Like many recent international tourists to New Zealand, I am a big fan of Lord of the Rings. My discovery of the series is an oft-told story of an 8-year-old girl going through a… erm… minor dragon obsession. I stumbled across a boxed set on my parents’ book shelf with what appeared to be a dragon on the side. (It turns out, it’s not even an actual dragon, it’s a Nazgul’s wyrven mount.)
I asked my dad if I could read the books and he advised that I wait until I was 11 years old. “Eleven?!” I thought, “That’s forever from now!” So in a fit of rebellion I read the whole set. I naturally preferred the The Hobbit, since it’s a children’s book, but I also loved Strider and the Ents and Tom Bombadil. While I only had a surface understanding, I’m grateful I read them when I did, when all the fantasy conventions that began with Tolkien still seemed fresh.
Fast forward a few years to when a trailer for Fellowship came on TV. My dad and I turned to each other and concurred, “It’s going to be terrible! How can they make those books into a movie?” (I had watched the animated version of the Hobbit, so my expectations were low.) Incidentally, when the film came out, I was 11, the same age my dad had told me to wait until for the books. I was upset that Tom Bombadil was absent, but otherwise my reaction was ecstatic. Why, the movie was almost better than the book!
I became a total LotR hipster, torn between scoffing at the redone book covers (my books don’t even have pictures on front, they have diagonal lines) and celebrating that I now had other kids to talk about the story with. My mom, not generally a fantasy fan, went out and bought both the normal and the extended edition DVDs as soon as they came out. I fangirled over Peter Jackson and adorable cast and marathoned the trilogy on multiple occasions.
So while I didn’t go to New Zealand just to see film sites, a part of me is always aware that I’m travelling through landscapes associated with Middle-earth (I actually try to tone down my frequent LotR references – suddenly referring to trees as Old Man Willow seems too relevant). We add on some themed tours for extra nerd cred.
The first of these is a trip to Hobbiton, located on the Alexander Farm in Matamata (off of Buckland road, by pure coincidence). They recently finished filming the Hobbit here, so the entire set has been permanently rebuilt. A bus takes us down a road built by the army, past the lots where all the film crews and equipment once set up camp, and drop us off in the heart of Hobbiton.
It really does feel like stepping into a fantasy realm. There’s almost no sign of our modern world in this lush pocket of land nestled among rolling green hills. And, somewhat surprising for an artificial set, the place bursts with life. Butterflies flutter around flowers, black swans cruise by the water wheel, a lucky calico cat soaks in the attention as it strolls alongside our group, and gardeners hand-water the plants. The level of detail is incredible, down to splotches of moss placed on signposts.
Alongside the 40-odd little round doors, there are chimneys and stables and woodpiles and clotheslines and scarecrows and fake bee hives. The lack of actual hobbit residents is almost eerie, like we scared them away in the middle of their day-to-day activities.
We wind our way down the cart path, past the Party Tree (no one takes up the offer to do a little jig in the field), and up to Bag End. A partially fake oak tree perches above the green portal, looking out over the sweeping views.
I feel like I’m playing Lord of the Rings Online again and can just whistle up my dapple horse and ride off on some quests. I’m surprised by how little “movie magic” was used in Hobbiton (there was some, of course, like a sunrise turned into a sunset). It’s weird to watch the opening scene from the movie after having seen the scale of the place – can’t wait for the Hobbit movies!
Dart Stables – Ride of the Rings
Outside of Queenstown, Mom and I go on “The Ride of the Rings” at Dart Stables. Unlike their other rides, it’s designed for beginners – I would have loved to do more actual riding but the geek won out again. You get a tour of film locations as you stroll on horseback through the amazing scenery of Paradise, population 6.
The land trust initially didn’t allow Peter Jackson to film there, but he made a large contribution and went to great lengths to return the area as he’d found it, cataloging every plant, moving them to greenhouses while shooting, and replacing them after with forensic precision. Since then, it’s become a filming mecca for everything from Cialis adverts and America’s Next Top Model to Wolverine. Dart Stable’s horses are no strangers to film, either, as many have been used in Narnia and LotR.
On our ride, we pass through the woods of Lothlorien, though the leaves are no longer golden (that had been the work of schoolchildren with gold paint). This is just opposite a spot used as the edge of Fangorn Forest. Minutes later, we’re on the slopes of Amon Hen, where Boromir was slain and the hobbits captured by rugby players stumbling around in Uruk-hai costumes. We trot up a grassy slope to overlook of the Dart River valley, which was also the location of CGI’d Isengard. Unfortunately, all the mountain peaks are obscured by clouds, but you can kind of see how it’s the backdrop to Orthanc.
We’re also regaled with tales of the horses in LotR, including the tests they must pass to participate and the actors’ relationships with their mounts. All in all, it’s a very relaxing, beautiful trail ride on responsive horses. I only wish we could spend more time in Paradise, but hopefully I can revisit through the transportive magic of film.