Turoa - a popular ski area high on the flanks of an active volcano, embedded in a Dual World Heritage Site - is a place of raw beauty and mystery, steeped in ancient legends, Māori lore and geological wonders.
From the southern end of the North Island's great Central Plateau, an awe-inspiring trilogy of mountains - Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe - preside over a barren alpine desert landscape. Tourists are drawn to this amazing volcanic environment, recognised for its significant cultural and geographical values, to experience some of New Zealand's classic outdoor experiences.
The North Island's main driving route passes directly through this region and Tongariro National Park is a year-round tourist destination - attracting skiers and snowboarders in the winter season to the Mt Ruapehu ski areas of Turoa and Whakapapa, and walkers and hikers, mountain climbers and mountain bikers who roam the many well-formed trails in the warmer months.
At any time of the year, it is a spectacular landscape from above or below. On a fine day, from the mountainside, skiers and walkers enjoy sweeping views of the volcanoes and beyond - north across the bare tussock lands to the vast waters of Lake Taupo, west to the perfectly conical Mt Taranaki / Egmont, and south to the Tasman Sea.
From below, the looming volcanic peaks dominate the skyline - lonely mystical shapes reaching to the sky or - as on stormy days - shrouded beneath mist and clouds.
Sir Peter Jackson chose this rugged inhospitable terrain scorched with the colours of volcanic fire to depict Hidden Bay - the entrance to The Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and the watchful eyes of the giant craggy bust of Thror.
Filming in Tongariro National Park was significant as it was the first major feature to be shot in the park since The Lord of the Rings Trilogy more than 10 years ago when these landscapes inspired Mordor and Emyn Muil for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
This time round, Jackson also filmed in the wooded green pastures of Ohutu Grazing Company, near the ski resort town of Ohakune, which featured in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as the outskirts of Hobbiton.
While The Hobbit Trilogy cast and crew spent only one day filming at Turoa, their visit had been preceded by 18 months of planning and discussion with representatives of local Māori and the Department of Conservation to ensure respect of the region’s unique Māori spiritual and cultural values and precious conservation status.
Māori spiritual connection
Māori spiritual connection with the land is especially apparent in the Ruapehu region. For Māori, the mountains - along with other significant landforms - are intrinsically intertwined into their whakapapa (history and ancestry) and must be respected and cared for.
Before film work could begin, the cast and crew were formally received with a powhiri (welcome and blessing) ceremony performed by the two Māori tribes - Ngati Rangi and Ngati Uenuku - that are the guardians of Turoa. The ceremony, which took place at the tribal meeting ground, was described as an incredibly moving cultural experience.
The Hobbit crew also went to exceptional lengths to minimize impact on the environment. This included building an enormous 200m scaffolding boardwalk to keep cast and crew off fragile ancient mosses growing near the film site. At 1500m above sea level, this was the Main Unit's highest base camp and filming location during The Hobbit shoot.
Each year thousands of visitors come to marvel at the unique topography and enjoy the vast natural playground of the Central Plateau, and the cast and crew of The Hobbit Trilogy were able to mix pleasure with business during filming.
For Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Hugo Weaving, this region held special memories.
Martin Freeman (Bilbo in The Hobbit Trilogy) described the central North Island region as his favourite location: "It is beautiful. There is a mountain, there is a waterfall, there’s a beautiful view across the valley there. It’s one of the sort of archetypal Kiwi places that you thank god New Zealand has such amazing landscapes."
Richard Armitage (Thorin) made the most of his time on Mt Ruapehu - "filmed, skied and hiked there".
Hugo Weaving (Elrond) recalled: "I love coming here I think the people here are just wonderful very spirited and creative and very welcoming."
New Zealand’s central North Island is an expansive inland region of amazing and varied geographical features - volcanic peaks, tranquil lakes - including the southern hemisphere’s largest lake, rushing waterways, alpine desert and vast wilderness forests.
Tongariro National Park covers much of the southern part of the region. The region is a natural playground with endless opportunities for walking, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, adventure and winter snow sports.
In summer, the clear lakes and rivers are the place to be for fresh water holidays - Kiwis love come to swim, fish, boat and water ski, or simply relax and soak in the natural hot springs.
Turoa is one of two winter ski areas on Mt Ruapehu, and the world’s only ski field within 500m of an active volcanic field. One of New Zealand’s Great Rides - the Mountains to Sea cycle trail begins at Turoa.
Nearby Ohakune - the southern gateway to the ski fields - is a winter and summer resort with plenty of accommodation, restaurants, cafes and pubs, and hire facilities for winter and cycling gear. It is the setting off point for hiking and cycling adventures on a range of trails, white water rafting, horse riding and canoeing adventures.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 17km track that traverses Mt Tongariro (1967m) and has been described as one of the best one-day hikes in the world. It is one section of Te Araroa Trail which traverses the length of New Zealand.
The track travels from alpine meadows to mountain summit passing many outstanding volcanic features - a lunar landscape of craters, pumice and scoria slides, active geothermal vents, mountain springs, lava flows, emerald lakes, and statue-like mounds of volcanic desert.
The track is an eight to nine hour trek. It is open year-round but, as this is an alpine environment, it is always weather dependant. Many visitors opt to take a guided tour to fully experience the Maori culture, stories and landscape.
The nearest main centre is Taupo - on the northern shores of Lake Taupo. Beautiful Lake Taupo is actually a huge volcanic crater with a fiery history including the gigantic 181 AD eruption that affected the skies above Europe and China.
Nearby local attractions include the Huka Falls, geothermal wonders and natural spas. The swirling cascades downstream from Huka Falls feature in the dwarves in barrels scene in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
At the southern end of Lake Taupo, Turangi is an internationally renowned hub for fly fisherman in search of world beating trophy trout.
Background: Turoa and Ohakune
Media Fact File: Hidden Bay - Turoa, Ohakune
New Zealand’s sacred mountains
Tapu - sacred Maori code
Te Araroa - the long New Zealand trail
Nga Haerenga - cycling New Zealand’s Great Rides
New Zealand 101 - a quick tour