitting beside us, we were determined not to let our disappointment get the better of us. Turning the key in the ignition once more, we drove along the now-invisible Lake Pūkaki and found a location close-by with it's very own 'Pride Rock'.


We spent the evening playing out a Middle-earth™ battle in a blanket stitched thick of fog. I never expected, not in a million years, that this would be how we would spend James' birthday.


Sword fighting our way through fog and then collapsing in a heap of uncontrollable laughter.

Frodo cosplay holding sword on hill in heavy fog
Frodo in heavy fog

The next day we arrived back at Pelennor Fields with just as much excitement as the day before. But, alas, it was covered in the same thick blanket of fog.


As we started reversing our camper out, we looked out the side mirror to confirm our turning circle and suddenly, the fog started clearing. Suddenly, there it was.


The fields. The peaks. The plains.

All of it.

View of pelennor fields ben ohau station from lord of the rings battle
The vastness of Pelennor Fields

As each second went by, the most incredible transformation occurred.

More and more of the untouched landscape was revealed.


An experience I don’t imagine we will ever forget.


Like we were being gifted sight for the very first time. Or an eraser was slowly removing strokes of cloud. Our eyes were rushing to take it all in.


The golden pastures. The misty mountains. The hawk circling above us.


The mounds of unmelted snow, heroically twinkling as if gleefully pointing out that the sun was yet to defeat them.


Middle. Earth. Magic.