Since arriving in New Zealand last week, we’ve come so very close to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In Queenstown, our local guide pointed us in the direction of some Lord of the Rings tours – and then helped us jump off a bridge instead! Yesterday we even experienced the same train journey where Peter Jackson first conceived a Lord of the Rings film!
And so today, led by Hamilton local Hamish, we will actually do it: we will set foot in Hobbiton!
Hamish explains that New Zealand, and particularly the North Island, was always the most likely place to film this six-film series. There were early discussions about Iceland – closer, perhaps, to JRR Tolkein’s personal vision; but as soon as local-boy-made-good Peter Jackson imparted his preference, New Zealand was a shoo-in.
Less of a dead certainty was the booming tourist industry that has followed in the films’ wake. As we arrive in Matamata, 45 minutes east of Hamilton, Hamish explains that after filming on LOTR finished, the sets – many of which were built on local farms – were handed back. Half of Hobbiton was bulldozed! And it was only the foresight of farmer Russell Alexander that saved it.
And wow – what an industry it has produced. Matamata used to be home to 6,000 people and about 7 times as many sheep. It now features in a Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook that has sold more than half a million copies.
Walking around the Alexander farm, it’s hard to picture life here before Hobbiton. At the same time, we don’t ever really feel like we’re in The Shire as we explore. Even grabbing our complimentary drink at the Green Dragon pub (rebuilt here – it was actually filmed in Wellington) provides a novel experience, but surrounded by fans (and a few fanatics, poor Martin Freeman!) this is more of a tourist spot than a piece of film (or gosh-golly, ‘literary‘) history.
If Hobbiton Tours are a story of preservation, there’s a similar tale at our next destination as Hamish takes us an hour south, past Lake Karapiro, to the town of Otorohanga and its Bird Sanctuary.
New Zealand prides itself on being the last nation on earth to be settled by humans – while there’s some contention about dates, and whether the Maori were the first to settle here, it’s still remarkable that until about 800 years ago there were no people anywhere on these idlands. William the Conquerer settled in England before that!
The lack of humans – and the pests we have introduced since then, including rats, rabbits, and that most recent NZ scourge the possum – created several evolutionary quirks. Most famous of these was the flightless bird species, biological diversity that declined fairly quickly: the Moa, a flightless bird related the Australia’s cassowary, was extinct just two hundred years after humans arrived.
A similar fate could have faced the iconic Kiwi Bird. Now rare, the nocturnal bird is hard to see in the wild – so for tourists who definitely want to see a kiwi bird Otorohanga is the place to visit: in fact, they guarantee you will see one!
And just moments after we enter the nocturnal enclosure, we do indeed see a kiwi up close. The first thing that surprises us is their size – known as a tiny creature, they are in fact the size of a chicken! Hamish tells us that if that size is impressive, we should also know that the kiwi lays the largest egg, in relation to body size, of any bird in the world.
Hamish gets us back to the city of Hamilton, where there’s time to grab a local beer (order an Epic Pale Ale or a Steinlager, and you’ll be right) at one of the many bars along Victoria Street before he bids us farewell.
If you thought we were taking the train onward to Auckland, then you’re in for an unexpected journey. The Northern Explorer only runs 3 days per week, giving us the option of a 3 hour bus journey north … or a personal limousine service. Given this is an everydaydream holiday (and with thanks to Lincoln Limousines in Auckland), which choice do you think we’re making?
Want to go? Need to know!
- If you love, love, love Lord of the Rings (and/or The Hobbit) then it is possible to tour almost all of New Zealand moving from film set to film set. Ian Brodie’s excellent Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook is sadly out of print, but there are a treasure trove of websites dedicated to the topic.
- If you thought the films failed to live up to the books, it is also possible to tour New Zealand without experiencing Hobbiton – just expect, for the next few years while the Hobbit trilogy is released, to see plenty of advertising targeted at people who aren’t you.
- In fact, if you really want to get off the beaten track in New Zealand (or just find your way around much easier), download the free itravelNZ App for your iPhone or Android device.
- The New Zealand government notes that the sheep-to-person ratio in New Zealand peaked at 22-to-1 in 1982. We are fairly confident more than 22 Hobbits can fit into our limousine, but weren’t able to test this theory.
- Matamata is pronounced MAW-da-MAW-da. If you think that’s funny, let’s detour our cars through the township of Whatawhata!
Have you been to Hobbiton? What did you think – worth the experience, or overblown? And how big are those kiwi birds! Please share your experience in the comments below.