There And Back Again: Traveling to Middle Earth

I just spent two weeks in New Zealand.

That is a sentence I never thought would be factual. Since watching The Lord of the Rings many making-of documentaries, I’ve always wanted to travel to New Zealand to visit the wondrous locations used to re-create Middle Earth.

Thankfully, my wife is also a huge nerd and would be more excited to meet Richard Taylor than Orlando Bloom. We decided years ago to save up both vacation time and money to make the trip a reality. And this month, we set forth on our journey. I realize this is not a travel blog, and it is not my intention to update everyone on any future comings and goings – excluding GenCon, of course! But the trip invigorated my inner geek because I spent two weeks trekking through a living, breathing fantasy-like landscape. Knowing how fortunate I was to spend an extended period of time in this magical country, I wanted to share my experience with those interested enough to read about the trip. And to encourage everyone with every fiber of my being to travel to New Zealand. Especially if you are a nerd. Do it at some point in your life! I know it is expensive; it’s worth every dollar.

Below, I provide some reactions to the trip and describe how my journey to New Zealand inspired me as a roleplaying gamer.

The flight from Los Angeles to Auckland was approximately 13 hours. It featured a hilariously bizarre safety presentation combining segments from these three videos with airline crew in bodypaint, Richard Simmons and members of the New Zealand Rugby Team. I feel the need to mention that I was completely smitten by the brunette in bodypaint. We landed in Auckland to walk to another plane bound for Rotorua – our first (and only) stop on the North Island.


The city of Rotorua on the North Island was a prominent destination while planning the trip because we wanted to experience the Māori culture. We attended a Haka and they attempted (in vain) to teach me the moves. As a result, I want to create some type of war dance for a NPC or group of monsters in my campaign to horrify and dazzle the party! It could be boring for the party to fight another group of orcs, but if the DM creates a 30-second war dance for the orcs like the Haka to lead up to the encounter – suddenly the DM has the players’ attention! Plus, a DM should earn incredible style points for the effort alone! If you need a lesson, then watch the consultant for the All Blacks, New Zealand’s Rugby Team, and try to muster just 1/1,000,000th the intensity.

The landscape around Rotorua is unlike anything I have ever seen before – a misty rainforest featuring bubbling mud pools and lakes of colors so brilliant they appear dyed. The pictures below are not altered in any way, and do not serve the colors justice. The lakes seemed to have been poured out of a fluorescent marker. The entire region smelled strongly of sulfur, which actually woke me up several times the first night before my body adjusted to the scent. The best word to describe the area is otherworldly.

The sights, smells and culture provided me with so many ideas for campaign elements. The unique environment forced me to reconsider what qualifies as reality. I imagine in the future I will set up encounters – either verbally or with physical props – with vibrantly colored pools and misty landscapes. The earth itself felt like a character during our time in Rotorua, and I want to bring that dynamic to life in a campaign. The challenge will be how best to accomplish that goal!

South Island

A short flight to the South Island led us to Christchurch, where we picked up a rental car. We had a two-hour drive to our next destination, Hanmer Springs, but the drive alone was exciting. The countryside of New Zealand is simply ridiculous in terms of beauty. The few roads that disrupt the countryside slither along rolling hills, mountains and cliffs. They are the type of roads featured in commercials for sports cars and other high-performance vehicles. For approximately 10 days, we drove our rented car around the South Island and each drive was breathtaking.

Along the way we hiked to glaciers, delved into caves, sailed through fjords and trotted horses along the countryside. But not just ANY countryside, we booked a tour with Dart Stables in Glenorchy – a town of less than 500 people about an hour outside of Queenstown. As a LOTR fan, this part of the trip was highly anticipated as it would pass along locations used for filming numerous scenes featured in the movies. We rode past Lothlórien, along Isengard and through Amon Hen. It was wild because I had conversations like this in my head:

“That looks just like Isengard. Wait, that’s because it IS Isengard!”

“Those hills are where the Uruk-hai ran down to chase Merry and Pippin. Do you think my horse will remain calm if I scream, “FIND THE HALFLING!”


It was certainly one (of the many) highlights of the vacation. During the tour, we even passed by a location that was used in the filming of The Hobbit. Filming was long concluded, but remnants of Beorn’s gate were still in place.

Other highlights included our time in Franz Josef Glacier (used for filming the Lighting of the Beacons montage), Milford Sound and Queenstown – where my wife thankfully survived jumping off a perfectly good 2,500-foot peak to paraglide. I really wanted to get to the location where Edoras was filmed for The Two Towers, but it’s in the middle of nowhere and tough to access. We hiked up Mount Iron in Wanaka; the 360-degree video below gives any example of the “postcard views from every angle” landscape of New Zealand.

Moving Forward

Overall, we were outdoors so often. Even the driving was an experience, but the amount of walking and hiking was a wonderful change of pace from my normal routine, which consists of an office job and a great deal of sitting. One thing I realize from the trip is that I need to get outdoors more often. Not just for my physical health but also my mental health!

I probably generated more ideas for my D&D campaign walking around in the environment during those two weeks than any other time since I started the game two years ago. I am sure the wondrous landscape of New Zealand played a large part in fueling my imagination, but I’m motivated to get outside more often to generate ideas. In addition, experiencing another culture – including the long history of the Māori people – gives me idea for how to diversify NPCs, locations and quests in my campaign. I have typically relied on books, shows and films for gaming ideas, but there is such a wealth of possible plot hooks in the real world. Listening to a few stories about the Māori culture from Māori people was fascinating. It was an honor, and their rich culture is just one example of how DMs can pull from the real world to add flavor and depth to a campaign.

Perhaps it is not a lesson other DMs need, but it was a pleasant reminder that inspiration for roleplaying games can be found readily in the real world. My suggestion for each DM is to break out of their comfort zone. While traveling halfway across the world is not a viable option for most, do something else that is outside the normal routine. Drive a bit further than usual to a large park and walk around. Drive out to a dark part of town and watch the stars. Visit a local museum or other heritage sites to learn about another culture. Communicate with a diverse group of people, and be willing to learn from them.

And – by god – if you have the chance, visit New Zealand!

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

10 thoughts on “There And Back Again: Traveling to Middle Earth”

  1. Now you need to start saving your GP for a UK trip, so you can see some of the sites that inspired Tolkien the writer: ruined Norman castles, Roman ruins, prehistoric burial mounds, standing stones, etc.

    There were a couple of burial mounds that gave me a shudder thinking of Barrow Wights (which sadly weren’t in the movie), and made the scene in the movie where Theodred is buried in the mound outside Edoras that much more significant.

    1. Ireland, Scotland and England are all possibilities for our next trip. Although another option we are discussing is something like Norway. Most likely that part of the world. 🙂

      1. Don’t forget Wales! Another Celtic nation steeped in myth and history, my home country, and source of much Tolkienesque inspiration -rugged mountains combined with dilapidated Norman castles and prehistoric cairns. Anyone who has played Keep on the Shadowfell needs to check out these pics Carreg Cennen which has its own underground passageways and cave! If you can visit all the better (it is only two hours from London and nothing beats turning off the torch creeping down those wet, echoing corridors in complete darkness). Just one of many such castles built all over Wales.

        Elvish is half based on the Welsh language which is still spoken and seen on signposts countrywide.
        And we’re the only country in the world to have a red dragon on our flag, naturally…
        Sorry to blow the trumpet but I think a lot of international travellers miss out on what Wales has to offer – although I now live in Ireland and can heartily recommend it as a destination for fantasy-lovers too. Giants Causeway and Newgrange burial ground are pretty inspriational.

      2. Wales is certainly on the list of places I’d like to visit! I do not know when our next “big” trip will be, but it’ll likely be in that part of the world. Thank you for the links and suggestions!

  2. Really glad that you enjoyed your trip to Nuw Zeelind (as we pronounce it). I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t fit in some time in Wellington. It’s a) the coolest little capital in the world, b) home of Weta and thus where much of the Hobbit is being shot, and c) most importantly my home town.

    Everyone should at some point in their life come experience a country like NZ where we have great landscape and, as a South African workmate of mine said yesterday – our idea of national issues of significance is graffiti and wind farms being noisy.

    1. Yes, Nuw Zeelind was AMAZING. We loved it, and did not want to leave. We had Wellington on our list for the longest time but we realized that we couldn’t do both towns on the North Island, and Rotorua won out. I was regretting that for a couple of days after I learned we could have met up with someone my cousin knows that works at Weta. Oh well!

      I realize I was on vacation, but life did seem so much simpler there. It was also nice to be away from the Internet (for the most part), cell phone (completely) and stuff like American political news. We have many “favorite” people we met, but the sheep farmer who turned his land into a winery was probably the most interesting!

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