In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Monday, September 14, 2015
It was only an hour’s drive from Taupō to Rotorua, the next morning. We spent most of the morning walking around Rotorua, mainly on the grounds of the Rotorua Museum, which features typical Maori architecture and design, and the surrounding Government Gardens.
The weather was spring-like here, on the the North Island, and many early spring flowers were already in bloom, such as daffodils, primroses, and even a few tulips. Banners were up for a Tulip Fest, which we assumed was much like Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan (although we don’t know if there is a Dutch heritage element, even though the Dutch are part of New Zealand’s history).
Our stroll around the Rotorua gardens took us around many hot springs and mud pools. The whole area smelled of sulfur (read: stinky eggs), much like we had encountered in Yellowstone National Park back in the States.
We didn’t go into the museum because it was $20 per person, and our main event of the day was Hobbiton, later, but we did explore the Rotorua lakefront a bit, where we found more hot pools and thermal activity due to the volcanic nature of the area. We weren’t too impressed with what they did with the thermal attractions in Rotorua. To be honest, it feels a bit like a cheapened Yellowstone. What we saw was not as colorful and made to be super touristy, and everything was a little bit trashed, a bit too ruined by man—it just seemed less protected, which is unfortunate.
While we were still killing time in Rotorua, we watched some groups of people playing games on the flat bowling greens in the lawn in front of the museum. An elderly man was also tamping down the greens with what only can be described as a zamboni for grass, and he occasionally yelled at tourists who disobeyed the “keep off” signs.
We walked into town a bit and found a free Wi-Fi spot at the Rotorua i-Site building, which was architecturally similar to the Rotorua Museum. It made us feel a little guilty for spending some time on Wi-Fi to kill time while we maybe could have found something else to do, but with Hobbiton being the main focus of the day, and not much planned beforehand to see in Rotorua, there wasn’t a huge amount else we could do.
When we spent all the time we could in Rotorua that we thought we should, we moved on to the town of Matamata, and stopped first at their i-Site building. The Matamata i-Site is completely Lord of the Rings/Hobbit themed, with a thatched roof and circular doors like hobbit holes. We didn’t stay long, but it was certainly evident how Matamata has become a hotspot of tourism ever since the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. The whole town was busy with vehicles and many touristy shops. But today of all days was our day to geek out!
Hobbiton Movie Set—“No admittance except on party business”
We decided to head to Shire’s Rest, Buckland Road, the address of the Hobbiton Movie Set quite a bit earlier than we really needed to. Why not spend as much time as possible at Hobbiton? We were about two hours earlier than we needed to be, but we checked in for our 3:30 PM tour and checked out the souvenir shop and had a quick lunch at the cafe.
We all bought some souvenirs at the shop first. Philip and William got black T-shirts with the Green Dragon logo and poem on it. William and Jessica got postcards. We all got magnets: William, a White Tree of Gondor and Jessica and Philip a “No admittance except on party business” sign. Philip also got a map of New Zealand in the style of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth maps with all of the filming locations labeled and a Green Dragon beer mug.
The Hobbiton Movie Set is built on the property of the Alexander family. Location scouts found their farm in the late 1990s when production of The Lord of the Rings films was getting under way. The original contract with the film company in 1998 called for the set to only be built of temporary materials and torn down at the end of filming. But the set was only ever torn down halfway because a bad storm delayed the demolition. So a partial set sat there for several months, but when the success of the films was apparent, and people began to show interest in finding the filming location, the Alexanders caught on that they could capitalize on the tourism. So when the set was going to be rebuilt for the Hobbit trilogy of films around 2008, the Alexander family requested that it would be rebuilt with permanent materials so that the set could be made into a tourist destination. And now the current contract means the Hobbiton Movie Set will be up for at least 50 more years.
The whole tour, facilities, and guides were fantastic—one of the best tours we’ve ever taken. Jessica and I ate a brie and salad wraps and Philip ate a hot sausage roll along with long black coffees in the Shire’s Rest Cafe before our tour departed at 3:30 PM. We met a woman who was originally from Flint, Michigan, but now lived in Israel with her family for the past 20 years, who had struck up a conversation with us over Philip’s Michigan Awesome sweatshirt.
Our tour guide’s name was Kieran (though we are not sure of the spelling—it could’ve been she was saying “Karen” with a Kiwi accent), a girl who was probably no older than us. And our bus drive was named Cass (again, not sure of spelling). Cass made fun commentary on our bus ride over to the actual set. She had to drive carefully through the road because it was littered with ewes and their new lambs.
Kieran led us through the set. She gave us enough time to appreciate every facet and even assisted taking pictures for people. She told us fun movie facts and movie set history (though we knew quite a bit of it already from watching the DVD commentary and extras). We were all pretty trigger-happy and happy-happy and enjoyed ourselves very much. William, in fact, was a bit sick and running a mild fever, but forgot all about it during the tour.
Some of the fun facts that we learned on the tour include:
- The oak tree at the top of Bag End is completely fake. Each leaf has been individually attached. And this tree is actually the one from the more recent Hobbit films, not the Lord of the Rings films, so it was purposely made to look about 60 years younger. In the Lord of the Rings, the older version of the tree was actually made up of pieces of a real tree mixed with fake elements that had been cut up and pieced back together.
- Some hobbit holes are larger for hobbit scale, but some were made small for Gandalf- and men-sized scale.
- Every detail of the set is made with incredible, meticulous detail, regardless of whether it would show up in the final film or not. Some parts are hardly visible or only visible for a second on screen.
- Nearly all the gardens on the set are real, but some of the fruit and veggies are fake, like the pumpkin nicknamed “Fat Amy” (from the movie Pitch Perfect), so at least some of the produce is preserved. A whole crew of master gardeners takes care of the set year-round.
- While we were there, they were rebuilding the mill, so the lake was lowered for construction. The plan is to make the mill into an event hall that can be booked and rented out for functions.
- Bag End was also being patched up while we were there, so unfortunately, some scaffolding and construction equipment was blocking the way, but nothing that obstructed our shots of Bilbo’s front door.
- Peter Jackson wanted plum trees on the set, but in order to have them to scale for the hobbits, they had to grow and strip pear and apricot trees of their leaves and attached fake plums to them—just for one shot in the movie!
- Many of the scenes of the movies were pointed out to us, such as Gandalf’s Cutting where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) enters Hobbiton on a horse-drawn cart, which had to be done on a 9-meter cart so that Frodo (Elijah Wood) would appear small by being further back. This is also the place where Bilbo yells “I’m going on an adventure!” in the Hobbit films.
- None of the holes are more than a façade, so there is no actual hobbit hole per se, though most go back a ways in the mounds. Only Bag End has some hallway to give it a bit more depth, otherwise all the interior shots were done in a studio in Wellington.
At the end of our tour, we were treated to a pint of Southfarthing amber ale at the Green Dragon pub. It was yummy! We enjoyed the ambience of the pub as our tour was quickly coming to a close. It was hardly enough time to enjoy it all as the details were endless, but soon enough we were led out of our tour and back to the bus. It was a lovely way to end our day—the cherry on top of our New Zealand trip for sure!
We drove away happy as the sun was setting to the nearby town of Te Aroha, to our holiday park for the night. We got our last bit of groceries at a Countdown store in town and then had a dinner of beef ramen, peas, and pastrami sandwiches. We moved our campervan from the original spot we parked it to a bit further away because a swarm of small insects or flies invaded the main cabin, probably since we had parked near a bush and they were attracted to the light inside our van.
We were ready and not-quite-ready for our last full day in New Zealand the next day in Coromandel, as today had been definitely energizing, but “The Road goes ever on and on . . .”