Following the hobbit trail
As the film version of Tolkien's book hits the screens, New Zealand is welcoming a fresh wave of visitors keen to follow in Bilbo's hairy footsteps.
There are three stories you will hear about The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. The first is the tale of a wealthy man, a Tolkien fan from the United States, who asked the makers of the movies’ One Ring to come up with a costly gold replica, then hired a helicopter to fly him over Mount Doom, where he threw it into the flaming inferno. At least, that is how they tell it in Wellington.
In Nelson it’s a woman, a spurned lover, who threw her One Ring wedding band into the volcano.
Then there’s the story of the 1.92m-tall German tourist who arrived at Hobbiton dressed as, well, a tall hobbit, who felt so at home in one of the hobbit holes there that he squashed himself into it and refused to leave for 12 hours. In Auckland, they’ll tell you he was Belgian.
The Lord of the Rings has been big business in New Zealand ever since the late 1990s, when Wellington-born director Peter Jackson decided to film his trilogy here. Now, with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — the first instalment in the new movie trilogy spun from the far shorter book — there’s another opportunity to attract Tolkien devotees.
People involved with Middle-earth-related tours talk wearily of copyright back and forths with the Tolkien estate and with New Line Cinema; it was, initially, hard for them to market anything local as an official Lord of the Rings experience. There’s very much a sense that the tourism that followed the films’ release took all parties by surprise and they’re preparing for it properly this time.
The biggest name in the game right now is Hobbiton, a sheep farm that doubled as the Shire for both trilogies. It is near Matamata, about two hours’ drive from Auckland. Stop in any of the creaking cafés in the small towns along the way (“Collect your Hot Mail here!” reads the proud sign on one) and you’ll bump into a minibus full of pilgrims on the same journey. If you’re lucky, one of the lesser-spotted costumed devotees may make an appearance, although on a brisk early spring day you need more than just a cloak to keep you warm, so we didn’t spy any Gandalfs.
Jackson’s location scouts saw potential in Alexander Farm’s rolling green hills, lake and, crucially, large pines — one of which would eventually become Bilbo’s party tree. After filming was completed in 2004, the set was dismantled before anyone realised that a massive opportunity had been missed. When it was rebuilt for The Hobbit, the farm fought to keep its hobbit holes.
Tolkienesque powers of imagination
The artwork on the sides of the minibuses that take people down to the main site still bear the scars of its cobbled-together past. The post-Lord of the Rings hobbit holes resembled a do-it-yourself home improvement TV show project gone bad with their plain medium-density fibreboard façades fronting holes to nowhere. Although those early visitors may have been disappointed, they did get the option of feeding lambs at the end of the tour, a tradition that still stands today. Sure, you could survey a bit of grass where Elijah Wood once placed his hairy prosthetic feet, but in its original incarnation these moments required Tolkienesque powers of imagination.
These days it’s a far slicker operation, although there is a peculiar feeling to flying for 26 hours to find yourself in a place that has been chosen for its resemblance to the Malvern Hills in England’s West Midlands. Then there’s the fact that the 37 hobbit holes vary greatly in size to accommodate the different heights of the actors playing hobbits and dwarves at any one time. Oh, and that oak tree that sits majestically above Bag End? Its plastic leaves, imported from Taiwan, blow off in the wind and have to be replaced every year or so because visitors keep pinching them as souvenirs.
So it may feel as though you’re taking a gentle stroll around a lusciously green film set, but it can be quietly disorienting. Avoid going the day after you land, lest any remaining jet lag tip you over the edge. Perhaps that is what happened to the giant German-Belgian hobbit who claimed he had found his home there.
Hobbiton may be the main event for now, but Wellington, on the southern tip of the North Island, is about to take over. It renamed itself “the middle of Middle-earth” at the end of November in time for the world premiere of The Hobbit. In September there was little sign of the mania to come, although it already drew on its Lord of the Rings history. We spent an afternoon on a Lord of the Rings Movie Tours minibus, along with a few hardcore Tolkien fans who made Hobbiton’s gentle visitors look like pathetic amateurs.
It’s a winding drive — as are most in New Zealand — up to Mount Victoria, which is less of a mountain and more of a hill, but hosted a number of the scenes set in the Hobbiton woods in The Fellowship of the Ring: its paths are marked by cute “hobbit height” posts.
Our Movie Tours guide, Alice, had brought a laptop, so we could view clips while standing on the very spot in which they were filmed. She also had props. I re-enacted a Sam and Frodo breakfast, a deleted scene restored to the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring (again, this is not for amateurs), complete with pipe and replica frying pan.
Next, we came to the hill down which the hobbits roll when they are on the run from Farmer Maggot. “Do you want to make a hobbit pile?” asked Alice. “Go on then,” we shrugged, preparing to throw ourselves on the floor. I looked over at the other couple on the tour with us, who, judging by their furrowed brows and the number of questions they were asking about the minutiae of the trilogy, were taking it rather more seriously than us. They stared back, appalled. We did not make a hobbit pile.
I asked Alice whether she had been a fan of the movies before she took the job.
“I wasn’t,” she said. “I know everything about them now, though.”
Making the most of it
This seems to be how it is in New Zealand. Everyone has taken up their Hobbity associations with enthusiasm, from the two mountains that stood in for Mount Doom — Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, with additional help from scale models and computer-generated imagery — to the small family-owned vineyard in Nelson, on the South Island, which won a licence to stick Middle-earth on the labels of its wines. You can hire a helicopter to fly out over more remote locations, or visit the gold- and silversmith who made the One Ring for the movies.
You cannot drive for more than an hour without somebody pointing out a waterfall that might have had Orlando Bloom underneath it, or a restaurant that Sir Ian McKellen liked to have his dinner in. What is nice about it is that the famous laid-back New Zealand character is in the fabric of everything. It doesn’t feel opportune so much as a country going along with something that happened to come its way.
What may have been our most authentic Hobbit experience wasn’t marketed as one at all. The Waitomo Caves, on the North Island, offer a series of “adventure options” that range from a leisurely underground stroll to look at glow-worms to the Haggas Honking Holes challenge, which earns a maximum eight Rambo points in the brochure. With hindsight, I would recommend you respect this points system and not undertake an intensive caving experience thinking that mild claustrophobia and a fatal lack of upper body strength would be minor considerations.
The name refers to a hollow cavity deep underground that “honks” back at you when you put your head into it and shout. And at no point did I feel more like a plucky hobbit than the moment I emerged into the sunlight after two hours of abseiling into underground caverns, crawling through freezing streams on my belly and squashing myself through inhuman gaps in the walls.
When Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves journey over the Misty Mountains, they shelter from a storm in a cave that turns out to be a goblin hot spot. As I peeled off my wetsuit and examined the bruises that were just starting to appear on my hands, I realised I would have done well to heed Tolkien’s warning in chapter five: “That, of course, is the dangerous part about caves: you don’t know how far they go back, sometimes, or where a passage behind may lead to, or what is waiting for you inside.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012