It’s the type of scenery that screensavers are made for – Mt Sunday, deep in the heart of the Canterbury high country.
I always find it fascinating to experience your own turf through the lens of a tourist, gleaning fresh perspectives from the outside world on the place you call home.
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.
Heading south of Christchurch, in a comfortable six-wheel Toyota Land Cruiser, with elevated seating and panoramic windows, our driver-guide, Hammond, set sail on his illuminating, chatty commentary on the two-hour drive.
We entered the Hakatere Conservation Park, flanked by the 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 served merely as an appetiser for the majesty that lay ahead.
On a heavily rutted gravel 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 Lord of the Rings-inspired popularity, DOC created an easement to Mt Sunday aka Edoras.
From the public car park, it’s a 15min walk up the southern spur of Mt Sunday. However, one of the many advantages of taking the journey with Hassle-free Tours is that it is the only operator with a concession to drive past the car park, 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 stroll to the summit. Six-hundred metres above sea level, this rocky, protruding jewel in the middle of this insanely photogenic valley beckoned us like a beacon. After we’d mounted the summit, the 360deg alpine panorama is so enthrallingly kaleidoscopic, so jaw-droppingly epic, not even a month of Sundays basking in this perspective would become boring.
There’s Erewhon Station of Clydesdales-fame, the serpentine braids of the Rangitata River, the Southern Alps, 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/h as we took 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/h. The real beauty of the Hassle-free tour is all the insightful behind-the-scenes nuggets. 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 due to bad weather, chancing upon Mt Sunday by a stroke of sheer luck. Many of the riders of Rohan were actually women from the local pony clubs in mid-Canterbury.
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.
In spite of the alpine location, miraculously, they didn’t see one drop of rain. Hammond also was equipped with an arsenal of replica weaponry and flags from the movie, which we had great fun posing with for obligatory photos. A variety of movie featurettes were played to our group, including some cracking bloopers.
What really shone through was how much the cast genuinely fell in love with Mt Sunday. Driving back to Christchurch, Hammond finally revealed that he was Hammond Peek, the double Oscar-winner, who sound engineered the Rings trilogy.
After 36 years in film and television, since 2006, Hammond has been a driver-guide for Hassle-free Tours. He only works a couple of days a week, so you may want to request a date when he’s behind the wheel.
Location is the pixie dust of movie dreams and Mt. Sunday is a star specimen in our own backyard.