Biking Through New Zealand’s “Middle Earth”

Experience firsthand the scenery that fills the screen during the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films

Credit: Lori Henry

Lush and green, New Zealand’s North Island looks a little different in real life than it does on-screen as Middle Earth

New Zealand’s North Island, also known as Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, may be magical on-screen, but seeing it in person is all the more awe-inspiring

Picture Middle Earth landscape from the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies: lush, green, otherworldly. Now imagine riding through Middle Earth on a mountain bike. On New Zealand’s North Island, the rolling hills are not the creation of film studios, but the natural countryside.

After staring at it slack-jawed for as long as you need to, the best way to see countless kilometres is to hop on a bike and carve your way through the native bush. I did just that in the centre of the North Island.

Seeing New Zealand by Bike

A group of nine of us, with the aid of a guide from Visit Ruapehu (the region’s tourism organization), drove from our accommodation at the affordable Park Travellers Lodge in National Park Village to the National Park Railway Station. Here we were fitted with bikes by Kiwi Mountain Bikes.

This is the start of Fishers Track (although you can also get dropped off farther along at the parking lot, taking out a lot of the uphill gravel track at the beginning). It’s part of the Mountains to Sea Trail that crosses two national parks (Tongariro and Whanganui) and spreads over 317 kilometres for a three- to six-day journey. As of today, the trail is 97% complete.


Climbing Mount Doom and Mordor

Our ride began with a steady climb up a winding gravel path enclosed on both sides by dense native forest, with many places to pause and look through a break in the trees to see the Retaruke Valley below.

After three kilometres, the gravel changes to grass and the path opens up to meander along the edge of mountains overlooking farmland with sheep, a dog or two, and deer. I even spotted a stag running through the grass.

In the distance are Mounts Ruapehu and Ngauruhou in Tongariro National Park, known by J.R. Tolkien fans as Orodruin (“fiery mountain”) or Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (and the soon-to-be-released Hobbit films). This volcanic region stands in as Mordor, home of the Dark Lord Sauron. In the films, though, models or CGI were used on long shots because Mount Ngauruhou is sacred to the indigenous Maori people and the summit cannot be filmed.

A lot of the scenes, like when Isildur cuts off Sauron’s finger and the ring, when Frodo and Sam catch Gollum and he leads them down the Emyn Muil, and when the three of them look out over the Gates of Mordor, were filmed on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu. Filming of The Hobbit on a nearby mountain road had just wrapped up the week before I arrived in the Ruapehu area.

New Zealand’s Soft Beauty is a Lot Like BC

We wind our way mostly downhill on Fishers Track for the rest of the trail, on relatively flat terrain that’s good for beginner mountain bikers. The path descends 520 metres into the Retaruke Valley.

I’ve never mountain biked on grass before, only on dirt and rocks, and it’s a much softer ride. In fact, for those of us who live on the rugged west coast of BC, New Zealand’s landscape on the North Island is so similar it’s uncanny. The biggest difference is that on top of New Zealand’s craggy rocks and mountains is a layer of grass, shrubs and trees, making it a less rocky, less rugged, and a softer kind of beauty.

Although seeing New Zealand play Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies is pretty neat, I’d much rather jump in and experience it firsthand on a mountain bike any day.

Lori Henry is a travel writer and author based in Vancouver. Her latest book, Dancing Through History: In Search of the Stories that Define Canada, covers her travelling adventures across the country. Twitter: @LoriHenry.