There's a small hole in a cliff on New Zealand's West Coast where an underground stream comes back to the sunlight. If it has a name, I don't know it. But as an impulsive 19-year-old, I stripped to my underwear and swam inside.
I expected to open my eyes on a velvety blackness inside the cave, but it was more like gazing into the Milky Way on a moonless night. Hundreds of glowworms clung to the ceiling a few inches above me. Floating back downstream on my back was like flying through the universe with glowworm-stars flashing past my face.
For years, I told people it was like a scene from "Star Wars." Now, after seeing "Lord of the Rings," I say the underground stream was part of Middle-earth. Maybe even the route Gollum took under the Misty Mountains when he first left the sunlight. I just didn't swim far enough.
Whether you are a filmmaker, tourist or a local, like I was, the wonderful thing about New Zealand is that it is the ultimate fantasy landscape.
There is something archetypal about the scenery here, as though someone copied the planet's most distinctive landscapes and jammed them all onto two islands. The Southern Alps. The Tongariro volcanoes. The Fjordland rain forest.
This is a land formed by ancient cataclysmic events as two tectonic plates collided. It's a place where the fires of the earth's core meet its icy peaks and stormy oceans, creating a landscape that's a natural metaphor for the struggle between good and evil.
Alongside the wild landscape, there is lush green farmland in this land of contrast. The rolling green terrain around the town of Matamata, in the North Island, is a romantic English pastoral scene. No wonder that "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson chose it for the setting of Hobbiton.
Since the movie's release, guides to finding the "Lord of the Rings" in New Zealand are multiplying as fast as the Uruk-hai. (That's a special breed of fighting orc, for those not familiar with Tolkien.) Some New Zealand tour companies are even offering tours of "Middle Earth Lord of the Rings" excursions to see the hot spots from the movie.
But before signing up, know that those glorious scenes of Middle-earth were largely created through the magic of digital editing and do not exist in nature. There are several scenes in the movie where I recognized the landscape - and knew the foreground, middle ground and background were actually in different parts of the country.
So be warned: Those who go to New Zealand just to chase hobbits are likely to miss the true enchantment of the land down under. Much of what you will find isn't put together in the same way as it is in the movie, and most of the country's magical landscape isn't going to make it onto the Tolkien tours. So take a couple of weeks off from work, suffer through the 12-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, and find your own adventure.
A road trip around New Zealand should be a leisurely affair. The country is about the same size as Great Britain or Japan, so there aren't vast distances to cover. You'll want to take it slowly and leave time to explore.
A favorite tourist destination lies 145 miles from Auckland in a town called Rotorua, famous for its boiling mud pools and geysers. To get there, you'll drive through lush green farming country.
For those determined to visit a Tolkien location, the volcanic area around Tongariro National Park in the central North Island is where many scenes from Mordor were filmed. Expect to find an almost lunar landscape of craters, scattered pumice, colored lakes and mounds of volcanic rock - testament to the forces that were unleashed to create this volcanic desert.
Wellington is the capital city, the hometown of the "Lord of the Rings" director. You can catch the ferry to South Island from there. Most rental-car companies will allow you to leave a car in Wellington and pick up another in Picton, thus avoiding the expense of ferrying the car.
From Picton, head for the West Coast for jaw-dropping scenery that never appeared in the movie. I can't give directions to my glowworm hole - I probably couldn't find it myself - but the ride down the coast will take you past magnificent mountains, primal rainforest and a coastline with bizarre rock formations such as the Pancake Rocks. Nowhere else in the world's temperate zones will you find glaciers so accessible. You can walk right up to both the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers, or take a scenic flight up to a guided hike on the glacier's surface.
Queenstown, in the heart of the Southern Alps, is also the home of the bungee jump. Media reports say the cast of "Lord of the Rings" was banned from such adventure sports during filming because of the risk of scrapes and bruises.
This is a country where adventuring is a national tradition. The $5 bill bears the image of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first mountaineer to stand atop Mount Everest. The New Zealand government is hoping the movie will help the tourism industry. Certainly the opening of "Lord of the Rings" was surrounded by publicity the country had never seen in connection with a movie. At the premiere, they rolled out the longest red carpet - 656 feet - in the history of New Zealand.
Wellington even changed its name to Middle Earth for the movie's opening day and erected new signs at the airport, town hall, library and on highway overpasses to let visitors know.
Farther north, after much pondering, Matamata decided that it would become Hobbiton for the premiere, though some town officials worried that there wouldn't be enough for visitors to do once they'd journeyed through town hall and seen the staff dressed as hobbits. That started farmer Ian Alexander, upon whose farm Hobbiton was set, worrying about Tolkien-mad visitors tromping "willy-nilly" over his land.
Hopefully, Alexander won't get too many visitors. What a shame for people to waste time looking for hobbit-holes when they could see a glacier crawling from a mountaintop into a rainforest.
After all, Tolkien didn't send Frodo into the land of Mordor on an organized tour. You shouldn't limit your travel this way either.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times