There and Back Again: A Fan’s Guide to the Real Middle Earth: The Hobbiton Tour
It’s a common desire, particularly in the fantasy genre, to enjoy the sensation of escaping to another world. After a while it can be easy to wish that you too could go there -- after all, who would pass up the chance to go to Hogwarts, or to explore Narnia? We may never manage to find a forest in the back of an old wardrobe, but when it comes to the movies many have been filmed in places just as fantastical as the wonderful world that they’re trying to portray.
The multi Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson, still leaves a heavy footprint on the country that became well known for portraying its home of Middle-Earth. New Zealand, with its varied and dramatic landscape, became a perfect choice to film different lands like Rohan and Gondor, and although the films are also lauded for their revolutionary use of CGI, it’s remarkable how much splendour the filmmakers found in nature itself.
The trilogy made the fantasy feel amazingly real because so much of what we saw on screen was real. The recent Hobbit movies utilised the landscape too, albeit slightly less due to an increased use of visual effects and green screen. Yet despite that, even in the newer films the land still makes an impression.
Ever since I first watched the films as a thrilled kid I always wanted to go to New Zealand, and this February I finally managed to make the trip. I’m not the only fan to make a pilgrimage -- the tourism industry there has since completely transformed itself, with Tourism New Zealand stating that, according to a 2004 survey, 6% of the visitors to the country named the movies as a primary incentive to holiday there. It’s unsurprising then just how the government has joyously embraced this recent reason for renown. In official public places, from airports to museums, genuine movie props and life-sized statues of characters appear in odd places, giving the option of a memorabilia ‘fan trail’ throughout the entire country. The national airline has even designed planes on which a perfectly rendered image of Smaug the dragon slinks along the side, and the cabin crew play an entertaining Middle-Earth safety video before every flight. Fortunately, it can also be found on YouTube-- spot the famous faces!
Over the course of my vacation, I booked a total of four very different Lord of the Rings tours and decided to write a review of each in turn. The first, and probably the best known, was the Hobbiton Tour, near the town of Matamata in the country’s North Island. It’s also the only real remaining set from the movies, having been originally dismantled after the Lord of the Rings series and then rebuilt permanently to serve as a tourist attraction after the Hobbit movies. As a result, it’s really the closest you’ll get to feeling like you’ve truly walked straight into a scene.
The tour began with a pick up at the nearby town of Rotorua by an instantly obvious dark green bus, driven by a friendly guide. The first thing that struck me about the tour was that as we listened to the driver’s running commentary, so many of his anecdotes and facts were new. I have to admit, not very humbly, that after a decade of being a die-hard fan I believed that I might not actually learn much on the trip. In fact, rather tragically, exam procrastination during my schooldays consisted primarily of watching and re-watching behind the scenes videos of the filmmaking process. However, the Hobbiton tour is clearly prepared for sad people such as me as they had lots of great insights into the history and the background of the set. Not just that, but the guides were also wise enough to provide small snippets of movie summaries because, according to them, they have a surprising number of visitors who haven’t the faintest idea about either Jackson’s movies or Tolkien’s books. I can only presume that they’re the very patient other halves, friends or family members that have been dragged along by fans!
The tourists were split into small groups and, in a system that worked like clockwork, we were shuttled round at a speedy pace that still allowed for a fair few photo opportunities.
Our guide was very knowledgeable in his Tolkien facts and had many anecdotes that kept the tour constantly interesting. The set has been designed brilliantly too, as it looks as if hobbits really do live there: washing hangs on lines, whilst smoke billows from the chimney of Samwise Gamgee’s house. Many have little details outside to suggest the occupation or the size of the families living in them, making it an immersive experience with much to look at. If you’re so inclined, they even give you a chance to try on some hobbit costumes, which have first been wisely adapted to fit those a little taller than Frodo and Sam.
I must confess to causing a little controversy on the tour, and perhaps this may serve as warning to fans in the future. At the end of our tour we were left to visit the Green Dragon, the famous pub from the books and movies. It has now been lovingly transformed into a real working establishment, where a complimentary drink was offered as part of your admission. That morning I had chosen to wear a particular themed t-shirt to celebrate the start of a very nerdy holiday and a word of caution: you may raise some eyebrows and provoke some tense discussions wearing a t-shirt with the Hogwarts emblem from the Harry Potter series. The bartenders jokingly threatened to bar me from the pub, until I reasoned that actually I was just trying to prove my status as the ‘ultimate geek’. After a while (and a little bit of teasing) they begrudging gave me my Amber Ale. Still, I was glad I fought my case for inter-fandom co-operation.
The Hobbiton set really stands out as the most iconic of the New Zealand Lord of the Rings tours. Every tourist I met on my holiday seemed to have gone there and it’s definitely popular for a reason. After all, where else can you pose peeking out of a hobbit-hole door? Or re-create one of the earliest scenes of the series by standing next to the real Party Tree, site of Bilbo’s short-lived birthday speech? For that alone it’s worth a visit, and although you can drive there, it is best seen by the initial bus tour.
Chosen primarily for its secluded setting, the set is hidden away and the bus makes it easy to get there without getting lost, whilst getting some great commentary along the way. It really is the staple trip for every fan of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit visiting New Zealand, and even if you’re not a fan, the Amber Ale alone makes it thoroughly worth the trip!
Perfect for… that smug photo outside the house of Bilbo Baggins to make all your nerdy friends envious.
Written by Jen Scouler • Stay tuned for more from Jen's Middle Earth Adventure
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES IS OUT ON BLU-RAY AND DVD ON APRIL 20