Walking The Hobbit Trail: A Middle-Earth Obsession

The magic of moviemaking reinforces the sense of wonder the landscape of New Zealand evokes.  
Hobbiton Movie Set New Zealand The Lord Of The Rings
Tours around the Hobbiton set include visits to The Green Dragon Inn, The Mill and cosy hobbit homes. Photo: Hobbiton Movie Set

Standing among the long shadows of the southern beech trees I watch a man growling at me, his hands raised menacingly. Far from terrified, I’m shaking with laughter as the six-foot-tall David Gatward-Ferguson recounts his experience playing an uruk-hai in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Sinister drooling creatures aren’t quite my speed, so I’m getting my own dose of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world by pretending to be a hobbit.

Just two days earlier, the very morning after I flew 18 hours from New Delhi to Auckland, I drove jet lag away by plunging into the depths of Waitomo Glowworm Caves on New Zealand’s North Island. Glow-worms hang from the walls and ceiling of the caves like tiny stars in the underground firmament. This subterranean system in the village of Waitomo, two hours south of Auckland, includes over 300 caves though only three are frequented by travellers. There are many ways to explore them: Visitors can float down an underground stream on tubes or take an easy stroll. Or, like me, sign up for an action-packed tour that involves scrambling up Ruakuri Cave’s vertical walls, jumping across chasms, abseiling, and zip lining. Andy Serkis, the actor who played Gollum in the movies, visited Waitomo while preparing for the film to experience what being deep inside a cave is like. Clinging to the cave’s ceiling, watching a group of tourists float by below with no idea that we were suspended far above them, I feel more than a little like the wily Gollum. I’d like to claim that I negotiated the cave with Gollum-like agility, but Angus Stubbs of the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co. amusedly describes my climbing action as “manual mode”. I lift my foot up as high as it will go, then use my hand to lift it higher to the foothold. My thighs ache for two days after, but the experience is spectacular.

Peter Jackson Piopio Hobbiton Movie Set

Visitors are wowed by the attention to detail: Each hobbit hole reflects the distinct character of its owner. Here the mill’s wheel turns lazily in the afternoon sun. Photo: Hobbiton Movie Set

My reward is a mug of hobbit ale at the Green Dragon Inn in Hobbiton, the movie set for the home of the hobbits in the Shire, now preserved for tourists. It is located on the gentle green hills of prime sheep-farming region, reminiscent of the English countryside, on which Tolkien based the Shire. Sipping my ale, I wander around the cosy wood-panelled pub admiring hobbit-sized coats and hats on pegs near the door and an elaborately carved green dragon over the bar. A lot of attention to detail has gone into recreating this space. One wooden column is covered with notices for fiddling lessons, a lost cloak, and a woodworker seeking an apprentice. A wood fire bustles in the stone chimney above which hangs a cast of “Old Brown”—the largest trout ever seen in the Shire.

Outside, I can see the immense Party Tree that dominates Hobbiton. Round doors painted in primary colours dot the hillside behind it. It’s a serene picture, and the lilting soundtrack that accompanies shots of the Shire in the movies plays in my head, putting a bounce in my step. Walking up a trail lined with picket fences, I open the gate with the well-known “No Admittance Except on Party Business” sign and make my way into Bilbo Baggins’ garden. I have good reason to be here. I want to take a picture of me holding up an old photograph that I found amongst some discarded books a few months ago. In it, I’m dressed as the wizard Gandalf, with a white wool beard and hair, and even a white cane. Around me are four of my closest friends from college, dressed as the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. They wear cloaks and have pointed paper ears and big hairy feet. Back then we were rather dedicated Tolkien fans who dreamt of visiting the land where the books have been brought alive. Nearly a decade later, I’m finally in Middle-earth, and I’ve brought along my friends and the obsession we had shared.

Gandalf Hobbits Hobbiton Movie Set Matamata New Zealand

An old photograph of the writer and her friends in college, dressed up as Gandalf and the hobbits. Photo: Neha Dara

Mission accomplished, I explore some more. Hobbiton is a window to the magic of moviemaking as well as some of its quirkier aspects. For example, I’m impressed when I learn that someone repeatedly walked up and down the path from one of the hobbit holes to the clothesline behind it, so it would look used and well worn. And the old oak tree behind Bilbo Baggins’ home Bag End was created from steel and silicon, and over two lakh leaves were painstakingly painted and pasted on. Various hobbit holes bear the distinctive mark of their owners. A cushioned wooden armchair sits in a spot in the sun outside one door, while a pile of chopped wood is heaped in a corner of another’s garden, and a third is overrun by weeds to reflect its lazy owner. Hobbit holes like Bag End that feature frequently in the movie have been built in two versions: A full-sized one to shoot the scenes with the hobbits, and a miniature one for scenes with Gandalf and humans to make them look bigger.

Surrounded by colourful flowers and bushes brimming with berries, the inviting shade of the Party Tree, and the mill wheel turning lazily in the morning sun, I understand why the hobbits’ longing for the Shire is such an important part of Tolkien’s books.

One of the reasons that director Peter Jackson chose to film the movies in New Zealand, is the sheer variety of landscapes that can be found within a short distance in the country. I realise this as we drive further into sheep-farm country to Hairy Feet, a farm in Piopio where several scenes from the newer Hobbit trilogy were filmed. Rolling hills transform into pale limestone cliffs, and the thought that the coastline is just 70 kilometres away is never far from my mind. I’m reminded of it again a short while later while exploring the farm, when we come upon a fossilised shell in a rock.

This is a primeval landscape. Everything about it, from the rippled rock formations to the gnarly tree branches framed by cliffs on one side and ancient forest on the other, inspires awe. The tour of the movie locations becomes an excuse for a stroll through this dramatic landscape. I doubt I would have ventured to this part of New Zealand were it not for my obsession with The Lord of the Rings. I give myself a pat on the back for my geeky preoccupation. Then I promptly go on to pantomime the scene in which Bilbo Baggins finds the Elvish dagger Sting at the spot where it was filmed.

Lake Wakatipu The Lord of the Rings New Zealand

Lake Wakatipu and Haast Swamp on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island provided landscape references for the Dead Marshes that Frodo and Sam negotiate with Gollum’s help in The Two Towers, the second film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The actual filming however, was done on sets. Photo: Anothony Ko/Getty Images

Eighteen hours later, on New Zealand’s South Island, I chuckle to myself as our minibus bumps and bounces its way to the northern tip of the zigzagged Lake Wakatipu. It is a rocky road to Paradise. In this case, the Paradise I’m seeking is a tiny village just ahead of the picturesque town of Glenorchy. Of course the process of getting to any place named Paradise must be arduous, even if this one is more likely named after the goose-like ducks that are common in the area.

Scenes featuring the Elvish home Lothlórien, the hill Amon Hen, and the fortress of Isengard were shot in this area. And Mt. Earnslaw, which looms over Paradise, was used to film the paths through the Misty Mountains.

At Dart Stables in Glenorchy, I’m kitted out with a riding hat, boots, and a beautiful chestnut horse—everything needed to pretend to be a member of the fellowship of hobbits, men, and elves, undertaking an arduous journey. As we ride through a clump of short trees with small, spiky leaves, a woody fragrance fills the air. It’s coming from the manuka tree, which the Maoris used for its medicinal properties and is now valued for the honey collected from hives that have fed on the nectar of its flowers. A 250-gram jar of high-quality manuka honey, said to have great antibacterial properties, can cost as much as NZD 50/₹2,400. I grab a handful of leaves and rub them in my palms. They smell of the forest, both spicy and minty. I shove the leaves into my jacket pocket in the hope that I might catch a whiff of this moment in another place, at another time.

Paradise Glenorchy New Zealand

The forest and mountain trails of Paradise and Glenorchy, that were the setting for several scenes in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, are best explored on horseback. Photo: New Zealand Tourism

The horseback trail weaves in and out of the forest and meadows covered in tiny yellow flowers. The guide has many tales of the films’ shooting and of Tolkien fans who visit. Many come equipped with Elvish swords, wearing costumes, or playing the soundtrack on their phones. As he points to a tree branch or a bend in the trail that was the backdrop for a scene in the movie, something that I’ve been sensing but have been unable to put into words, dawns on me: There is a deep knowledge of and love for the land in all the people who’ve shown me around the countryside. There has to be, for them to spot all the little places that feature in the movies for split seconds. They know the names of various trees, which ones are indigenous and which were brought by colonisers, they recognise different birdsong, and know the features of the terrain intimately. As this goes through my mind, we ride out of the thick old forest and come upon a stunning view—the Dart River braiding through the landscape in wide lazy swirls with the sharp-edged Southern Alps just beyond it. In that moment, I feel like a magical spell has been cast and I really am in a fantasy world.

The feeling continues when I meet David Gatward-Ferguson and we end up in the woods where he re-enacts his role as an extra in the movies. David’s company Nomad Safaris runs four-wheel-drive tours around Queenstown. From him I learn that the leaves of the southern beech are always tinged with yellow and brown, perpetually looking like they’re at the cusp of autumn. That made this place the perfect spot to represent the forests of Lothlórien, which had started changing as the time of the elves came to an end.

The replica One Ring that David wears on a chain around his neck swings about as he energetically describes some scenes from the shooting of the movie. He recounts how several extras fell over with the weight of their costumes and gear. It worked out pretty well, because in the final version, it was made to look like they had been shot with arrows. Then, we get into the car and drive to another spot, where the scene continues. And then to another. It is a fun way to understand how little bits shot in different places are woven together to create a seamless movie scene.

Chatting with David, I realise the fringe benefit of a Lord of the Rings-themed trip: I’ve wound up seeing some of the most beautiful spots of the New Zealand countryside. Even people who’ve never read Tolkien’s books or seen the movies often go on such tours because they reckon the films were shot in the best locations. And they’re spot on.

Queenstown Wakatipu New Zealand

Helicopter rides from Queenstown take in impressive views of Lake Wakatipu and the snow-dusted Southern Alps that fringe it. Photo: New Zealand Tourism

The following day I get a bird’s-eye view of some of these places when I take a helicopter ride. It’s my first time in one and to add to my thrill, the pilot is local legend, Alfie Speight, who flew the film crews for all the aerial shooting in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. We fly through the Shotover River Gorge, right over the spot where Arwen conjures a magical flood on the Ford of Bruinen to dispel the Nazgul chasing her and Frodo. Then we go high over the mountain range and land atop a glacier. It is amazing that just 20 minutes after leaving the town I am on an icefield! The last time I’d reached a glacier it had taken me three days to trek up to it.

Looking at the mountaintops around me and the mirror-like glacial lake just below, once again I feel like I’m under a spell cast by New Zealand’s terrain. It is a land both old and new; its small area encompassing both seaside beaches and snow-topped peaks, and a range of landscapes in between. My experience of it, coloured by the lens of fantasy and make-believe, leaves me bewitched and awestruck. I turn around at my spot in the snow, soaking in the vastness and beauty, feeling a sense of sublime calm. And Tolkien’s words from the Fellowship of the Ring, that could well be a traveller’s bible, come back to me: “Not all those who wander are lost”.


Exploring Middle-Earth

Hobbiton Movie Set Matamata Waitomo Glowworm Caves New Zealand

The Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata has become one of New Zealand’s top attractions. Photo: Hobbiton Movie Set

Sign up for a themed trip run by various tour companies or plan your own movie-based tour. A good resource for sights linked to the movies is www.newzealand.com/in/home-of-middle-earth with suggested Middle-earth itineraries, links to related activities and tours, and a list of locations used during the filming of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Other good resources are the Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook and the Hobbit Location Guidebook written by New Zealander Ian Brodie.

Here’s a list of operators for activities mentioned in this article:
Legendary Black Water Rafting Co.
The 5-hour Black Odyssey tour is a challenging and fun way to explore the Waitomo Glowworm Caves (585 Waitomo Village Road, Otorohanga; +64-7-8786219; www.waitomo.com/Black-water-rafting/Pages/Black-Odyssey-Tour.aspx; NZ$179/₹8,766).

Hobbiton Movie Set 
The two-hour guided tour takes visitors on a magical journey through the Shire and beautiful North Island countryside(501 Buckland Road, Matamata; +64-7-8881505; hobbitontours.com; NZ$75/₹3,670 for adults; NZ$37.50/₹1,835 for 10-14 years; NZ$10/₹490 for 5-9 years).

Hairy Feet 
Warrick and Suzie Denize show visitors around their family farm, while regaling them with stories of how everything changed once the location scout showed up. The personal touch makes for a lovely experience (1411 Mangaotaki Road, Pio Pio; +64-7-8778003; www.hairyfeetwaitomo.co.nz; NZ$50/₹2,445 for adults; NZ$25/₹1,222 for 14 years and under).

Dart Stables
Beginners can sign up for the Ride of the Rings, while advanced riders might prefer the Trilogy Loop. The rides are a fun way to explore some stunning scenery (Coll Street, Glenorchy; +64-3-4425688; www.dartstables.com; rides from NZ$175/₹8,535 for adults; NZ$165/₹8,048 for children).

Nomad Safaris
There are three options for movie-themed trips that combine the thrills of off-road adventure and sightseeing of filming locations (37 Shotover Street, Queenstown; +64-3-4426699; nomadsafaris.co.nz; four-hour trip from NZ$145/₹7,080 for adults NZ$79/₹3,870 for children).

Glacier Southern Lakes
Helicopters Flying in a helicopter is pricey but oh, so spectacular. Choose from one of two movie-themed flights (35 Lucas Place, Queenstown Airport; +64-3-4423016; www.glaciersouthernlakes.co.nz; 45-minute ride from NZ$480/₹23,490 for adults; NZ$340/₹16,640 for children).

Appeared in the November 2014 as “A Middle-Earth Obession.”

The Guide

New Zealand lies 1,500 km southeast of Australia. It comprises two main land masses—North Island and South Island—and a number of other smaller islands. Most flights land in Auckland, North Island’s most populous city, in the northern part of the Island. Waitomo Glowworm Caves are 195 km/2.5 hrs south of Auckland, and Hairy Feet at Piopio 33 km/45 mins further south. Hobbiton is 115 km/1.5 hours northeast of Piopio, making a little triangle with it and Auckland. On South Island, most travellers head straight to Queenstown, located on the bank of Lake Wakatipu in the southwest.  Glenorchy is the gateway to Paradise, a scenic 46 km/40 mins drive from Queenstown along the east bank of Lake Wakatipu. 

From Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai, it is possible to fly to Auckland with a halt in a southeast Asian hub like Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne in Australia, or Guangzhou in China. The average duration of the flight, including layover, is about 20 hours. 

New Zealand is a great place to drive around so either rent a car with a chauffeur or drive yourself. Drivers over the age of 16 years with a valid driver’s licence from their home country can rent self-drive vehicles. Like in India, New Zealand also drives on the left. Numerous car rental companies have counters at both the airports (rentals from NZ$138/₹6,966). Intercity, the national bus service, is a convenient option for bus travel (www.intercity.co.nz; tickets from NZ$1/₹49). Several backpacking organisations run hop-on hop-off buses on fixed routes. Air New Zealand has frequent connections to travel between the North and South Islands (www.airnewzealand.com; one-way flights from NZ$99/₹4,829).

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    Neha Dara is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.

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