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A reimagined version of a Disney classic might inspire you to explore New Zealand from new heights


Based on the short story of the same name, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon tells the tale of a young orphan, Pete, and the friend he shares the forest with, Elliot, a dragon. And, thanks to some superb special effects wizardry by Weta Digital, fantasy is about to become reality in a live-action adventure for the whole family.

Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence and the legendary Robert Redford, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon is set in the US Pacific Northwest, but was shot in New Zealand which means the film features a variety of glorious aerial shots as seen from Elliot’s point of view. As a result, many of New Zealand’s most impressive landscapes play a leading role.

So, once you’ve read the story, watched the film and bought the T-shirt, think about taking the experience one step further by exploring New Zealand yourself, following in Elliot’s flight path. What better way to savour the country’s beauty than through the eyes of a dragon as he soars over breathtaking landscapes?

As the sun rises over the majestic peaks of the Remarkables range in Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island, Elliot’s adventure begins. He soars above the 22-kilometre-long gorge known as Skippers Canyon, home to the Shotover River. As Elliot passes through the gorge, the steep walls envelop him, while the river below is the most brilliant shade of green.

Past Queenstown and into the Kawarau River, the curious dragon is more than a bit surprised to see people leaping off the historic Kawarau Bridge. The daring souls leaping the 43 metres rely on little more than a giant rubber band attached securely to their ankles to keep them safe. It looks to Elliot as if it must be tremendous fun, especially for creatures who aren’t fortunate enough to have wings. Circling down to take a closer look at the bungee jump, Elliot hears the echoes of the jumpers’ whoops and whistles in his ears. This is truly an adventure playground.

Local helicopter company Glacier Southern Lakes filmed the aerial sequences for Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. Tourists can soar like a dragon on their own aerial adventure around Queenstown, with the company offering daily scenic rides or private charters.

Central Otago
Banking east, Elliot follows the Kawarau River into Central Otago, and leaves the green of the river behind for the hills, gorges and craggy mountains of the region. He continues on, flying over land where, a hundred years earlier, hardy miners found (and lost) their fortunes during the gold rush, and where visitors can still try their hands at gold panning.

Elliot makes a beeline for Clyde, one of Central Otago’s quaintest and most endearing historic villages of old stone buildings, on the banks of the emerald green Clutha River.

Looking more closely, Elliot spies the curious spectacle of humans rolling about on two wheels. His interest is piqued and he banks down over the groups of smiling humans cycling through picturesque farmland on the 152km Otago Central Rail Trail which follows former railway lines from Clyde to Middlemarch. With rides between one and five days, people can stop at all manner of tiny towns – with names like Ophir and Naseby – each with its own distinct character, rich heritage and dining experiences. If cycling is not your thing, you can try your hand at curling, dog sledding or horse trekking.

Tapanui, in the Otago region of the lower South Island, was transformed into the main street of the film’s quiet American town.

Marlborough Sounds and Wellington
Elliot sets a course further north, up and over the picturesque bays of the Marlborough Sounds, the sea studded with small islands covered in forest and bush, with native birds filling the skies. Seeing families kayaking in the waters makes Elliot’s heart light, as do the campers and hikers making the most of nature’s bounty.

Elliot then flies into Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city and, arguably, the artistic and cultural hub of the nation, too. Sadly, he won’t get to experience the city’s fine-dining scene, or Te Papa Museum of New Zealand, tours of Weta Workshop, the lively theatre offerings, cafe culture and shopping.

The city is also home to Mt Victoria – which was used to film several of the forest scenes in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon.


The Central Plateau
Following the warm northern wind currents, Elliot whizzes up through the central North Island. Buzzing over ranges and rivers, valleys and glades, he spots the volcanic cones of the Central Plateau jutting up into the sky. Snow-capped most of the year, the peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are astonishing and, in the winter, this region is paradise for skiers and snowboarders.

The dragon spots a trail of people, like a colony of ants, marching in single file along a track. They are hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km hike considered to be one of the world’s greatest day walks.

Puffing out a plume of smoke, Elliot pushes on to the thermal wonderland of Rotorua, its collection of picturesque lakes drawing people for fishing, water sports and hiking.

Most of the forest scenes for Disney’s Pete’s Dragon were shot in Rotorua’s Redwoods Forest, an extensive plantation of soaring Californian redwoods that makes it the ideal double for the USA.

Buzzing above Te Puia’s geothermal valley, Elliot sees people lining the path as the famous Pohutu Geyser erupts, shooting boiling steam 30m into the air. Performing this trick up to 20 times a day, Pohutu is considered to be one of the most spectacular geysers on Earth. A family waves to Elliot as the smell of Rotorua’s sulphuric air tickles his nostrils. This is a town a dragon feels at home in, with its bubbling mud pools and temperate lakes but Elliot must heed the call that pulls him inexorably north.

Bay of Islands
Reaching this picturesque northern region, Elliot flies a celebration loop over historic Russell. It’s a pretty town, home to yachts and oyster farms, and the Duke of Marlborough tavern where the waterfront verandah is hard to beat. As he follows a boat cruising across the bay to the seaside town of Paihia, Elliot shares the sky with seabirds and the colourful chutes of parasailers.

As the sun slowly starts to set, Elliot swoops down through native trees to the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Drawn over the water by the call, Elliot flies low over the flagpole and down towards the marae (meeting house), where five Māori warriors perform a haka, the traditional war dance or challenge.

As he lands in front of her, the woman holding a fern – a traditional Maori welcome gesture – smiles at Elliot. He has found where the call was coming from, and he is home.