A Journey Through Hobbiton
It was misting when I first set eyes on Bag End. But even preoccupied by the mud on my shoes and the lady behind me thwacking my head with the rim of her umbrella, I could feel the tingly excitement bubbling up at the sight of that familiar green door.
Even bookish folks—those most often found curled up in a cozy nook with a weighty tome—need to go on an actual adventure every now and then, and here was mine. Some people dream of vacationing in Hogsmeade; popping back a couple butterbeers and calling it a day. Others want to yank an adirondack chair through the back of their closet and find a nice place to relax in Narnia.
And then there are those of us who want to muster the Rohirrim and spend their jolly holiday killing Orcses, Precious. Luckily for us, the deranged Tolkien tourists, there is a little two-island country at the bottom of the world whose lush vistas were so alluring and so substitute-able for Middle-earth that Peter Jackson filmed eleven gazillion hours of footage there for his Lord of the Rings trilogy and now his Hobbit...trilogy (because reasons).
Welcome to New Zealand ('s North Island), where I spent 10 days of bliss in April, trying to catch fandom lightning in a bottle! I could lie and say my friend and I planned this journey to fully explore a charming country. Truthfully, however, we were in it for Middle-earth. All the other attractions—and there are plenty (Mountains! Beaches! Wineries! Geothermal pools! Fur seals!)—were just icing on the lembas cake.
It didn't occur to me that what we were doing was "not normal." Not even during the 12-hour flight that began our brief jaunt, which was a period of middle-seat torture during which the man next to me referred to Peter Jackson as Percy Jackson when discussing our planned Lord of the Rings tours, and I held back an audible sigh.
This, however, was child's play, because in my bag were vouchers for not only a tour of the Hobbiton film set in Matamata, but a ticket for a full-day exploration of shooting locations around Wellington, along with the Weta Workshop, the studio that brought Middle-earth, as well things like some art-house film called Avatar, to the big screen. Unfortunately not on the agenda, because my vacation allowances are not as generous as the Fellowship's: the country's South Island, which features the beauty of Edoras and Fangorn Forest, among other wonders.
But we had Hobbiton, which on a gloomy Wednesday morning came into view through the windshield of a tour bus pulling up to the Alexander family farm in Matamata. In between sheep butts, I could spy it, straight through Gandalf's Cutting. There, hobbit holes of all sizes sprang up from impossibly green grass. (It is probably never too late to be trimming the verge here.)
On our guided walk of the Hobbiton film set, we passed big hobbit holes, little hobbit holes, and hobbit holes that were juuuuust right. (The size depends not only on the height of the inhabitants, but also on the scale needed for the film shot.) These were all very well and good, and I rotated my body like a Sky Dancer, continuously taking photos of vegetation, Samwise Gamgee's house, the site of Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party, and some more vegetation. How bright the gardens looked! But let's be real: there's only one star here.
And I was off and up the Hill with the undeterred zeal of a Sackville-Baggins. As I rounded a corner, it all came into view: the mailbox, the “No Admittance” notice, the bench where Bilbo and Gandalf jauntily blew smoke rings, and, of course, that peculiar door, slightly ajar and ready for adventure.
The only description I have is that it felt like Gandalf's fireworks were inside my abdomen. Although, rather unfortunately, Elijah Wood did not wander down the path and proclaim, “Hello tourists, and welcome to my crib.”
We soothed that particular disappointment with pints at the newly up-and-running Green Dragon, as cozy and inviting as the brave and true might expect, especially if they are in need of a tart yet refreshing cider.
As they loaded us onto the festively green bus—Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Bracegirdles, and all—I consoled myself that I would make more acquaintance with Tolkien's creation and Jackson's vision in Wellington.
Windy, windy Wellington is the capital city at the southern tip of the North Island, where the Wellington Rover tours offer half-day and full-day options for Lord of the Rings journeypeople. Here is how to decide between them: if you've seen a movie or two and/or think the films' director is Percy Jackson, go with the half-day tour. If you are a true patriot who owns eight editions of the books and movies and gets outrageously animated when someone suggests the Eagles could have solved every problem, better go the full day.
Once loaded into our white van named Bilbo, on a thankfully sunny Saturday, our roving commenced to the breathtaking Mount Victoria and the city's greenbelt, where lies the Outer Shire. In the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, this is where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin's lives fall apart as they meet the Black Riders. You know, where Frodo really thought they should get off the road. There are, in fact, other non-hobbit related sites on the expedition. You'll see the rainforest in which Rivendell was nestled, which also features a frightening-for-indoor-people suspension bridge; the site of Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith (a less imposing quarry); and the Hutt River, one of the real-life substitutes for the Great River Anduin. Fun fact learned at that stop: Sean Bean, and thus Boromir by extension, is a terrible rower.
Amid all this excitement is the centerpiece of Wellywood filmmaking: Weta Workshop, in which reside models, replicas, swords, props, and droves of fellow nerds. The experience of viewing Sauron's armor up close is as exhilarating as taking a whiff of Old Toby. It is not to be missed.
At the end of the day, as our Rover guide Paul shoved staffs in our hands and had us walk, just like Gandalf and Saruman, along Isengard's front lawn, I mused to myself that maybe it's crazy to attempt to infiltrate a fictional world. Maybe all it leads to is a life of wandering, constantly chasing the magic you felt when you read the words on the page and saw them brought to life on the screen. Sure, all right. But to that I say simply, not all those who wander are lost.
Tips for your Tolkien Odyssey:
- Pack lightly: THAT PALANTIR WILL ONLY WEIGH YOU DOWN.
- Take notes: After the seventh oddly shaped tree, you're not going to remember which hobbit tumbled past it. What's worse, in the movie, it was superimposed in front of a mountain range taken from the South Island and a 3-foot-high model castle in the studio. This stuff is going to be incomprehensible when you're sifting through 967 photos of New Zealand forests at home without documentation.
- Reenact: If your tour guide offers you the chance to reenact the scene whose location he or she is showing you, do not be the person laughing at the tennis-shoed Norwegian trying to scowl like Saruman. Because you know what? 1) That person is having a giddy, childlike time as she thinks of her favorite book passages while trying to keep her walking stick set to evil, and 2) She's going to know why she took a picture of that indistinguishable pathway.
- Bring the books with you: Um, obviously.
Would you like to go on an odyssey to Lord of the Rings land?