It's the type of scenery that screen-savers are made for. Mt. Sunday, deep in the heart of the Canterbury High Country. Better known to movie-fans as the mystical city of Edoras, I recently joined a guided journey to this spectacular cinematic location with Hassle-free Tours. For over a decade, the award-winning Christchurch-based tour company has been set-jetting enthusiasts to their cinematic dreams, bringing to life one of the most wondrous film locations in the Rings trilogy, deep in the Rangitata Valley.
Heading south of Christchurch, in a comfy six-wheel Land Cruiser, with elevated seating and panoramic windows, our driver-guide, Hammond, set sail on his illuminating, chatty commentary, traversing a vast range of insights on the earthquakes, the rebuild, local history and the regional economy. I always find it fascinating to experience your own turf through the tourist lens, gleaning fresh perspectives from the outside world on the place you happily call home.
A quick morning tea and toilet stop beckoned at Salmon Tales Café in Rakaia, in the shadow of the town’s giant salmon statue. Top tip? Order up a piece of their Pineapple Lump Slice – insatiable! From Rakaia, we blazed a western trail, as the towering backbone of the Southern Alps loomed ever large on the horizon, only to fleetingly disappear from view, as a thick curtain of mist molested proceedings. After a quick pick-up stop in Methven, and obligatory wave to the Blue Pub and the Brown Pub, we shimmied around the foothills to Mt. Somers village – before losing connectivity with the outside world, the last outpost of cellphone coverage in these parts. How liberating.
That pesky cloak of mist finally vanished with red tussocks, rhythmically ruffled by the wind, dominating the undulating landscape as we entered the Hakatere Conservation Park, flanked by the glacially-created alpine lakes of Camp and Clearwater and their tight cluster of rustic batches. A quick photo-stop to soak up the expansive high country vistas, and the views of 2875-metre high Mt. D'Archiac, served merely as an appetiser for the show-stopping majesty that lay ahead.
On a heavily rutted gravel road, the Hakatere-Potts Rd, bracketed in golden hills of snow tussock, matagouri and toetoe, the most celestial viewpoint appeared at the Mt. Potts Cutting, stretching across the broad basin of the Rangitata Valley, buttressed by heroically high mountains and sheer cliffs. Welcome to the Kingdom of Rohan. Much of the land belongs to Mt. Potts Station, however, in the wake of the Rings-inspired popularity, DOC created an easement to Mt. Sunday aka Edoras.
From the public carpark, it's about a 15 minute walk up the southern spur of Mt. Sunday. However, one of the many advantages of taking the journey with Hassle-free Tours is that they are the only operator with a concession to drive past the carpark, fording the gin-clear streams and up part of the mountain, using the rutted track on the northern spur, which the land cruiser made light work of.
From there, it's a rather effortless ten minute stroll to the summit. Six-hundred metres above sea level, this rocky, craggy jewel in the middle of this insanely photogenic valley stretches the definition of a mountain. Technically, it’s called a roche moutone, a low and rounded hill shaped by a glacier. Rocks on the summit still bear the gouges of the Rangitata Glacier, as it rode over the top of the hill. Just like Mt. John in Tekapo, Sunday wouldn’t buckle to the power of the glacier, stubbornly standing its ground.
After we'd mounted the summit, the 360 degree alpine panorama is so enthrallingly kaleidoscopic, so jaw-droppingly epic, not even a month of Sundays basking in this perspective would become boring. To the north, you look down to Erewhon Station of Clydesdales-fame. There's the serpentine braids of the Rangitata River's upper reaches, the serrated snow-clad peaks of the Southern Alps, the exposed greywacke rock faces of the Potts Range, the tumbling scree slopes, the sunburnt, tussock-carpeted foothills, the expansive valley plain and the silvery, slinking trail of Potts River.
The air was so crisp and clear, the mountains seemed magnified, with their sharp edges and spectacular shingle fans. Only the sound of happily-clicking shutters, competed against the strengthening howls of the wind. The wind-speed reached 72km as we drunk in the summit spectacle and endured an involuntary facial exfoliation. Notorious for wind gusts, Hammond remarked that at the time of shooting, the Rings crew were buffeted by wind gusts as high as 180km!
And the beauty of the Hassle-free tour is all the behind-the-scenes nuggets and anecdotes. On one particularly windy day, Sir Peter Jackson's glasses flew off his face, over the cliff, never to be seen again. There's a movie relic to hunt for! Sir Peter stumbled upon this cinematic location by sheer accident. His location scouts were choppering down to the West Coast, but were forced to fly east of the Alps due to bad weather, chancing upon Mt. Sunday by a stroke of luck. Many of the riders of Rohan were actually women from the local pony clubs in mid-Canterbury. Their elaborate costumes included being dressed in beards, which apparently led to much hilarity during shooting breaks.
Because many locals were recruited as extras, a shoe was taken from each individual, when they arrived to change into their costume. To prevent souvenir-hunting, they were only reunited with their show, once they returned their costume and everything was fully accounted for. Hammond also explained how the construction of the city of Edoras took nine months, showing us photos of the elaborate sets, including Golden Hall, which graced this rocky outcrop. The cast and crew only spent 11 days actually shooting on sight.
Despite the mercurial alpine weather, miraculously, they didn't see one drop of rain. Following filming, the set was dismantled and this lyrical landscape was returned to its natural state. Hammond also was equipped with an arsenal of replica weaponry and flags from the movie, which we had great fun playing silly buggars with, and posing for photos. Descending from the hill, we sojourned at Mt. Potts Lodge for a complimentary lunch, consisting of delicious gourmet sandwiches, slices, orange juice and sparkling wine.
As the altostratus clouds continued to build above us, portending changing weather, we began to head for home. Throughout the journey a variety of movie featurettes were played to our group, including some cracking bloopers and actor interviews. What really shone through was how much the cast genuinely fell in love with Mt. Sunday. Hammond was an exceptional guide: authentic, easy-going, wickedly humorous with a commanding breadth of knowledge. But he was also incredibly understated in a quintessential Kiwi kind of way.
Driving back to Christchurch, Hammond finally revealed that he was Hammond Peek, the double Oscar-winner, who sound engineered the Rings trilogy, after first working with Peter Jackson on Heavenly Creatures in 1994. Hammond actually won his second Oscar for sound mixing King Kong. After 36 years in film and television, since 2006, Hammond has been a driver-guide for Hassle-Free Tours' Edoras day-trip. He only works a couple of days a week, so you may want to request a date when he’s behind the wheel.
His intimate accounts about shooting on-location are priceless. And as a four-time nominee, his insider stories about attending the Academy Awards, the pomp, the parties and all the palaver, are hilarious and endearing. Location is the pixie dust of movie dreams and Mt. Sunday is a star specimen in our own backyard. Explore it with one of our most decorated movie magicians, and the incomparable experience that Hassle-Free Tours provides. www.hasslefreetours.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.