Hob­bit heaven

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - TRAVEL - By Pamela Wade

AQUIET val­ley in the mid­dle of New Zealand’s North Is­land isn’t the first place you’d think to find the per­fect union of art and na­ture. But then, life is full of the un­ex­pected. Just ask Bilbo Bag­gins.

A 40-minute drive from the small town of Mata­mata, in the Waikato dis­trict, is a world-first — a gen­uine, per­ma­nent movie set open to the pub­lic. This is the lo­ca­tion of Hob­biton, the vil­lage first fea­tured in the Lord of the Rings movies and now the Hob­bit tetral­ogy. It’s on the Alexan­der fam­ily farm, and tours de­part ev­ery quar­ter­hour for a 90-minute wan­der around the set. On a coach ride from the Shire’s Rest car park to the five-hectare site of the vil­lage, guide Henry Horne gives us the back­ground.

Back in 1998, in an un­wel­come in­ter­rup­tion to a tele­vised rugby match, a New Line lo­ca­tion scout tapped on the door of the Alexan­der homestead and was asked to call again later. It was an in­aus­pi­cious be­gin­ning to what has be­come a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial part­ner­ship be­tween the fam­ily and di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son. He had spot­ted the farm from the air while search­ing for a set­ting for Hob­biton, the bu­colic coun­try vil­lage where the Lord of the Rings saga be­gins.

The huge old pine tree be­side a lake was the clinch­ing fac­tor — Henry ex­plains how it had al­most been felled ear­lier, as it was in the way on a stock track used by the farm’s sheep — and 30 con­trac­tors moved in to spend nine months build­ing a clus­ter of hob­bit houses with their small round doors and win­dows set into grassy banks.

At the con­clu­sion of the film­ing, Hob­biton, like all the other sets around the coun­try, was to be de­stroyed, but weather de­layed the work. Be­fore de­con­struc­tion could be­gin again, so many ra­bid Tolkien fans had come knock­ing on the Alexan­ders’ door want­ing to look at the site that son Rus­sell per­suaded Jack­son to al­low him to con­duct tours of what was lit­tle more than a se­ries of holes in the ground. Even so, 200,000 in­ter­na­tional visi­tors came in the fol­low­ing eight years. And when mak­ing the Hob­bit movies was pro­posed, the Alexan­ders knew ex­actly what to do.

This time, more than 70 work­ers spent 2½ years con­struct­ing 44 Hob­bit holes that are built to last, and once film­ing fin­ished, Hob­biton Movie Set Tours be­gan op­er­a­tions. Now visi­tors can de­light in walk­ing around a vil­lage that is com­plete to the tini­est de­tail, with hob­bit trousers hang­ing on clothes­lines, fire­wood piled up out­side in­di­vid­u­ally de­signed door­ways, moss and lichen cling­ing to the picket fences, flow­ers and veg­eta­bles grow­ing in the gar­dens. The ar­ti­chokes are real, but the lichen is the re­sult of art and ar­ti­fice, a small-scale ex­am­ple of the ob­ses­sive care that has been, and still is, taken to en­sure a to­tally con­vinc­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We want to en­able a real emo­tional op­por­tu­nity,” ex­plains Henry. “Peo­ple should feel that they’re step­ping in­side Mid­dle Earth.”

That’s part of the rea­son why visi­tors are guided: “For us, it’s all about the story and the per­sonal jour­ney, and we want to be able to share that with the world.” The sec­ond in­stal­ment of the Hob­bit tetral­ogy, The Deso­la­tion of Smaug, was re­leased in cine­mas on Dec. 13.

He adds: “It’s not just the movie that’s the draw card. A third of our visi­tors haven’t seen the movies, but 98 per cent have read the books.”

Nev­er­the­less, it’s the ex­am­ples of Jack­son’s finicky care with back­ground de­tail that fas­ci­nate ev­ery­one. Stand­ing on the hill above Bag End, the house be­long­ing to Bilbo and Frodo that is one of just two with a proper in­te­rior — the oth­ers are only a cou­ple of me­tres deep be­hind their doors — is an oak tree painstak­ingly re­con­structed in fi­bre­glass moulded on an orig­i­nal, its thou­sands of leaves made in Tai­wan and in­di­vid­u­ally wired in place.

“It was in shot for 11 sec­onds,” Henry says.

The path leads through the shaggy grass, past Sam­wise’s house in Bagshot Row and the party tree op­po­site, around the lake, over the hump­backed stone bridge by the wa­ter mill, and the tour fin­ishes at the cosy Green Dragon Inn with a spe­cial brew of cider or beer.

Across the lake, set into lu­mi­nously green hillocks, are the brightly painted round doors of the hob­bit holes sur­rounded by fox­gloves and hol­ly­hocks. It’s as pretty as a pic­ture, but it’s also mar­vel­lously real.

The Hob­biton tour ends at the Green Dragon Inn with a spe­cial brew of cider or beer. At right, visi­tors can walk around New Zealand’s

Hob­biton vil­lage, which is com­plete to the tini­est de­tail, with hob­bit trousers hang

ing on clothes­lines, in­di­vid­u­ally de­signed round door­ways and

moss and lichen cling­ing to the picket

fences.

POST­MEDIA NET­WORK INC.

Air New Zealand flies di­rect from Van­cou­ver to Auck­land daily: airnewzealand.co.nz

Hob­biton Movie Set and Farm Tours is close to Mata­mata, 175 kilo­me­tres south of Auck­land. En­try fees are C$66 for adult/$33 youth/$9 child. The 90-minute guided tours run ev­ery quar­ter hour from 9:50 a.m. to 4:05 p.m., seven days a week. For more in­for­ma­tion: hob­biton­tours.com and mata­matanz. co.nz.

Across the lake in Hob­biton green hillocks, are the brightly painted round doors of the hob­bit holes sur­rounded by fox­gloves and hol­ly­hocks. More than 70 work­ers spent 21/2 years con­struct­ing the 44 hob­bit holes that are built to last.

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