March 10, 2019, Wellington, New Zealand — New Zealand was late on the discovery timeline, and the first European settlers didn’t arrive in Wellington until 1840. The nation’s capital was moved here from Auckland in 1865, after gold was discovered on the South Island, which used to be referred to as ‘the mainland’ since it is much bigger than the North Island. Gold led to rapid immigration of miners from around the globe, and to rapid growth and considerable wealth.
It is a gorgeous part of the planet...
Today, the city is considered the least polluted and one of the most ‘livable’ capitals in the world... also the world’s windiest: the ‘ton’ on the sign is shown being blown away.
NZ has a burgeoning wine industry. You know I like wine. And I’ve recently started drinking Overstone Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region. The ship ran out several days ago (I’m not personally to blame) but I’ve been assured more will be stockpiled in Sydney. I was not put off by a 2012 Condé Nast Traveler article that said Marlborough region wines possess ‘...some notoriously exotic signature flavors: human sweat, passion fruit, asparagus — and, get this, cat urine! Government scientists recently spent 12 million dollars confirming the accuracy of descriptors such as the last one, considered another windfall from New Zealand’s freakish geography and climate, with exporters banking on an emerging customer base in China to buy wines with labels such as Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush.’
But enough about cat pee wine. Let’s move on to that other internationally recognized New Zealand industry, namely, The Lord of the Rings.
I’d been to Wellington last year and wasn’t particularly enthralled so I hadn’t made any excursionary plans for our day in port. Then I said to myself the same thing I said to myself last year when I almost didn’t spend the money to go to Petra in Jordan: ‘Don’t be an idiot.’ Followed by, ‘Get off the boat and see something.’
I chose the optional ‘For Lord of the Rings Aficionados: Fantasy, Filmcraft and More.’ I’ve seen the movies (David had read all the books twice over) and would not call myself an aficionado, but I do like movies and I like seeing what goes into making them. Which in the case of LOTR, is a hell of a lot. I thought I’d signed up for a scenic bus ride outside Wellington to assorted movie locations — majestic mountains looming over pristine indigo inlets.
We never left greater Wellington. But it was okay. As we boarded his small bus, our excellent driver/guide Grant, who worked in government before becoming a tour guide /driver, said, ‘Welcome to the middle of Middle Earth.’ Much smaller than Auckland (c. 200,000 in the city proper vs. 1.7 million up north), the city’s size was literally increased by ‘reclamation’ — infilling parts of the harbor with dirt. Much of the rest is hilly, and houses on the hillsides are reminiscent of San Francisco. About 400 residents who can’t drive their car from sea level up to their house have built private funiculars, at a cost of anywhere from $33,000 - $330,000 in USD, to transport people and groceries.
But, after gold over a century ago, what has really caused modern Wellington to bloom is one man: Peter Jackson. Inspired by the 1933 version of King Kong, he began making movies when he was a highly creative 9 year old — and never went to film school. He started with blood-and-gore slasher movies he made in studios he created out of abandoned factories in the Wellington suburb of Miramar. He kept filming, and converting, until Miramar was transformed into a filmmaking hub, and Wellington and its environs became a major movie location for filmmakers from around the world.
One fine day, Jackson acquired the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s LOTR trilogy...and the rest is movie history. Thanks to him, today tourism is booming in Wellington. Many come to see the scenery, which Jackson made a ‘character’ in the movies. I’m determined to Netflix them when I get home.
Our first stop was the 20-year-old WETA Studios. If that stands for something, I’ve forgotten what. Google says: ‘Weta Workshop does creative development, publishing, weapons, props, creatures, make-up, miniatures, public art, merchandise for films such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar, Elysium, District 9, Godzilla, The Amazing Spider-Man 2.’
BTW: The computer power used to create Avatar surpasses the computer power of NASA. In order to power their production, WETA upgraded the internet service and bandwidth in all of Mirabar — and rewarded all the residents with free internet as a thank you.
It is many studios in one unassuming suburb. The $110-million post-production studio is the third largest in the world.
All three parts of the LOTR trilogy were filmed simultaneously... which was a gamble because if the first to be released had been a flop they would have spent all that money on two others. The budget for all three was $200mm USD. (Jackson was very shrewd about saving money: knowing that the New Zealand Army don’t have much to do, he hired many of the well-built, beefy, fit soldiers to portray Orcs in the battle scenes.) It paid off: The profit was... wait for it... $3,300,000,000. That’s b for billion. The budget for each of the three Hobbit movies was a mere $124mm.
We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the studio, only in the gift shop...
A Hobbit recipe... [Aside:] Even before this LOTR excursion, I had begun to call my mid-morning snack my ‘second breakfast,’ a Hobbit tradition. Yoghurt and fruit before yoga or pilates, then what my mother would call a ‘schnibble’ of something else after. I try hard not to schnibble on croissants and pains au chocolat. But if the Viking pastry chef ever tries this recipe, I’ll give it a try...
After the studio tour, we drove up Mount Victoria (Queen Victoria sure got around her empire) to see where several ‘Outer Shire’ Hobbit scenes were shot — right up the hill behind a bunch of suburban houses.
Imagine being here on a cool, breath-fogging night...hiding from the Nazgül...
It was a fun day. Here’s Sail Away from Wellington. Next stop: Milford Sound, in the Kiwi fiords. #