At the head of Lake Pukaki, New Zealand's highest peak Aoraki Mt Cook dominates the turquoise ribbon of lake that fills an elongated ancient glacier-carved valley. The craggy peak draws serious alpinists and mountaineers from around the world, and the surrounding region is a popular destination for star gazing, winter snow sports, cycling, summer hiking and walking, and romantic getaways.
Sir Peter Jackson chose this part of the Southern Alps - the main divide stretching north-south the length of New Zealand's South Island - as the setting for ‘Lake-town’ in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
A pure distinctive light, the amazing turquoise hues of the lake and the sharp alpine landforms were all part of the attraction for the film-maker who has used this region three times to backdrop major location scenes in his The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies.
But, while the irresistible beauty of this Middle-earth landscape is obvious, the region also offered Jackson an endless backdrop with plenty of room to move - a wild expanse, virtually unencumbered by human population and evidence of settlement, that was none-the-less easily accessible and able to accommodate the needs of a massive crew and cast.
Tasman Downs Station
Lake-town - one of the most extensive outdoor sets built for The Hobbit Trilogy - was created at Tasman Downs Station on the shores of Lake Pukaki.
The whimsical lakeside village set sits over water incorporating clusters of two-storey wooden dwellings arranged around connecting walkways, waterways and wharves - all featuring the highly detailed style that Peter Jackson is recognised for.
Filming at this location was one of the largest operational periods in the shooting schedule with around 700 people on set.
At the same time, Jackson was also filming earlier scenes of the ‘Misty Mountains’ for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on a hilltop plateau overlooking the lake at nearby Braemar Station - an operation that required 10 helicopters to transport cast and crew.
Cast member James Nesbitt (Bofur) was impressed by the immense natural beauty and colours of the Aoraki Mount Cook region which he described as "very, very beautiful, huge open spaces, lovely wild flowers. I remember - going along all the roads - just all the kinds of colours."
Nesbitt is not alone in his appreciation. Visitors to the region frequently remark on the colour contrasts that begin with the startling blue of the lakes - due to finely ground minerals in the glacier-fed waters - green forested lowlands, golden tussocked hill country and magnificent snow-capped mountains. In spring and summer, the hills around the lake are covered with brilliantly coloured lupin flowers.
Lake Pukaki is surrounded by big country. Sourced from the Tasman Glacier (New Zealand's longest at 29km), the lake borders the eastern slopes of New Zealand's greatest alpine park - Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It is the largest of three lakes in the region which also encompasses the country's highest mountains (19 peaks over 3000 metres) and a series of glaciers that cover 40 per cent of the park.
Aoraki Mount Cook (3754 metres) and the national park form part of Te Waipounamu - South Westland World Heritage Area in recognition of its outstanding natural values.
One of the best ways to experience the majestic landscape is on scenic flights that offer an unending panorama of mountains, lakes, glaciers and the oceans on either side - the Tasman Sea on the rugged West Coast and the Canterbury Plains fringed by the surging Pacific Ocean. There are also options for landings on glaciers and snow, or cross country tours by 4WD and Argo, and glacier exploring by boat.
In June 2012, the region gained further international recognition as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve - at 4300 sqkm, it is the world's largest international park in the sky.
Far from city lights, and under strictly controlled local ordinances, the gold-rated dark sky reserve has almost light-pollution-free skies making for exceptional night sky viewing for the thousands of visitors who make the pilgrimage each year.
Picturesque Lake Tekapo - a 30-minute drive north of Lake Pukaki - is the centre of star gazing tourism in New Zealand. Mt John Observatory above Tekapo is considered one of the most accessible observatories in the world. It is home to six telescopes, including one which can observe 50 million stars each clear night.
Stargazers can also visit Aoraki Mt Cook's Hillary Alpine Centre and Planetarium - the world's southernmost planetarium offers virtual 3D tours of the sky - or simply step outside on a clear night to witness the unforgettable southern night sky.
Walking & Cycling
Walkers and cyclists can experience some of New Zealand’s iconic outdoor activities in this outstanding landscape.
Starting from Aoraki / Mt Cook Village, the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail is New Zealand’s longest continuous bike ride. The multi-day cycling trail descends over 609m and travels 300km to the coastal town of Oamaru. This trail showcases New Zealand’s geological, geographical and historical highlights from the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean.
There are many walking trails for all levels of fitness throughout this region. Along with shorter walks, the southern edge of Lake Pukaki forms a one section of Te Araroa - The Long Pathway, a walking trail that travels the length of New Zealand.
Other outdoor activities include kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, horse trekking and hiking. Local waterways are popular for salmon and trout fishing.
Sir Peter Jackson's films have become the inspiration for a variety of film tourism activities in the region.
Twizel - the region’s main country town - appeared in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy as the location for the Pelennor Fields. This was the largest scene filmed in the Trilogy with over 1500 actors and crew involved.
Many locals were employed on the film, and some are now guides on daily tours revisiting this iconic location. The grassy fields that stretch to the foothills of the mountains look exactly as described in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.