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It's a nondescript unit on an industrial estate – but step inside and all manner of Middle-earth movie magic catches you in its spell.
Because here, in Miramar, a suburb of New Zealand’s capital Wellington, hides movie wizard Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop.
Named after a gigantic local insect, it’s one of the most feted special effects outfits on the planet and high up on any self-respecting Lord of the Rings fan’s bucketlist.
Only the three giant trolls out front give the game away…
We first enter the shop, which sells everything from leather bookmarks and T-shirts to finely crafted resin models and movie prop replicas which cost the Middle-earth. We’re particularly taken by Gandalf’s hat!
Inside, we discover all manner of props and costumes from LOTR and many others including King Kong, District 9, Avatar, The Chronicles of Narnia, Spider-Man and Tin-Tin. It’s heaven for film fans.
We’re shown processes including moulding, computer-assisted design, cutting and painting, and even the 3D printing of armour that looks like heavy steel. Here, we get to handle Mithril, the elven chainmail presented to Frodo by Galadriel. It’s feather light.
We get to press the flesh, too, with human skin – or at least the special effects version of it used to cover a forearm so the wearer can be stabbed and convincingly wounded without coming to harm. Very creepy.
The Oscorp security uniforms for the Spider-Man movie all turn out to be 3D-printed too, but the biggest surprise is evil Sauron’s armour which looks sharp and dangerous but which, on close inspection, is made of rubber. It’s got lots of jagged pointy bits which look cool but which would be useless for real fighting, says our guide.
“If you venture out onto the battlefield in this, you’ll either do yourself an injury or die straight away,” he smiles.
There’s armour and weapons galore here, ranging from Legolas’s bow and quiver to Sauron’s giant mace. Real-looking swords turn out to be rubber or plastic, although there are also steel weapons and bronze sculptures.
Following this visit we head further south, via the Interislander ferry across Cook Strait to South Island. After a 500-mile drive, we check in at a hotel in Queenstown and book a 4×4 tour of LOTR movie locations.
A Jeep duly whisks us off to nearby Glenorchy. There are just four of us, plus three guides, and it’s a real treat to travel in such a small group, allowing lots of friendly conversation and information tailored to your level of geekdom.
We see the Dead Marshes, where Frodo, Sam and Gollum first marvel at the Oliphants, then we we visit the sites of Isengard, the Misty Mountains and Lothlorien Forest, where Peter Jackson had local schoolchildren painting leaves gold so the elvish forest glowed.
When they filmed the Dead Marshes scene, says our driver Paddy, Elijah Wood was terrified of falling into the real swamp so they had to build a replica, filled with warm water, back on the set for the scene where he falls in among the floating dead. But the wide shots were all filmed here, out in the wild.
There’s Amon Hen, where Boromir is killed by orcs at the end of the first movie and – off topic – the hillside where Logan lives in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie and the bridge he memorably crosses in his pick-up truck. We also take in locations from The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
During the Amon Hen fight scenes, we are told, Jackson insisted on using high-flying cameras attached to wires overhead so that the actors and countless extras required for the shot did not trample the ground underfoot.
The trip takes us off the beaten track, along gravel tracks into private land in the Dart River Valley and Twelve Mile Delta, site of the Ithilien Camp, where we eagerly splash through streams to reach the river edge for truly fantastic views.
We can also see the mountain where the Fellowship of the Ring trek across the snow on the way to Khazad-dûm and the mines of Moria, and there’s the hilltop where Frodo is attacked by the Ring Wraiths.
It’s been an adventure there and back again of which even Mr Frodo would be proud. May the road go ever on
Tours of Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand, start at around £14 per person. tours.wetaworkshop.com/wellington
Nomad Safaris’ Glenorchy Lord of the Rings half day 4×4 tour costs around £113 adult/£56 child. nomadsafaris.co.nz
New Zealand’s borders are currently closed, and will open for Australia only on April 19.
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