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. 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). 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: Edoras Lake-town Pelennor Fields Castle Hill 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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) 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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? 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! 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). 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Eagerly picking up Andúril, throwing our costumes on, and locking our camper (laughing as we did so – we were the only ones around for miles) we finally did it. We battled. We fought. We ran. We had our own epic battle at the Pelennor Fields. Swinging Andúril through the sky. Cutting nothing but air. The two of us, in this vast landscape. Foothills rolling behind us. Towering mountains in front of us. The white sun, shining over the outstretched lands. Snow melting before our eyes. It was surreal. There are a lot of details I don’t believe we will ever forget about Pelennor Fields. James courageously running barefoot down an entire hill, swinging Andrúil. Through the dirt, over the rocks, around the bushes. Feeling the same victory that ran through Aragorn’s blood. Finding a lone, wooden bench in one of the nearby paddocks and smiling happily as we pictured the cast and crew taking a break from attacking Orcs and Nazgûls, to instead attack their sandwiches and cups of tea. Perhaps purchased from Four Square we wondered. A quiet and meaningful moment to myself, feeling small and insignificant in the big, open landscape. Feeling the warmth of the winter sun fall upon me as I realised, I had slowly begun spinning and twirling, totally immersed in the beauty and emotion of the scenery. But having an entire location, an entire landscape, an entire world, unveiled right before our eyes, for a thick blanket of fog to suddenly lift, for mountains and hills and fields to suddenly appear as if only just being created for the very first time, it brought a whole new meaning to otherworldly. We would never ever forget it. More In Middle-earth™ - Pelennor Fields Dwarf Directions Pelennor Fields are on private land; part of Ben Ōhau Station, which is 290km (3 hours) from Ōtautahi Christchurch and 7km from Twizel town centre. Follow Glen Lyon Road out of Twizel, cross the one-lane bridge over the Pūkaki Canals, then turn left and about 500m on your right is a small parking area - a raised pull off in the corner of a paddock. This small parking area is where a series of DOC hikes through the Ben Ōhau range start. Hobbit’s Handy Hints Access to the middle of Pelennor Fields requires permission from the land owners – Ben Ōhau Station is owned by Simon and Priscilla Cameron. However, fortunately, you can also walk along the DOC marked track to get perfect views of Pelennor Fields. The foothills and mountains ranges which feature as the backdrop of the movie scenes are easily recognisable along this walk. On different visits to Pelennor Fields, it was covered in a thick blanket of fog. We learnt that this type of fog can hang around for a few days, especially in the early winter months. Plan your visit accordingly. For a heads up on current weather conditions, you can use one of Waka Kotahi’s traffic cameras (webcams). This one here is often the best as it faces towards the Pelennor Fields. Galadriel’s Guide There is a plethora of activities in the Twizel area – Lake Ruataniwha, Lake Ōhau and Lake Benmore are all on your doorstep! We personally love driving along the hydro canals and marvelling at the bright blue waters. If you’re a keen fisherman, you only need to chat to a local for a minute to know that these canals offer some of the best fishing in the entire Mackenzie basin! If you are looking for somewhere special to stay, SkyScape is a unique and totally immersive experience. With a full glass ceiling, you can stargaze from the comfort of your bed, or have a soak in your very own hot-tub (perfectly sized to fit two!). What’s more, your SkyBed overlooks the hills of Pelennor Fields! Pre-pandemic, One Ring Tours operated a Lord of the Rings Tour, taking you out into the middle of Pelennor Fields. Tour options are currently being reviewed by the landowner, Priscilla Cameron. Frodo’s Facts The biggest day of filming across the entire trilogy occurred at the Pelennor Fields, with over 1000 cast and crew and 280 horses on site. Filming the scenes at Pelennor Fields took just over a month, and most of the Twizel township was employed on the film. Ben Ōhau station had the perfect ingredients to be cast as Tolkien’s Pelennor fields – snow-capped mountains in the background (Ered Nimrais), rolling foothills, grassy fields, no sign of habitation and a town close by for the film crew! Movie Madness Pelennor Fields were used extensively in the Return of the King, for the following scenes: The Battle of Pelennor Fields, The Fall of Osgiliath, The Sacrifice of Faramir, The Ride of The Rohirrim, The Nazgûl and his Prey, The Sheildmaiden of Rohan and The Victory of Minas Tirith. The Ride of The Rohirrim is a personal favourite of ours. As King Théoden delivers his inspirational speech: “Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! Spear shall be shaken, shield shall be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now, ride!” You can easily see these foothills and the mountain in the background when visiting Pelennor Fields. If you watch the background, you can see the Pelennor Fields location as Éowyn beheads the Nazgul to protect Théoden. And with the help of Merry when she defeats the Witch-king of Angmar. We must also make mention of Gandalf (and Pippin) riding out to help fend off the Nazgûls as Faramir and company retreat from Osgiliath. The one hill set behind Gandalf as he runs is very easy to identify from the roads along the Pūkaki canals. Location 4: Castle Hill (Middle-earth™ inspired) Clocking up well over 2,500km’s on our road-trip, being overtaken by tractors more times than we could count and constantly debating which Canterbury establishment truly did earn the title of ‘world’s best pie’, the two of us didn’t quite know what to expect as we slowly began approaching the fourth location. While this sentiment, of not knowing what to expect, had firmly accompanied us on our travels to each of our three previous locations, this time, the feeling of not knowing what to expect, was for different reasons. This time, the very first time on our road-trip, we weren’t visiting a new location. We weren’t discovering a place we had never heard of before. This time, we were, returning to a location we truly adored, and consequently, had visited many times already – Castle Hill, also named Kura Tāwhiti - meaning "treasure from afar”. Just over an hours’ drive along the asphalt from Ōtautahi Christchurch, making it easily reachable and accessible for all, Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill is one of our all-time favourite road-trips due to the ever-changing views that grace you from your car window. Endless layers of rolling green hills stretching as far as your eyes can see, gradually replaced by blankets of golden tussocks, dancing in the wind. Continuing on, carefully twisting and turning your way along the asphalt, the carpets of shimmering golds dominating your window-side view suddenly give way to mighty valleys, roaring rivers and soaring peaks. The transformation of landscapes feels abundant and infinite. Sort of like having a screensaver on your car window – one that changes every four minutes. As the two of us neared Castle Hill, working out how many bites of our pies we had left (bacon and egg for Galadriel and steak and cheese for Frodo) – we wondered momentarily, if perhaps the Sheffield Pie Shop was the real reason this drive had made it to the top of our roadie list. Waving along to other Kiwi’s as they tucked into their glorious pies, being sure to give them the nod of approval as they embarked on what I personally consider to be the quintessential Sheffield dining experience – eating your pie in the boot of your car, parked up on the side of the highway, (picnic rug around your legs optional), it suddenly dawned on me that this was the most people we had seen in quite some time. In fact it was the only people we had seen in quite some time. It was a lot of people. And a lot of pies. Within seconds, the two of us were deep in reflection - appreciating that a huge highlight of our road-trip through Middle-earth™, had been the solitude and space we had been readily granted at every single location we had visited. We were yet to share one square metre of Canterbury’s Middle-earth™ with a single soul. So how would Kura Tāwhiti/ Castle Hill live up to our previous locations and experiences? The isolated and untouched Edoras. The serene and spellbinding Lake-town. The unveiled vastness of Pelennor? Five words. The lens of Middle-earth™. Not only was our road-trip pushing us out of our comfort zones (I can’t truthfully say the two of us had battled with swords on top of mountains before) - it was also pushing us out of the zone of our very own expectations. The Middle-earth™ lens was truly powerful. Allowing us to see things in new lights and offering us perspectives that were so very different from our own. Time and time again, our journey was leaving us stricken with awe, and Kura Tāwhiti/ Castle Hill was no exception. Despite its size, we were quickly and easily able to find our own piece of Middle-earth™ that granted us the peace, solitude and space we had already been afforded on this adventure. Again, we were yet to share Middle-earth™ with a single other person. As we walked through the gentle basin, marvelling at the hundreds of boulders dotted in every direction, Frodo was in his absolute element – his un-hobbit like curiosity peaking as he weaved his way in and out of, behind of, in front of, up top of, down below of, each of the limestone tors that crossed him on his way. A game of hide and seek with kids would be epic here. Or adults. It felt like an entire kingdom made of stone. One minute we were giants, standing tall and proud, over the miniature rocky formations. And the next, we were dwarfs, standing in the shadows as the formations towered and soared over us. We felt small. Big. Infinite. And connected. All at the very same time. And not for a single second was it lost on us, that there we were, just the two of us, dressed in these incredible costumes, standing on top of these huge granite boulders, my dress blowing softly in the wind, Frodo’s ring sparkling as the winter sun gleamed, the mountains towering in the background, and just over an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of Ōtautahi Christchurch. We were worlds away. Physically and mentally. More In Middle-earth™ - Castle Hill Dwarf Directions Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill Conservation Area is 95km (1hr 15 mins) from Ōtautahi Christchurch. There is a large dedicated parking area at the start of the track. Follow the marked trail and explore the boulders at your own will. Hobbit's Handy Hints Given its beautiful scenery and close proximity to Ōtautahi Christchurch, Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill is particularly busy on the weekend. Time your visit during the week if you would prefer a quieter experience. Wuthering Heights is a section of the reserve to the north. Climb the hill and head to this section for a deeper, and quieter Middle‑earth™ experience. There are less boulders and more grassy land, it’s further away from the crowds and on top of the hill, the vista really resembles the scenery in the Fellowship of the Ring and the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Be aware that Porter’s Pass is often closed during and immediately after snowfall. For an insight into the current weather conditions, there are two webcams near Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill. Please note: drone usage is not permitted here. Galadriel’s Guide Allow yourself a minimum of 2-3 hours to explore Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill. It’s the perfect place to discover at your own pace, taking a picnic and enjoying it atop one of the many boulders. Sheffield is home to a true kiwi icon in the form of a bakery. The Sheffield Pie shop is a must stop for a mouth wateringly delicious pie - start drooling! If you are feeling more in the mood for a sweet treat, 9 minutes before the Sheffield Pie Shop is the Darfield Dairy, which offers HUGE ice cream scoops. Another quintessential kiwi experience! For the brave – particularly in the winter - there is a caving experience only 6km further down the road from Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill. Cave Stream Scenic Reserve has a cave passage that meanders and twists its way for almost 600m, with water reaching as high as your waist. To see more details and what you might need, check out the DOC site. Whether you’re looking for a swim, a scenic picnic lunch, or simply wanting to capture a stunning photo, there is an abundance of picturesque lakes to stop at on the Great Alpine Highway. Our personal favourites are Lake Lyndon (8 minutes before Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill) and Lake Pearson (15 minutes after Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill). Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill, is also within 40 minutes’ drive of Arthur’s Pass. Here, you are all but guaranteed to see a cheeky Kea (New Zealand’s unique alpine parrot) and explore some truly stunning waterfalls. If you are visiting on a clear night, Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill is a spectacular location for stargazing. Photography wise, the possibilities for compositions are endless, and with such little light pollution, it makes for great night photography. Don’t forget to pack a head torch! Frodo's Facts Although the scenery of Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill lends itself to Middle‑earth™ incredibly easily, it was actually never used as a location in the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit trilogies. You may recognise the scenery from the great battle scene in The Chronicles of Narnia - the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This was filmed at the nearby Flock Hill, but granted, the scenery is very similar to that of Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill. Movie Madness The one particular scene in the Fellowship of the Ring that often gets mistaken for Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill is when the fellowship take rest among a rocky plateau, cooking food and sparring with their swords, on their way to the Misty Mountains. They soon notice a black shape, a flock of Crebain (spies of Saruman) approaching fast and soon the sparring and cooking is all but gone. The frame that first shows this flock of Crebain is particularly reminiscent of the rocks at Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill. Location 5: Minas Tirith The fifth and final location on our road-trip was Minas Tirith; a place we had deliberately chosen to serve as our finale. Most movie-lovers may associate Minas Tirith with its grand unveiling scene - where Gandalf and Pippin gallop upon Shadowfax, through the dusk and dark of several nights, eventually arriving at the White City as the sun starts to overtake them on another new day. But for us, personally, we loved that Minas Tirith was the final (Gondor) filming location in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Not only representing the place where Aragorn is coronated and crowned the King of Gondor, but where he demonstrates his genuine respect and admiration for the courageous hobbits, making his first display as King a truly humbling one – bowing down before them. It is a profoundly impactful moment and one that transports you instantly - to a place of deep reflection as you consider the entire journey of the hobbits through the trilogy. All they have sacrificed, all the challenges they have overcome, all their endless bravery and courage. We wanted to feel this same impact, this same sense of humbling power and deep sense of reflection, and as such, decided it was only fitting for the final resting place of our grand adventure through Canterbury’s Middle-earth™ to be Minas Tirith. As Minas Tirith is located in Aoraki National Park, the drive there is a true highlight in its own right. Approximately four hours’ drive from Ōtautahi Christchurch, you can approach the road to Aoraki/Mount Cook from either Twizel or Takapō, both ways ultimately leading you along the western shores of the vibrant Lake Pūkaki. This truly special section of asphalt offers the most spectacular views of Aoraki/Mount Cook. And while the two of us have done this drive countless times over the years, it’s one that still moves us every single time we fasten our seatbelts and set off. No matter how rushed we may be, or what the weather is doing, we always, always, make sure to take a moment during this drive and pull over. Making a coffee, a fresh sandwich, or a hot pot of soup depending on the weather, we pull out a picnic blanket and just stop. We breathe. We sit. We take it all in. The road-side pull-offs on this drive, offer some of the most incredible scenery in the entire country, and we have listed our personal favourite below. Usually, this drive sees us continuing on until we have reached the Mount Cook Village, ready to embark on one of our much-loved walks – the iconic Hooker Valley Track, or if we’re in the mood to wobble and moan for a few days, the stairway to heaven (commonly known as Sealy Tarns), but this time, our road-trip through Middle-earth™ had us waving ‘Kia ora’ to the village, and then promptly after, ‘Ka kite’ as we continued on east for a further 3kms. Our favourite part about Minas Tirith, was the emotion we were both overcome with as soon as we stepped outside. Triumphant. Glorious. Humbling. The scenery was enchanting, almost a cross between a fairy tale and a medieval fantasy. Towering snow-capped peaks. The last few mounds of unmelted snow, sitting there defiantly. Rocky outcrops scattered throughout. Fog gently drifting across the valley. And of course, Aoraki standing proudly behind us. Almost feeling as if he was watching over us, sharing in the overpowering experience too. We looked out to where Minas Tirith was set in the movies. Picturing the White Tower. Gleaming Pale. Imagining Aragorn bowing down to the little people. Dressed one final time in our costumes, we removed our scuffed boots and puffer jackets. Walking barefoot, carefully weaving our way through the rocky outcrops, we both looked out and fell silent. Tears pricked our eyes. What a finale. What a location. What a landscape. What an indescribable feeling. And what a fitting ending to our journey through Canterbury’s Middle-earth™. The road less travelled. More In Middle-earth™ - Minas Tirith Dwarf Directions Minas Tirith lookout is 330km (4 hours) from Ōtautahi Christchurch, or 3km (5 minutes) from Mount Cook Village. It is located within Aoraki National Park. Turn onto Tasman Valley Road, and follow it 1.4km. At the first bend in the road (just before the Truss Bridge) - the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail crosses the road and there is a small (locked) gate on your right - this is the entry point to the Minas Tirith lookout. There is no room to park here, so continue along the road for 350m, crossing the Truss Bridge and park immediately on your left. You can also continue a little further and park on your right. Walk back across the bridge (there is a dedicated walking lane), then follow the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail south-west for approximately 300m. From here, you need to go left (East) cross country for about 500m to find the same view of Minas Tirith that frequently appears in the Lord of the Rings movies. Hobbit's Handy Hints Have the Google Map pin and an image of Minas Tirith from the movie saved on your phone before you visit. We found this especially helpful given there is no marked track and cell phone coverage is patchy! Unwin Lodge is a useful marker and is located right at the base of where Minas Tirith was set. Another useful marker is the grey river stones located to the left of Minas Tirith. They really stand out against the yellow foreground and dark mountains as the backdrop - helping you to get your bearings. For an indication of current weather conditions, use the live Hermitage Webcam here. Galadriel’s Guide As you take Highway 80 to Minas Tirith, you will be treated to some of the best views in Aotearoa. Be sure to stop at Peter’s Lookout - Tapataia Mahaka and snap some photos of Aoraki standing mighty and tall! There are other amazing pull-offs along this road, but do make sure you can safely park well off the road. Our personal favourite, especially for a cup of coffee or picnic lunch is at GPS coordinates 43°50'57.2"S 170°06'38.2"E. This pull-off fits 8-9 vehicles comfortably. If you have made it to Minas Tirith, you are right in the heart of Aoraki National Park, so make sure to allow enough time to explore the rest of the area. The Hooker Valley track is one of New Zealand’s most popular day walks for good reason! Another must do, which is less than 6km further on, is the Tasman Lake carpark. Our favourite section of Tasman Lake is the south west end where the lake flows into Tasman River. From here, you get up close and personal with some utterly astounding icebergs. We find the hikes and signage can be confusing so follow the signs for Tasman River. If you are looking for somewhere to stay, the Aoraki Alpine Lodge offers affordable accommodation right in the heart of the village! We particularly loved the lounge upstairs, boasting incredible views of Aoraki (plus a delightfully welcome fireplace). The Hermitage Hotel is another accommodation option right in the heart of the village, boasting a beautiful bar and restaurant with views to match! Make sure to book ahead as it was fully booked when we visited! The Aoraki region was declared an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012 (the largest of the three in the entire Southern Hemisphere!), so if you have a clear night, do not miss the opportunity to go stargazing! Both Hooker Valley and Tasman Lake are particularly stunning for night-time photography. Frodo's Facts The rocks you can see to the right of Minas Tirith were actually shot from just below the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village. The Pelennor Fields are set between Osgiliath and Minas Tirith, and in The Return of the King you can see the close link between the Minas Tirith location at Aoraki National Park and the Pelennor Fields on Ben Ōhau Station. See example in Movie Madness below. Movie Madness Once you have walked to the correct location, you can easily picture the scene where Gandalf and Pippin arrive to see the incredible White City of Minas Tirith nestled perfectly in the rugged mountains after riding Shadowfax hard through the night. As touched on above, the close link between Pelennor Fields and Minas Tirith is demonstrated in The Fall of Osgiliath. Faramir and his convoy retreat from the battle and are chased by Nazgûls. Gandalf rides out from Minas Tirith and uses his staff to send a bright light that drives off the Nazgûls. Gandalf is pictured riding out from Minas Tirith, but all the following scenes are then shot at Pelennor Fields, before the camera cuts back to Minas Tirith and the riders are galloping through the gates. Roadtrip Reflection Days later, as we pulled back into Ōtautahi Christchurch, our campervan muddy, our jerry cans empty and our snow chains worn, Mum appeared in the driveway, eagerly waving us back home. Turning off Eggy's noisy engine, and pulling up the handbrake, I looked over to James. There were no words for all we had experienced. 2,503 kilometres. Two breakdowns. Being asked if we were movie stars. Celebrating James' birthday with a sword fight in the fog. Ordering fish and chips for Frodo. Being congratulated on my wedding day. Walking barefoot through sheep and cow poo. Colourful sunrises and sunsets. Blankets of thick white snow. Overpowering landscapes and locations. And some of the best pies we have ever had. Our journey through Middle-earth™ had well and truly made its way under our skin. Unbuckling our belts, ready to greet Mum, we looked up, for one final time. To the ring dangling from our rear-view mirror. And James, totally surprising me, started reading out loud - the post-it note we had stuck beside it. “It’s a dangerous business Frodo, walking out one’s front door...” But as Mum neared us, her arms open and ready to deliver our welcome back hugs, I couldn’t help but think ... that with all the breathtaking landscapes, the unexpected discoveries, and the wondrous sense of adventure that truly is Canterbury’s Middle-earth™ – we should all be out the door already.