Following The Footsteps Of Hobbits

Extras, New Zealand, Travel Books & Movies — By on March 6, 2012 at 12:00 pm

by Sarah Deveau

Special to The Lost Girls

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

As I approached the perfectly round door of my motel unit, I thought of that first line in J.R.R.Tolkien’s epic novel, The Hobbit. I was staying in my very own Hobbit hole at Woodlyn Park in Waitomo, New Zealand. The little home built into the ground was the perfect beginning to my quest to discover Tolkien’s fantastic Middle-Earth.

As a young reader, I was transported away to a wondrous land of magical and terrifying characters in the richly-drawn landscape of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. In my imagination I had accompanied the diminutive Hobbits on every step of Bilbo Baggins’ trek from his darling home in the Shire to the desolate Lonely Mountains, and Frodo Baggins’ subsequent journey to the treacherous Modor.

So it was with trepidation I bought tickets for Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Rings on the big screen years ago. How would the celluloid version of Middle-Earth compare to my childish imaginings? My fears were quickly dispelled. Jackson’s decision to film in his native New Zealand was brilliant, as the youngest country on earth contains varied landscapes perfectly suited to represent the barren wastelands, soaring mountain ranges and sun-dappled forests of Tolkien’s work.

A decade after the first of the blockbuster trilogy was released, companies such as Red Carpet Tours still do bustling business offering ‘Ringers’ 12 day tours with nationwide itineraries. “Fans will travel by mini-coach, experiencing behind the scenes glimpses of the film locations, overnight stays at the same hotels once used by cast and crew, and plenty of opportunities to experience New Zealand’s famous Māori culture and adventure tourism options,” says Vic James, Managing Director.

In my quest to follow in the footsteps of Hobbits and see as many filming locations as possible in just a few days, I travelled with just the official Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook as my co-pilot. I naïvely believed I’d be able to literally follow some of the Hobbit’s route, but quickly discovered that their route is no more than film trickery, with hundreds of locales used to create the seamless journey as depicted in the books.

When native Kiwi Ian Brodie heard that his country would be the backdrop for the filming of his favourite books, he approached New Line Productions with a request to shadow the film crew and pen a guidebook. “I could see the potential for tourism,” recalled Brodie when I met him at Hobbiton Movie Set, near the Waikato town of Matamata. “The first print run was 20,000 copies, and we sold 19,000 in the first weekend. To date we’ve sold nearly half a million copies.”

Many of these book buyers make the Hobbiton Movie Set their first film set stop, as did I. Concealed in the middle of a working 1,200-acre private sheep ranch is the 10-acre Shire Bilbo and Frodo Baggins called home. “All of the film sets were temporary,” explains Brodie as we wandered through the Shire. “This was all to be destroyed at the end of filming, but some people realised there could be some tourism opportunities.”

The family that owned the property went to New Line and arranged to keep the Shire, but the deal came too late to save half of the facades, which had already been removed. However, the party tree, the shire’s lake and the mill and Bilbo’s house at Bag End remained, and have drawn hundreds of thousands of tourists over the years. Now that Jackson is scheduled to begin filming on the original set again for The Hobbit in October, crews recently moved in and returned the Shire to its original lustre.

With no gaudy souvenir shops or kitschy tour guides dressed as Hobbits strolling about, I was free to discover the Shire without commercial interruption into my fantasy. I strolled peacefully through pastoral dells and sat in miniature Hobbit gardens, marvelling over the more than thirty charming, brightly painted facades of Hobbit holes.

A few days later, more than 1,400 kilometres away, I found myself holding on for dear life in a four wheel drive Jeep careening around a historic gold mining road. On a Nomad Safaris tour joined by an American family of LOTR fans, our driver was navigating boulders up the Arrow River, the location where Frodo made his last flight to cross the waters of the Bruinen to reach the safety of Elrond’s home in Rivendell.

We had departed from picturesque Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. Nestled around an inlet on Lake Wakatipu, the popular adventure tourism destination is overshadowed by the Remarkables mountain range on the lake’s southeastern shore, which featured prominently in the trilogy as the Misty Mountains, among others. We disembarked frequently to compare the stunning scenery with the still set photos in the location guidebook.

“We’ve offered film tours of the Lake Wakatipu and Glenorchy regions since 2002,” says owner David Gatward-Ferguson. “It’s the perfect tour for those that want the thrills of an off road adventure but also want to discover Lord of the Rings film locations. Our drivers stop at more than a dozen locations, and will point out recognisable film locations and stunning natural scenery and offer behind-the-scenes knowledge and secrets.”

Though I didn’t make it as far south as Wellington, I hear it’s the perfect final leg of a Middle-Earth journey. There I could have toured Peter Jackson’s physical effects company Weta Workshop, and headed just north of the capital city to picnic by the river at Rivendell, temporary home of the elves in Middle-earth, located in Kaitoke Regional Park.

If You Go

Getting There: Air New Zealand flies offers convenient non-stop flights through major North American gateways.

Where to Stay: Lord of the Rings themed accommodation is available at Wanaka (near Queenstown) at Minaret Lodge (minaretlodge.co.nz) and Woodlyn Park in Waitomo (woodlynpark.co.nz).

Top Tours: The original Lord of the Rings tour company, Red Carpet Tours offers a classic 12 Day LOTR / Hobbit Tour (redcarpet-tours.com). Southern Lakes Sightseeing offers half day, ful day, and multi-day trips (lordoftheringstours.co.nz).Nomad Safaris combines four wheel drive trips and gold panning into their half day tours (nomadsafaris.co.nz).

Resources: New Zealand’s official tourism website includes articles and suggestions for planning a trip centered around Lord of the Rings highlights.

Photo credit: Sarah Deveau

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