A decade after The Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Zealand is again gripped by Tolkien fever. This time, tourists are flocking to see the spectacular backdrop to The Hob-bit reports Adrian Bridge.
Of all the Tolkien characters to have been asked to play it had to be Gollum, that wretched creature, who has such a pivotal role in those great works of fiction that translate so spectacularly to the big screen.
My moment of stardom came during a tour of the wonderfully open countryside around the small town of Twizel on New Zealand's South Island. We had been driving through some of the areas used in the filming of the Battle of Pelennor in the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy when Dawn, our tour guide, said it was time to stop talking and to start acting.
At the back of the van she had a few costumes. Fellow passengers grabbed the cloaks and weaponry of the warriors of Gondor and the garb of Eowyn, the fabled female slayer of the witch-king of Angamar. I looked in vain for the noble attire of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, or indeed of the great wizard Gandalf himself, but all that was left was the mask of Gollum...
I slipped it on - to widespread acclaim - and despite it all soon found myself prancing around in a contorted manner, hissing somewhat sinisterly, "Preciousssss... my preciousssss".
There's something about New Zealand that brings out the Tolkien lover - and the child - in all of us. Perhaps it's that felicitous mix of vast uncluttered landscapes, open skies and roads, an infectious can-do mentality and the sense that you really can travel back in time - to an England long lost, and to the altogether more magical, mythical world of Middle-earth.
The filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy just over a decade ago led to a huge surge in the number of visitors here as people sought to discover for themselves this country of truly astounding natural beauty, and the tour I took in Twizel is one of many catering for those wanting to visit the places featured in the films.
More are expected to follow in their wake. This year New Zealand has again been gripped by Middle-earth fever with the filming of what will be a three-part series on Tolkien's earlier work, The Hobbit.
Once again camera crews have been shooting on location the length and breadth of the country; stars such as Stephen Fry, Sir Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Billy Connolly have been familiar faces on the streets of the country's buzzy little capital, Wellington (sorry, "Wellywood"); and New Zealanders have been throwing themselves heart and soul into the country's latest fantastical journey.
Warner Brothers, the distributor of The Hob-bit, has been secretive about the precise content and locations used for the films, promising lots of surprises when the first of the series is premiered in Wellington in late November.
Those wanting to get a sneak preview, however, need not be deterred. Many of the places used for the filming of The Hobbit were the same as or similar to those used in Lord of the Rings - and can already be visited.
They will look particularly appealing as New Zealand moves into the southern hemisphere spring and summer. Anyone heading out there in the coming weeks, moreover, will be among the first to catch sight of "Hobbiton", a re-creation of Tolkien's Shire, a place redolent of England in the 18th century and the spot from which Bilbo Baggins, together with 13 dwarves, sets off on a mission to the Lonely Mountain involving encounters with trolls, elves and goblins in the quest to reclaim the ancient treasures stolen by the dragon Smaug.
It doesn't take long to discover what it is about New Zealand that made it the obvious choice for the setting of The Hob-bit. All you need to do is arm yourself with a copy of Thror's map, fill your mind with the words of Tolkien - and let your imagination run wild.
The Long Lake
(an encounter with Elvis)
From its northernmost point close to the town of Glenorchy to its southern tip near Kingston, Lake Wakatipu stretches over 48 miles along some of the most spectacular scenery not just in New Zealand, but the world.
Here's where you will find the mountain range known as the Remarkables (or the Extendables, given the liberties taken with its peaks by some of the film crews), Mount Aspiring National Park and - just in case you hadn't realised you'd landed in the country popularly referred to as Godzone - an area that goes by the name of Paradise.
The heart of this region is Queenstown, a scenic settlement on the shores of a lake known as a centre for adrenalin-fuelled escapades such as paragliding, skydiving and bungee jumping.
If such activities do not appeal (and they certainly wouldn't to risk-averse hobbits), there are other ways of getting your bearings. One of the best is by six-seater plane - the route chosen by Sir Ian McKellen when he wanted to get a bird's-eye view of the inspirational landscapes en route to Milford Sound, the spectacular fjord at the confluence of the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific. With its stupendous mix of snow-capped peaks, tree-lined cliffs, seal-bearing rocks and deep blue waters, the district was described by Rudyard Kipling as an eighth wonder of the world.
Back on terra firma there are numerous Tolkien-themed safaris that can be done by jeep or four-wheel drive. I took one which involved scrambling about in the bushes overlooking the valley into which the terrifying, giant-sized "oliphants" marched into battle.
At nearby Dart Stables, I met my first genuine star - an ageing brown horse called Elvis who featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy battle scenes and who now transports the curious thorough the pristine forests surrounding the plain that served as the setting of Isengard.
Our guide revealed that there had been more filming activity here this year - and that her favourite character in the films to date by far had been Aragorn ("a real man!").
The Lonely Mountain
(a night with the stars)
It was in the foothills of the Southern Alps on another Tolkien-themed tour just outside the sleepy town of Twizel (seemingly trapped in a Sixties time bubble) that I had my Gollum moment.
Dawn revealed that here, too, the film crews for The Hobbit had been active and that she herself had been one of the extras.
Sworn to secrecy about what had transpired, she revealed only that Peter Jackson, the director of the films, who has been elevated to almost godlike status by his fellow New Zealanders, was "Tolkien incarnate" and that, while often very exacting, working with him had been an "incredible" experience.
"Jackson can draw out energy you didn't know you had," she said, adding that the films had attracted a whole new class of visitor to the country, including some who came in character (Gandalf is a popular choice) and some who had taught themselves Elvish.
Further inspiration came on the road just north of Twizel in the form of a sighting of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the highest spot in New Zealand and the place where Sir Edmund Hillary prepared for his ascent of Everest.
That snow-capped peak, beneath which lie some other-worldly turquoise-blue glacial lakes, is often shrouded in mist. But on a clear day, it is magnificent. As, on a clear night, are the skies around it. Who needs Orlando Bloom and Stephen Fry (who I spotted two days later at Christchurch airport) when you can have razor-sharp viewings of the Southern Cross, a Milky Way of extraordinary richness and complexity and, on the night we were there, vivid sightings of the planets of Mars and Saturn (about as impressive a lord of the rings as it gets).
Welcome to Wellywood
(and coffee nirvana)
There was a judder as the plane from Christchurch approached Wellington. "I'm back," said a fellow passenger. "That's Wellington's way of saying, welcome home."
This city on the southernmost point of New Zealand's North Island is famous for its inclement weather and sharp winds and people here have a love/hate relationship with it.
But it definitely has a buzz - Lonely Planet last year named it the "coolest little capital in the world" - and, in addition to a thriving arts scene, it has a sophisticated foodie culture and is possibly the best city in the world to get a flat white coffee.
Wellington, too, is the home town of Peter Jackson and the nerve centre of a film-making industry that has significantly helped to change perceptions of what New Zealand is all about. So much so that the city is now referred to as Wellywood.
"When people used to think of New Zealand they thought about sheep and agriculture," said Gisella Carr, the chief executive at Film New Zealand. "Now we're becoming better known for our talent for innovative improvisation - and our storytelling techniques."
Those techniques, seen to such telling effect in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, were honed in the studios in the Miramar district of Wellington. Visitors wanting to get a sense of all this can head to the Weta Cave, where they can watch films depicting the art of creating special effects and learn how New Zealand became a centre for film production on the back of Lord of the Rings, attracting directors of the calibre of Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin) and James Cameron (Avatar).
Inevitably there are Tolkien-themed tours beyond the city centre. I took one with Ted Guise (a dead ringer for Jeremy Clarkson), and, in the woods above the city, sat in a tree smoking a pipe in a quiet, hobbit-style moment of contemplation while a fellow participant rustled up a bacon and egg feast fit for Bilbo Baggins himself.
The following morning, during a healthier muesli and kiwifruit breakfast at the Museum Art Hotel, I spotted Billy Connolly, cast as the King of the Dwarves.
"Axe-swinging is very hard work," he growled. "I would have found it a lot easier 50 years ago."
The Desolation of Smaug
When early missionaries to these shores stumbled upon the great sprays of water that shoot into the air and the pools of bubbling, boiling mud to be found in and around the town of Rotorua, they must have thought they were getting a glimpse at the fires of hell itself, the very work of the devil - a view undoubtedly reinforced by what seems like the stench of rotten eggs that fills the region.
Certainly the sight of a hissing, steaming geyser in full flow is something to behold - as I discovered at the Wai-O-Tapu thermal wonderland about 20 minutes' drive south of Rotorua, and, just outside town, the Te Puia Maori cultural centre.
In addition to the streams of gushing water and giant fern trees, I saw little lagoons fizzing with orange, gold and fluorescent green bubbles and the "jumping frog mud pool", a bubbling mass of mud also known as the Devil's Cauldron or the "Politicians' Pool" ("There's a lot of mud-slinging going on down there - not to mention hot, blustery wind," I was told).
Smaug the dragon would no doubt have felt right at home here - as, for centuries, have the Maori and, more recently, countless tourists wanting to bathe in the healing waters of the natural hot springs - and to be coated in mud.
With their brightly painted doors and exquisitely carved wooden letter boxes, there is something surreal about the miniature dwellings built into the green hills and rolling pastures on farmland in Matamata, about 80 kilometres north-west of Rotorua.
Here, then, is Hobbiton, a fully fledged recreation of the picture-postcard homestead of Bilbo Baggins and his fellow hobbits and the holy grail for all true devotees of the book.
With much of the opening sequences of the first film taking place in and around Bilbo's splendid Bag End home, this particular set was expanded considerably and has become a key attraction on the Tolkien fan tourist trail.
I saw it in glorious sunshine - a vision of loveliness evoking Tolkien's idealised image of an older, prettier England as it might have appeared in the 1700s.
Fellow visitors marvelled at the meticulous attention to detail and the realism of everything - down to the mini wheelbarrows and beehives in and around the toy-town-like hobbit holes (designed, after all, to accommodate creatures that are only 3ft 6in tall).
"Here we are standing on the party field where Bilbo Baggins celebrated his eleventy first [111st] birthday," declared Ian Brodie, my guide to Hobbiton and a bestselling author and expert on the 158 locations used for the Lord of the Rings films. "Looking up the hill past the thatched roofs, hedgerows and honeysuckle of old England, we see Bilbo's magnificent residence, Bag End."
I wasn't able to go inside ("Don't worry, all will be revealed," said Brodie), but did find myself admiring the craftsmanship and beauty of the setting.
"New Zealand is Middle-earth as Tolkien imagined it," enthused Brodie. "The grass really is greener here; the sky bluer. Use your imagination and any part of New Zealand can be Middle-earth."
Imagination - and a spirit of adventure. Bilbo Baggins, after all, was initially reluctant to embark on his life-changing escapade (admittedly of a more hazardous kind than most), but in the end he put his aversion to risk to one side and said yes. And we will soon be finding out where that led him.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be premiered in Wellington on November 28 and will be released in Australia on Boxing Day.
To plan a trip to the Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm, see hobbitontours.com.
For information on visiting New Zealand, see newzealand.com.
Recommended reading: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit; Ian Brodie, The Lord of the Rings: Location Guidebook
The Telegraph, London