We got up as early as we could and headed out of town. Today we would get to see what so many before us thought was the most spectacular part of their NZ trip – Mt Sunday! The trick was to get up early because it’s about a 2.5-hour drive and the best light is supposed to be from about 10-1pm. I was hoping for some nice photos.
You may never have heard of Mt Sunday – our Christchurch motel keeper hadn’t – but if you are a Tolkien fan, you have certainly heard of Edoras, the capital city of Rohan. Described a settlement on a hill in the middle of a plain surrounded by mountains, Mt Sunday fits the bill exactly and in fact, this is one of the most true sites from any of the movies. They actually built the Golden Hall and some of the surrounding buildings on the location – exterior and interior. Many of the actors mentioned that this place really didn’t need any imagination to believe in. It just seemed to functionally exist in our world.
After a long drive down a gravel road, we pulled into the car park and were greeted by a young Scandinavian family in their RV. As the kids chased each other around on the gravel, I asked the dad where the spectacular view was hiding. He let me know that there had been a thick blanket of clouds since at least lunchtime the day before and that it wasn’t expected to dissipate anytime soon. I have to admit it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm much. It just meant a more pleasant hike, which is about one hour round trip with a pretty steep climb up Mt Sunday itself.
Once summiting we had the place to ourselves for many minutes only sharing it briefly with some unfriendly Americans who wouldn’t talk to us. As the morning progressed the clouds began to dissipate and you could begin to appreciate the magnificence of this place. I’m sure with a blue sky it would be a humbling and powerful feeling to have snowcapped peaks completely surrounding you.
As it was, I was happy that it cleared up enough that I was able to see the location used for Helm’s Deep. Well, I saw the stuff that formed the background plate for the CG’ed exterior of Helm’s Deep. The actual set that the actors jumped around on was built in a rock quarry outside of Wellington. The place that I could see resides at the base of some of the mountains that ring the area just past a small stand of really tall trees. It is pretty inaccessible to all but the most dedicated folks, but it was neat to see it and hum the horn part of the orc theme quietly to myself.
Before we left Jax, I had made a sweep of NZ on geocaching.com looking for the best caches that we’d be near. They are much scarcer than I expected for such an outdoorsy country, but the one that seemed to be in a cool spot and quick to find was here at Mt Sunday (“Eternal Edoras” if you want to find it yourself). After we got back to the car, we did a little hunt and found the cache, and just as we finished up the clouds broke so I ran for the camera and grabbed some pictures. The light was no longer great but the scenery was fantastic!!! Even with less than ideal lighting, I think these are some of the nicer pictures from the trip. I’m so happy we stayed to do the cache!
We had initially planned to continue up the road to Erewhon Station, a Clydesdale horse farm, but I’d played around with my camera too long and we needed to press on. If you are in the area, it does seem like a neat place to visit. The beauty of the Mt Sunday area with giant horses too. I’m told by the locals that this place stands in for the Rockies in Anheuser-Busch commercials.
LAKE TEKAPO AND THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
With the photo success at Mt Sunday, I was really charged up for our next stop, which I had imagined could produce some of the best pictures of the entire trip. We were going to be able to visit both Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. Picture the snowcapped peaks of Mt Sunday, but now substitute the plain in the middle for an unnaturally icy-blue lake!
First up was Lake Tekapo and the easy place to view it is The Church of the Good Shepherd. It is an extremely popular tourist spot with people crawling all over the church and surrounding rocky shoreline. It was a little cloudy so some of the peaks were hidden and the midday sun didn’t do me any nice lighting favors. It was a beautiful location that I’m delighted to have visited but I was a little disappointed that I didn’t make any great pix here. You see example pictures of the area and get something planted in your head, but the reality just didn’t match on the day we were there. Still, a very very cool place to visit.
MT JOHN UNIVERSITY OBSERVATORY
After that we took a quick steep drive up to the Mt John University Observatory that is at the top of a nearby hill. It offers a wonderful bird’s eye view of Lake Tekapo and they even have a little café up there that looks pretty nifty. Views were quite nice and we watched the rain clouds roll though the area before heading to Twizel.
We were staying at a little mom n’ pop hotel/motel/lodge (they called it an “accommodation”) that night and wanted to check in before it got too late. Omahau Downs High Country Farm Accommodation was a really nice place to be. It was on a sheep farm so you did have to deal with moths coming in the common room if you left the door open at night, but it was clean and nice and tastefully decorated. We both really liked this place. It was located on the edge of a tiny town out in the country making it a perfect location for star gazing.
I can’t say enough good things about the hosts. These people bent over backwards to make us happy. Between the afternoon room cleaning and the time we checked in, the toilet developed a slow tank leak which horrified the owners. While we continued sightseeing, they got a plumber to come over and fix it immediately. They also called both of the good restaurants in town and told them to surprise us with a free bottle of wine or free desserts if we chose to eat there that night. They also left us a full-size Lindt chocolate bar in the room. This place wasn’t that expensive or grandiose. They were just that nice.
After checking in, we headed out to a farm on the north side of town in the Ben Ohau Conservation area. It sits on a large-ish plain between a long manmade canal and the ever-present mountain range. This was a lovely spot just to hang out and think for a while. Extremely quiet. So quiet that if you strained your ears you could hear a little bit of wind noise from the traffic on the major road at least half a mile away. Contrast that to its movie prominence. It is also the LOTR film location for the largest battle in that trilogy. Yes, this is Pelennor Fields. Funnily enough the only other people we saw while we were there were another couple in a rental car. One was a photographer who jumped out, and grabbed a few pix before sunset, jumped back in, and they took off.
The place that I thought had a chance for the single most beautiful location of the trip came next. Lake Pukaki is similar to Lake Tekapo in that it is an impossibly beautiful shade of blue set against beautiful sometimes snowcapped mountain ranges. The big difference is that everything is bigger here. The lake is longer. The mountains in the back are bigger. In fact, the tallest mountain in all of NZ is just about centered on the backside of the lake. This is the famous Mt Cook that Sir Edmund Hillary trained on before becoming the first white guy to summit Mt Everest. More recently it has added to its fame standing in for Long Lake and The Lonely Mountain for The Hobbit movies. Just like at Lake Tekapo, the sun and the clouds did not cooperate for any astounding pictures but it was oh so beautiful there. We spent some time down at the iSite at the south end of the lake and then drove around to the much less visited east side that got us much closer to Mt Cook and the location of Lake Town. The drive up the shoreline was quite beautiful. Lake. Mountains. Sunset. Lots of woods/scrub that we would dip behind and then punch through back to the shoreline.
Exact information is not given in Brodie’s Hobbit book but it must have been located somewhere in the Tasman Downs Station and Braemar Station area. Both of these are B&B type places located close together, so I’m confident we found the right place. At the time of filming a local paper (The Telegraph) said “An extensive outdoor set built for The Hobbit Trilogy was created at Tasman Downs Station on the shores of Lake Pukaki.”
We were chasing sunset to get here and just lost out to it. Many of you will say, why didn’t you just stop as the sun was setting somewhere along the road and start shooting? If you’ve ever driven in NZ you already understand why this isn’t possible. Once outside the major cities, roads get small. In some remote areas 2-way traffic takes place on effectively one generously-sized lane with people “giving way” for one another to get down the road. There was absolutely no place for a person to stop a car and take pictures. There wasn’t any traffic but I didn’t want to get into a wreck if someone came barreling around a turn.
After that it was back down the little gravel road in the dark. We scared off lots of rabbits as our headlights caught them by surprise. Occasionally we’d see tents or people hiking and it seems like a perfectly lovely place to do both of those things.
I wanted to stay up and try some night photography but the fun of the day had worn us out and we opted for a good night’s sleep instead. That did allow us to naturally wake up early and refreshed the next morning when we got to see a spectacular sunrise. You can see an example image at the top of the introduction post, but you’ll have to wait until the next post for more.