To Hobbiton and Back Again
Late last week I received a message on Facebook from a friend. She was wondering if my wife and I wanted to come with her, her husband, and his son on a trip to Hobbiton. I resisted the urge to immediately say yes and instead restrained myself to “let me check”. It’s not that my wife doesn’t love the Lord of the Rings films, though she has only read The Hobbit, it was more that it takes a couple of hours to drive to Matamata (the town nearest to the set) and that would mean having to get up a lot earlier than is usual for a Saturday.
Saturday had not yet dawned when we started getting ready. Sadly, Saturday would not properly dawn all day due to a thick, persistent layer of cloud over the North Island, so it was more of a pallid murk. It felt like the Dark Lord was already casting his shadow over our expedition, but we were not deterred. There was just enough time for a quick bite to eat and a drink before our friends arrived and we were on our way.
The nearest motorway entrance is not far from our apartment, so we pointed the former Crown car, named Helen, in a southerly direction and began our journey. We would follow the motorway south most of the way, before turning off and taking some smaller back roads to reach our destination. Our friend had downloaded a GPS app on her Android phone and was itching to give it a try on a trip that took us so far out of town. I made sure we had a physical copy of the road atlas, just in case.
After half an hour or so of travel we reached the southern extent of the Auckland region, the Bombay Hills. Before us lay the verdant plains and rolling hills that characterise Waikato. Farmland and forests as far as the eye could see – which wasn’t very far with the worsening weather. Bombay is a popular stopping point for many travellers and, over the years, has become something of a miniature town. There’s a McDonald’s, a large petrol station, and a selection of shops and cafés. We filled our bellies and the car’s tank then pressed on.
It was while we were having breakfast (or in my case, second breakfast) that our friend mentioned his son had not yet seen the first Lord of the Rings film. He had seen parts of the other two, in particular the battle scenes. To help remedy this they had bought with them a laptop and the Fellowship on DVD. We decided to start watching the film once we got back to the car so that the lad had some idea of where we were going. Even though he is only nine, he’s a pretty smart kid. He knows the monsters in movies are not real, is well versed in the art of CG, and is even comfortable with kissing – certainly no Fred Savage.
Half way through the film we arrived at Hobbiton. Well, not Hobbiton exactly. The set is not publicly accessible, for obvious reasons. Our destination was actually Shire’s Rest, a café, gift shop, and ‘sheep farm experience’ where visitors can gather before being driven down to the set on private buses. It’s a fairly simple setup, with plenty of parking around the back. There are also buses available to bring in visitors from Matamata and Rotorua for travellers who are lacking their own transport.
Once we had parked, we headed into the Gift Shop to purchase our tickets. Their prices are reasonable, especially considering the location’s popularity. Adults pay $66, children 10 and up pay $33, while those under 10 can get in for $5. It may seem a little unbalanced, but then how many five year olds are clued up enough to know what’s happening, let alone have seen the films? Sadly, not many. It was at this point that I realised this story was going to be a lot shorter than I had expected. As the Hobbit films are still in production, Hobbiton is still a live set. This means that, at any point, Peter Jackson, the cast, and crew could return to film new or extended scenes, or reshoot some existing scenes. Because of this, any photographs we took of the set were not allowed to be posted online until both movies had been released.
Feeling a little deflated, we signed an NDA, collected our tickets, and headed back outside to wait for the bus to the set. Despite the murky weather, there were quite a few people waiting for the bus with us. So many in fact that they had to bring in a second, slightly smaller bus to get us all down there in one go. Along the way, the driver told us the story of how Peter Jackson discovered the farm, how they had approached the owner to ask permission, and how the army were contracted to build an access road to the site. All fairly standard stuff, and a little tedious if you’ve watched the DVD Special Features.
I was getting a little tired of photographing sheep (and not even the same type of sheep used in the movie, I might add) when we crested a hill and got our first glimpse of Hobbiton. We were still a ways away and it was hard to make out any detail, but it was still enough to get the excitement building again. My right index finger started to twitch anticipating the photos I would soon be taking… then filing away until December 2013. The embargo annoyed me, but I could understand why it was there. In this age of instant digital communication, it is far too easy for secrets to leak. Also, we’re not the only ones being affected by such rules.
There’s not a lot that I’m allowed to say about our tour around Hobbiton, so I’ll keep it brief (and lawyer friendly). The set isn’t that big, even by Hobbit standards. They were particularly clever with placing holes and landmarks to make the most of the limitations, but it is still a nice place to walk around. The tour moved at a fairly leisurely pace, pausing often to allow visitors to take photos and have their photo taken in front different parts of the set. By this point it had started raining. Not heavy rain, but enough to make the ground a little treacherous in places. Fortunately, there were enough paths to allow us to get around and still keep our shoes clean.
There isn’t a lot more that I can say without possible incurring legal wrath, so I’ll hand over to Peter Jackson to fill you in some more of the details. They start talking about Hobbit half way through the clip.
Looks good, doesn’t it. Jackson probably isn’t kidding when he says he wants to retire there. I felt the longing myself, and there were a few people who asked if they could stay the night, or a little longer.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end and we were soon back on the bus back to Shire’s Rest. It was sad to leave Hobbitin, but at least we can always go back. As Peter Jackson mentioned in the video above, they’ve rebuilt the set with permanent materials so it will be looking good for years to come. Also, if the council approves certain resource consents it will be an even better place to visit in a few years.
By the time we made it back to Shire’s Rest the rain was coming down hard. We decided to skip the sheep farm portion of the tour and head straight to the café for some food. They had the usual offerings, sandwiches, hotdogs, hot chips, but there was only one item on the menu that both my friend’s son and I wanted to try: Second Breakfast. A large plate of sausages, tomatoes, bacon, eggs, hash browns, and some toast. Everything a hobbit needs to get him through to elevenses. I also purchased a bottle of Sobering Thought to go with my meal. This is the official beer of the Lord of the Rings movies, as it was especially made for Bilbo’s party and used for every drinking scene from that point on. With only 1% alcohol, you could get through quite a few takes before this had any affect.
The weather had cleared by the time we had finished eating, so we headed downstairs to the gift shop to see what they had on offer. There wasn’t a wide range of merchandise, only the usual products from Weta, some possum merino products, as well as a few Hobbiton-themed items and bottles of Sobering Thought. We had a good look around before returning to the car and starting the journey back to Auckland. It had been a long day, but one that was well worth it. Even with the rain.
– Mungo Hamwich of Buckleberry Fern (courtesy the Hobbit Name Generator)
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