Sunday, February 7
Now fully reunited and settled into our two large vans, it was time start exploring New Zealand. First up on our list truly was something out of Middle Earth - the movie set for the town of Hobbiton, the bucolic farmland home of the hobbits in Tolkien's fantasy world. We chose this as our first day's activity because it was virtually on the way to our first night's accommodation, and - compared to doing something strenuous - was easy and low-key.
Heading out onto New Zealand's highways was a bit disorienting, for it was time for me to become familiar with driving on the left side of the road. It took some concentration to force the mind away from the nearly automatic positioning for right side driving. One of the most annoying things I noticed? The steering column's turn signal and wiper stalk controls are flipped. Why? Why not just leave them the same as in most of the rest of the world? The resulting accidental deployment of the wipers upon making turns was a frequent and annoying occurrence. Lori had put a mitten or glove over Brian's wiper stalk to discourage him from making the same mistake.
Outdoor Cafe in February
Halfway through the two-hour drive to the Hobbiton Movie set, we stopped at a roadside cafe for a break and to enjoy summer in February - a very strange thing for us northern hemispherers. It was nice to finally be realizing the result of more than a year of planning. Many interesting experiences awaited us over the next few weeks, we hoped.
The Hobbiton movie set is located near the town of Matamata, at the base of the North Island's long northwestern arm. Matamata is a thriving farming region, and one such farm - the Alexander Farm - was selected by a Lord of the Rings scouting team in 1999. This location became the setting of Hobbiton of the Shire - the home of the legendary Baggins of Bag End.
Pulling off the main highway and heading up the appropriately-named Buckland Road, we drove through beautifully-textured farmlands, full of steeply rolling hills and flocks of sheep. Soon we arrived at a busy parking lot, full of cars, visitors and tour buses. Tolkien's appeal had indeed spread far and wide.
Initially only intended to be used for the Lord of the Rings trilogy movies, the Hobbiton movie set was partially dismantled and left neglected for many years after filming ended. Then, with the upcoming production of the Hobbit movies in the 2010 timeframe, the set was rebuilt, and this time with more permanent materials. Many support facilities have now been put in place as well, including a ticketing office, washrooms, a cafe, and ample parking. All of this infrastructure is set well away from the actual site of Hobbiton, which is reached by buses which drive back and forth between the site and the main parking and reception area.
Welcome to Hobbiton
So, Hobbiton is now a major tourist attraction for New Zealand, and it is a busy place indeed. Given the large size of our own group, we booked online a few days in advance, ensuring that we'd have a slot at the right time in the day to fit into our schedule. A hot summer sun beat down upon us as we lined up to get our tickets.
After some waiting - both off and on one of the big green tour buses - we met our lively guide and started the drive along a windy road through the hilly farm country to the movie set, getting a brief outline of the location's history along the way. The Hobbiton set is situated such that you can't see it from the approach road, and we got dropped off at a small gravel lot surrounded by high hedges, and a sign proclaiming "Welcome to Hobbiton".
Assembling into a group of about twenty people, our guide took us through a leafy, shady gate and down an enclosed path. Crossing through a narrow vegetated notch in a small hill (known as "Gandalf's cutting" because this is the spot where Frodo jumps on Gandalf's arriving horsecart in the Fellowship of the Rings), we soon arrive at the edge of the movie set. We are at the lower end of the site, and rising up in a series of green grassy mounds before us are the hobbit-holes of Hobbiton, culminating up on the horizon with "The Hill" - the broad crest containing the Baggins residence of Bag End.
A Hobbit Hole
Our guide refocused our attention to our immediate surroundings. The first hobbit residence was right beside us, picture-perfect in all manner of ways - texture, color, just the right amount of "agedness". Some residences were definitely hobbit-sized, small and sized for half-human height creatures. Others were sized up to full-human height. This was done to allow for the filming techniques that emphasized the heights of both hobbit and non-hobbit movie characters, as needed.
In addition to the wonderful attention to the Tolkien-esque / Alan Lee-esque architectural style, our attention was caught by the verdant nature of the set. Everything was a profusion of plant life - thick and vibrant shrubbery, healthy trees, lots of thick green grass, colorful bunches of flowers, and vegetables - real vegetables. The movie set has a staff of gardeners that manage and cultivate everything, including the vegetable patches, which had pumpkins, gourds, potatoes, and many other vegetables.
A Real Garden
As we moved through the Sackville neighborhood (ooh those nasty Sackville-Bagginses!), our guide pointed out some interesting techniques the crews had used to create an extra-authentic ye-olde-english-towne feel. Chief among these were the aging technique for wood. Apparently, a concoction that included glue, vinegar, yogurt, and woodchips was applied to the wood surfaces of the recently-built set pieces. The goopy mixture interacts with the wood in such a way as to give it a very weathered, mossy, lichen-ish look in a very short period of time. The end result was very convincing.
We wandered through lower Hobbiton, marvelling at the vibrant, life-like detail of the place. Especially impressive were the thatched roofs of some of the hobbit-holes, hand-made from rushes taken from the nearby pond. Looked like it would have taken a long and painstaking amount of effort to construct.
Lots of pretty garden stuff
As intricately finished as the hobbit-hole entrances were, we found out that there is not much behind them. The vast majority of the interiors are small and completely unfinished, with the exception of a few - like Bag End - where a short section of interior entranceway is in fact completed. It makes sense, after all. Attempting to film inside a cramped hobbit residence would be extremely problematic. Instead, Peter Jackson's crew filmed interior hobbit-hole sequences in a film studio in the capital city of Wellington.
Climbing The Hill
It was now time to climb upwards, on the path towards the highest part of the town, where the illustrious residence of Hobbiton's most famous family is located. Situated inside the crest of a hill that is simply called "The Hill", one finds the hobbit-hole (or perhaps hobbit-mansion) of Bag End. With multiple entrances and many windows, it is the centerpiece of the entire set.
We attempted to space ourselves away from the other tourists in order to get some shots without a bunch of people in the way, since, as you can imagine, getting a photo in front of Bag End is a pretty popular thing to do. As we waited for our moment, we turned around and looked out. From here, there is an expansive, grand view over the hollow into which most of Hobbiton is built.
Finally, a break in the crowds, and we had our time in front of Bag End. You can't actually go right up to the front door, as a closed gate bars the way, complete with a "No Admittance Except on Party Business" sign from the first chapter of the Fellowship of the Ring. Even so, it was amazing to be right next to a real-life instance of Bag End. The interpretation of Tolkien illustrators John Howe's and Alan Lee's vision of the quaint halfling home was perfect. You could easily imagine the classic scene of Gandalf banging on the round green door with his staff. Today the door was half-ajar, and you could see a tantalizing bit of finished interior wall (although as I mentioned earlier, only a bit of the entranceway is completed).