New Zealand's Lord of the Rings Hobbiton tour: The land of the hobbits

It's almost too green, too magical: no wonder director Peter Jackson took one look at this site and declared it the ''Shire''.

Bad news: apparently it is raining heavily in Hobbiton. That never happens in The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movies, where J.R.R. Tolkien's "Shire" is always bathed in spectacular sunshine whenever Bilbo and Frodo set off on their adventures. 

Reality, of course, always differs from fantasy. And we should have realised that those beautifully rolling hills and dales in Sir Peter Jackson's film versions of the Shire can only be that impossibly lush shade of green because it rains often in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

It's certainly chucking it down in Auckland when we set off on the two and a half hour drive south to Matamata, home now of the Hobbiton Movie Set.

The third and final movie in Jackson's second Tolkien trilogy - The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies -  premieres in London on December 1. It will hit cinemas in Australia on Boxing Day, traditionally the biggest day for movie ticket sales on our calendar.

We're here  to visit the most important locations which have featured in the trilogy. It's a kind of last Hobbit hurrah. 

"A small ad appeared in the local paper, but it didn't say what was being filmed. So only seven locals applied to be in the movie."

Dan, tour guide

You'd be right in thinking there's a sense of Tolkien fatigue in both New Zealand and Australia. After all, we've been living with the epic encounters of Gandalf, Sam, Gollum, Aragorn and the rest of the characters for 13 years, since 2001 when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released to critical applause and a box office bonanza. There's no doubt Jackson's six Tolkien films have put New Zealand firmly on the map both as a centre of film excellence and a tourist destination. James Cameron will soon start shooting back-to-back instalments of his Avatar series in Wellington. 

And this trip has been designed to show the international media - from Europe, Asia and the Americas - that even more than Sir Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Martin Freeman, Viggo Mortensen or Richard Armitage, the real star of these six Tolkien films has been the spectacularly unblemished New Zealand scenery.

Fortunately by the time we arrive at Hobbiton Movie Set around 11.30am, it has stopped raining. By the afternoon, the whole scene is looking as exquisite as it does in the films as Russell Alexander, Hobbiton's general manager, explains how his family's 1250 acre sheep and cattle farm in the Waikato region somehow became of one of New Zealand's biggest tourist attractions.

"Dad and my brother bought this farm in 1968, and we run around 13,000 sheep and 300 beef cattle here," he says. "And if you ask my father he'll still say it's still a working farm, first and foremost, with this little Hobbiton thing on the side.

"The Hobbiton Movie Set set only takes up one per cent of the farm, so we're lucky. Before it became Hobbiton, it was just a rough little gully, a bit of a swamp really. Sheep used to get stuck in the swamp regularly."

But on October 1, 1998, the Alexander family's fortunes changed forever. Russell's father, Ian, was sitting in front of the TV watching a rugby match between Waikato and Auckland. It was half time when his wife said there was a man called David Comer who wanted to speak to him.

"David said he was the location scout for Peter Jackson," Ian, now 73, recalls. "He explained Peter had got the rights to film Lord of the Rings. I'd never heard of Peter Jackson. But I picked up the vibes from my wife who was standing behind David, and said that I'd read something about it in the local paper. That was an outright lie."

The family patriarch gave the location scout permission to take as many photos of the farm as he wanted "as long as he remembered to close the gates so the sheep don't get out" and got back to watching his rugby game (Waikato won). 

Nothing happened for several weeks, but then Comer rang and said he wanted to bring several other members of the crew, including Jackson, down to the farm. According to legend, Jackson had originally planned to use several farms for different locations for The Shire. The Alexander farm was merely meant to be the location for Bilbo's 111st birthday party under "The Party Tree" - a large and very strikingly shaped Stone Pine. But when the director saw the site, it perfectly matched his imagination of what Tolkien had described in the books. The other Shire locations were scrapped. 

The Alexanders signed a contract with Jackson and the film company in March 1999. "The next day, the New Zealand army arrived to put in a service road," says Russell. "Filming started here in September 1999."

The original Hobbiton set for the Lord of the Rings trilogy was temporary, only built to last the three or four months it took to film The Shire scenes. It was made of polystyrene, plywood and sticky tape. On the last day of filming, most of the 39 Hobbit holes were pulled down.

The Alexander family were sworn to secrecy until the release of first movie. But in 2002 the movie makers gave them the go-ahead to start running tours. "Back then it was just the landscape, a few facades and a handful of Hobbit holes," Russell says. "But in 2007 Peter made contact and said, 'We're going to make The Hobbit and we'd like to come back'."

Jackson and the Alexander family formed a joint venture company to create a unique tourist attraction: Hobbiton Movie Set. The movie set was painstakingly recreated over two years, but this time built as a permanent film lot, supervised by Brian Massey, The Hobbit's art director. 

It opened to the public in January 2011. Visitor numbers have risen from 52,000 in that first  year to 230,000 in 2013, with more than 300,000 expected this year. Australians are easily the biggest visitors, followed by the British, Americans, Germans and New Zealanders.

Those who take the basic tour are on site for two hours, arriving and departing Hobbiton by coach from what used to be Russell's farmhouse and is now The Shires Rest - a gift shop, restaurant and car park complex by the main road. Each Wednesday, there are special night tours, including a banquet in a marquee next to The Green Dragon inn. And then, of course, there are the weddings, birthday parties and corporate events with Hobbits as the central theme (and no brides or grooms have dressed as Hobbits so far).

Our tour guide, Dan, was only six and living in Matamata when Jackson began filming the first Lord of the Rings movie. "A small ad appeared in the local paper, but it didn't say what was being filmed," he tells us. "So only seven locals applied to be in the movie."

The tour begins at Gandalf's Cutting, where Gandalf rides into The Shire for the first time. There are gasps from our tour party when they see the full sweep of Hobbiton. There are now 44 Hobbit holes on the site, made out of brick, concrete and treated timber and deliberately "weathered" by the prop artists with chainsaws, vinegar and a yoghurt mixture which encourages moss.

Dan points out how different Hobbit holes are of varying sizes. Basically those that were film sets used by actors playing hobbits are built at 90 per cent of true scale,  while the ones used in scenes featuring Ian McKellen are just 60 per cent to scale so Gandalf looks much larger.

Around 900 Hobbits are meant to live here. We pass fake wells and fake beehives but real gardens growing squash, pumpkins, herbs, tomatoes, strawberries which are served to visitors at The Green Dragon. 

"Look at those fruit trees," says Dan. "In the book there is a line about the children sitting under plum trees. Peter Jackson felt real plum trees would be too large. But he pays such attention to detail, he had apple and pear trees planted instead. Before shooting the scene, the apples and pears were all stripped off and replaced with fake plums. 

"That scene never even made it into the movie, though it is in the extended version."

Soon, we're at the Frog Pond. The frogs were too loud for the shoot, so Jackson paid someone to remove all the frogs, which were put in a different pond on the farm.

 As we reach the heights of Bag End, Dan points out the tree above the site of Hobbiton's most famous Hole, where Bilbo and Frodo live. It looks real, but it is a steel construction, with 200,000 fake leaves made in Taiwan, painstakingly sewn on.

At Baggins Hole, Dan explains how the scene where Gandalf and Bilbo smoke a pipe was shot using a split screen so Gandalf appears so much larger than Bilbo. He also points out that they could hardly have been watching the sunset, as they appear to in the film, since the Baggins Hole faces east. Instead Jackson filmed seven sunrises, had them reversed, and chose the best.

Remember that scene in the first Hobbit movie where Bilbo decides to follow Gandalf and the 13 dwarves after all, running through The Shire, shouting "I'm going on an adventure!"? Dan explains how that long run involved Martin Freeman actually being filmed running down two sides of the hill so it makes The Shire seem twice the size it is in reality.

We then head down to see Sam's Hole and the Party Field under The Party Tree that attracted Jackson's interest in the first place.

Our final stop, which involves a lovely stroll around the lake and past the watermill, is The Green Dragon, where we are offered Gandalf-sized refreshments.

For the movies, this was only ever a facade. As Dan explains, no interior shots in any of the Tolkien movies were shot here: that was all done at the movie studios in Wellington.

But once The Shire scenes were all safely in the can for The Hobbit trilogy (and it took only 12 days, compared to the three months it took to shoot the similar scenes in the previous trilogy), Brian Massey supervised the removal of part of a hill and the construction of the interior of The Green Dragon. Many visitors pose for photos by the firesides and in the comfy armchairs in the mistaken belief Martin Freeman and Elijah Wood filmed key scenes here.

Though many of the visitors on the day we toured were wearing Hobbit ears, oversized Hobbit feet or other props and costumes from the movies, there are no actors re-enacting scenes or even screens showing extracts from the films. 

"We're not allowed to," Russell Alexander admits. "But I think it would be the ruination of Hobbiton if we went down that track. We're not a theme park. The essence of this place is Kiwi understatement, catching people by surprise when they see the amount of detail in a Hobbit Hole."

He recently visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios theme park at Orlando, Florida.

"I thought it was marvellous. That's what Americans do really well. But no-one in New Zealand can compete with that. We want to concentrate on what is unique about this place  and that's the fact it looks like the world Tolkien described."

The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

hobbitontours.com.

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand fly daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland with connecting flights to Rotorua. The airline also fly from Sydney to Rotorua on Mondays and Thursdays. Phone 13 24 76, or see www.airnewzealand.com.au.

The drive from Auckland to Matamata takes 2 hours, 30 minutes. From Rotorua, it takes 45 minutes. Hobbiton Movie Set Tours also depart from Rotorua daily at 8.15am and 1.15pm.

STAYING THERE

There is no accommodation at Hobbiton Movie Set (as yet). The closest city is Hamilton, about 30 minutes drive.

AND DON'T MISS...

QUEENSTOWN, SOUTH ISLAND

Several Middle-earth locations used in either the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films are close to the picturesque town in the heart of the Southern Alps. They include The Remarkables range and 12 Mile Delta, location of Ithilien. Nomad Safaris offer personalised tours in Land Rover Defenders. See nomadsafaris.co.nz.

WETA CAVE WORKSHOP, WELLINGTON

The Weta Cave Workshop Tour, in the heart of Miramar, Wellington, is a 45-minute guided tour which provides a behind the scenes glimpse into Weta Workshop, founded by Tania Rodgers and Richard Taylor in 1987. It gained international fame because of the work it did for Jackson's Tolkien movies. See www.wetaworkshop.com.

TRAVEL TIPS FROM THE CAST

 

SIR PETER JACKSON, Director

"Hobbiton is the one thing you shouldn't miss in New Zealand. There is a lot of amazing scenery in New Zealand but for Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans, it's incredible to walk the lanes of Hobbiton. It is starting to feel authentic, has a wonderful vibe and it is a good slice of New Zealand farmland with lots of sheep and cows.
"Wellington is home, and it is a city just the right size for me. I don't like big cities and any smaller would get boring. It's like a pocket-sized San Francisco.
"I don't have holidays, but when I was a kid my parents used to take me to Kaiteriteri Beach, near Nelson. It's a beautiful place, and the last holiday I remember, about 40 years ago."

BRIAN MASSEY, Art director

"I love the drive to Milford Sound. Much as I admire Milford Sound itself, it is the journey over Homer Saddle to the Sound that I find even more impressive. The country is so big, so mountainous, so absolutely stunning.

"The other drive I really enjoy is along the east coast of the South Island. You get off the ferry from the North Island at Picton and drive down to Christchurch. Most tourists go down the west coast, which is lovely too. But the east coast isn't as well known. There are lots of great Department of Conservation campsites which are pretty basic but in priceless positions."

JOHN CALLEN, Oin the dwarf

"Queenstown. Never has there been a mountain range better named than The Remarkables. There is so much to do, summer or winter.

"And I'd also recommend Auckland. As they biggest city in New Zealand, there are so many things to do. Fabulous restaurants. World class sailing. Kite surfing. Wonderful theatre. And great walks between the east and west coast beaches." 

STEPHEN HUNTER, Bombur the dwarf

"I'd recommend the Coromandel Peninsula on the western side of the Bay of Plenty. My parents lived there and it is steep, hilly and largely covered in rain forest.

"Or head up from Auckland to the Bay of Islands, which is really beautiful and a great place to see whales and dolphins."

MARK HADLOW, Dori the dwarf

"My favourite drive is leaving Queenstown and heading up the west coast of the South Island towards Greymouth and up to Nelson. It is one of most brilliant drives you'll ever experience.

"I also love Hawkes Bay. We didn't film any of the Hobbit there, but the wineries alone are worth the visit. My favourite is Sacred Hill.

"And as a golfer with an 11 handicap, I love playing at Arrowtown Golf Club, just a few minutes out of Queenstown. Superb views from every fairway."

JED BROPHY, Nori the dwarf

"Lake Tekapo, about three hours drive south west of Christchurch, would be on my list. We shot some of the scenes in the Rings trilogy there. And I'd recommend Paradise, just out of Queenstown, because there is so much adventure tourism there - bungy jumping, white water rafting, jet boating and amazing scenery. But it is a great standalone tourist attraction with great restaurants, great nightlife and great people."

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