INTO THE HOBBIT HOLE

A portrait of New Zealand as the playground of Bilbo Baggins

  • Published 15.10.17
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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

New Zealand has played a major role in the mythology of Middle-earth and it will always do so” — Peter Jackson, the man who has brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s worlds of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit alive through his films.

With the reputation of making any frame appear pretty because of its picturesque beauty, New Zealand has lent itself as the apt location of many a film. But it’s best recognised for being the scene and setting of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, its diverse landscape — snow-capped mountains to pristine lakes, imposing cliffs to narrow canyons — making it the perfect backdrop to bring alive Tolkien’s mythical Middle-earth.

In September, t2oS traversed the length and breadth of New Zealand for two weeks to get a first-hand view of some of these iconic filming locations. Here’s what we came back with... and want to go back for more!

GLACIER EXPLORER UP, UP AND AWAY!

A 14-hour flight via Singapore later, I had barely managed to get three hours of sleep when I found myself on a plane from Auckland to Queenstown. One of the principal locations for the shoot of The Lord of the Rings series, Queenstown is blessed with snow-covered mountains, sprawling green country and the beautiful Lake Wakatipu that forms a picturesque backdrop for shoots. Landing in Queenstown after a scenic two-hour flight, I hopped, skipped and jumped into a helicopter to take a ride over some of the well-known sites that can easily be identified in many of the LOTR films.

Called the “Lord of the Rings and Glacier Explorer”, this hour-long helicopter ride will make your jaw drop as you fly over Mount Earnslaw and some of its sister peaks, all covered with snow. With Queenstown facing a severe winter — I froze even with three layers of clothing — the helicopter rides this season were subject to weather conditions, but I was lucky that September morning — the sun was out in full force, beating down on the snowy peaks.

What made my day even luckier? Being flown around by Alfie Speight, the man who had piloted the cast and crew during the shoot of all six Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Alfie, as expected, was full of stories — from the crazy time when he had to pilot a few hundred horses to the top of Mount Earnslaw to when Andy Serkis, Gollum of LOTR, “sat in the back and gave me directions” while Alfie aerially filmed some shots (comb through film website imdb.com and you will find Alfie’s name there, not only for The Lord of the Rings, but films like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and King Kong).

The ride, not for those who have a fear of heights or shaking helicopters, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I looked out, a little gingerly at first and then with more courage as we flew for some time, to sneak a peek at some iconic frames — like the rugged Remarkables peak and the schist slopes used to film Dimrill Dale, a valley on the east side of the Misty Mountains in LOTR. Crossing the Wakatipu Basin, we made a smooth landing above the Shotover River, depicted in the films as the Ford of Bruinen, where Arwen (Liv Tyler) conjured the magical flood to dispel the Nazgul, also known as the Black Riders.

The sub-zero temperatures on the glacier didn’t prevent me from clicking a few hundred pictures, and then Alfie piloted us over the majestic Deer Park Heights to get the view Legolas (Orlando Bloom) had of the approaching Wargs. We made a second landing a little later and were greeted by a jaw-dropping view — an avalanche hurtling down one of the many peaks a short distance away.

Alfie, who has 15,000 hours of flying time to his credit, counts the LOTR and Hobbit films as one of his “best experiences”, but nowadays, the man has fresh stories to tell.

His subject? A certain Tom Cruise who Alfie flew around these very locations a few months ago while shooting M:I 6, the new Mission Impossible film slated to release next year. While flying us around, Alfie pointed out a few locations where the MI:6 crew, Cruise included, had shot.

So did Cruise, true to Ethan Hunt tradition, hang on to Alfie’s helicopter mid-air or attempt a daring jump from it? “Tom Cruise will always be Tom Cruise. But you have to watch this one to believe it,” smiled Alfie.

 
A bird’s-eye view of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown

4WD DRIVE

Bumpy but beautiful

I found myself continuing my Middle-earth adventures later in the day. A 4WD (four-wheel drive) took the place of the morning’s helicopter for a very steep ride up a hill to get a view of Lake Wakatipu, a go-to filming location for the LOTR films — from Minas Tirith to the Misty Mountains, the Pillars of the Kings to Gladden Fields and finally the Ford of Bruinen.

My guide for this leg of the tour was David Gatward-Ferguson, the founder of Nomad Safaris, a company that specialises in driving fans through these film locations. David not only knows his Tolkien well, but has actually played a tiny role — in the “Burning of the Westfold” scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. He did have many stories to tell of his “misadventure” as he put it, but rued missing out on acting in a Bollywood film. Yes, I Hate Luv Storys, starring Imran Khan-Sonam Kapoor, had some of these Queenstown locations. David didn’t land a role, but an Indian girl in his office did. Is he happy about it? Hell, no!

We then took a bumpy ride right through the middle of the Arrow River, that takes credit for being the setting for the scene where Arwen challenged the Nazgul while rushing Frodo (Elijah Wood) to the Elven realm of Rivendell. The Arrow River, however, draws many more enthusiasts than just LOTR fans — it’s a sought-after site for gold panning, an age-old practice of extracting specks of gold from the bed of the river. Did I go looking for gold? Well, it requires hours of patience to get hold of a tiny speck — and sometimes you may not even be that lucky. So just count me out of that one!

WETA WORKSHOP

Where films come to life

A few days later, I was in front of a non-descript building in the Miramar area of the Kiwi capital of Wellington. Almost disappointed at how ordinary it looked from the outside, I stepped inside... only to discover a whole new world. The brainchild of Richard Taylor and his wife Tania, with Peter Jackson lending support creatively, the Weta Workshop started off small exactly 30 years ago, but is today a leading design and effects facility that’s worked on not only The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but also some of the biggest films that the world has seen in recent times. Need a list? How about Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Rise of the Planet of the Apes to Mad Max: Fury Road to the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok and many, many more.

My initial disappointment vanished in seconds as I walked into the appropriately named Weta Cave, the workshop that churns out some of the most incredible and eye-catching props and prosthetics seen in films over the last few decades. Photographs are forbidden inside the workshop — a lot of high-profile films get some of their most important work done here — but I was only too happy to absorb the experience of walking around without going click-click.

As I walked from one room to the next inside the Weta Cave, I found so many films come alive before my eyes — I spied Captain Haddock’s bulbous nose tucked in one corner and many weapons used in the LOTR films. Design to paint to manufacture, every prop and prosthetic made in the Weta Workshop goes through many rounds of discussion and detailing before it makes its way into the movies. There’s a story behind everything that’s churned out at the Weta Workshop and you need to spend a whole day here to be able to fully take in the experience. I spotted a couple of “Bigatures”, the Weta nickname for a very large miniature model used in the LOTR films, with one even going up to nine metres high.

One can sign up for guided tours — like the one I took — at the Weta Workshop daily, but it’s not every day that you get to meet the man himself. Sir Richard Taylor, who’s won five Oscars for his incredible work, made an appearance to chat up on the world and vision of Weta. “I get to do fun things at my job and that’s what keeps me going,” the 50-something Taylor, who is constantly brimming with ideas and doodling away on his notepad, told t2oS. My big, big takeaway from the Weta afternoon? Getting a pair of prosthetic ears (left)! 

HAIRY FEET WAITOMO

God’s own country

The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films may have been shot all over New Zealand, but it’s the sprawling Denize Bluffs Farm tucked away in the tiny region of Piopio, about 100km from Hamilton, that holds a unique distinction — The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first film in the series, has 22 minutes of its screen time shot here, the maximum for any location in any of the films.

Owned by Warrick and Suzie Denize, the farmhouse, which I visited a few days after my Weta adventure in Wellington, offers a stunning view of Mangaotaki, the imposing cliff face — a perfect setting for Middle-earth.

The Company arriving at the destroyed farmhouse, filmed at Hairy Feet Waitomo, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It isn’t easy to reach this location — named Hairy Feet Waitomo — but once you get there after a long drive of no mobile network, it’s not tough to see why Peter Jackson and his team zeroed in on it. Miles and miles of verdant greens with sheep resembling balls of cotton grazing on them form a picture so serene and pretty that I was instantly reminded of Heidi, my favourite childhood read. Described as “a hidden Hobbit jewel” by tourists lucky enough to discover it some years ago, Hairy Feet Waitomo now conducts guided tours of the location twice a day, seven days a week. “And we are always full!” a beaming Suzie told t2oS as she whipped out Gandalf’s hat and his sword Glamdring for me to pose with and take pictures. Yes, it was fun, but the weight of that sword took care of my cardio workout for the whole week!

Suzie does duties as guide daily, ensuring that a group doesn’t have more than nine members so as to afford “a more personal experience”. With Suzie at the steering wheel of her SUV and me strapped in the front seat, we drove up the hill to get a beautiful view of the Mangaotaki Cliff, a looming structure that Suzie referred to as a “she” and “a lovely big thing” that runs well over 2km. As the evening sun hit the face of the cliff, Suzie pointed out different locations used in An Unexpected Journey — from a set of rocks that formed the backdrop for a scene, about 55 minutes into the film, in which Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) are on horseback riding towards the cliff, the location of the Company arriving at the destroyed farmhouse and a peculiar rock formation, all natural, that served as the cave of the Troll Hoard. The front of the “cave” was the background for a strategic scene — the one in which Gandalf hands over the sword Sting to Bilbo.

The Trollshaw Forest, that Suzie and Warrick have now laid a gravel path through to enable easy trekking, is particularly stunning, with almost every turn serving as the backdrop for an iconic scene. Like the one where Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) arrives to tell Gandalf “something important” to the little hill where Gandalf turns the trolls into stone.

The best thing about this tour is that Suzie, besides being an enthusiastic guide, is well versed with the Tolkien universe and keeps you riveted through the 90-minute walk. It was fun to spot Bilbo’s yellow mark for the Wargs attack — left behind by the film crew that the Denizes now use as part of the tour — and also pose, gingerly, because boy, it poked real bad, on a rock that Thorin sat on to film a scene.

It also helps that Suzie was present every day of the shoot and therefore, has quite a few interesting stories to tell. The best bit? The Denize family were prohibited for months from telling their neighbours or friends that their farm was being used as a Hobbit shoot location. “My sons were constantly asked at school, but they managed to keep mum, but my niece, who was just five then, blurted it out in the school bus. She got confused with the name and said: ‘Guess what, people! Michael Jackson is shooting on our farm!’” laughed Suzie.

Thinking of visiting Hairy Feet Waitomo on your New Zealand trip, but aren’t a Tolkien fan? Well, this place is much more than a Hobbit location. The towering limestone cliffs, unusual rock formations, the chance to see a working farm and a walk through a primeval New Zealand bush should be reason enough to make a trip here. And then, of course, is the sheer natural beauty… unlike anything you would have seen before. And yes, before you walk away, quite reluctantly in my case, make sure you pick up something from Suzie’s LOTR-Hobbit collection. I have a Gimli figurine now resting on my shelf at home.

Bilbo Baggins’s Hobbit hole at Hobbiton

HOBBITON

A birthday bash…and more!

The last stop of my Tolkien journey through New Zealand was, fittingly enough, the Hobbiton Movie Set. My second visit to the iconic set in less than 10 months was very special this time —I landed up on September 22. Rings a bell? Yes, it was Hobbit Day, celebrated in the books as Bilbo and his nephew Frodo Baggins’s birthdays.

It was late afternoon when we drove down from Hamilton to Matamata, where Hobbiton (that Peter Jackson has described as “an incredibly real place, not just a film set”) is located, and spotted busloads of enthusiastic fans, some of them dressed as Bilbo and Frodo, Gandalf and Galadriel, vrooming in for the big celebrations, much like what we saw in the opening frames of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first LOTR film.

After buying some film-related knick-knacks from the Hobbit store, I made my way through the entrance of the sprawling Hobbiton greens, following the path that Gandalf took as he rode his wagon to the Baggins birthday bash. I had taken the tour through Hobbiton before, but peeking into Bilbo’s Hobbit hole, as well as the 43 other ones, is always fun. This time, it was the special touches — the decorations lining the trees, the Chinese lamps dotting the Hobbit holes and the Black Riders horsing around the greens — that made it a unique experience.

The tour over, I made my way to the Green Dragon, the iconic inn from The Hobbit that occupies pride of place in Hobbiton. And boy, did it bear a festive look! A mini-marketplace had been set up — cheese to cold cuts, tarts to pastries — and I found myself, in true Hobbit tradition, stuffing my face.

But that was nothing compared to the huge dinner that awaited all the Hobbiton guests as we made our way to a colourful canopy, set up especially for the occasion. From the tables groaning with plates of food to the song and dance that accompanied dinner, it all seemed like a page out of the books, just as Tolkien had described the celebrations.

What made it even more fun? A make-up magician had especially flown down from the Weta Workshop to transform fans into their favourite Hobbit characters.

Over after-dinner coffee — very welcome, considering it was about 7°C outside — I got chatting with Russell Alexander, the host for the evening and the man on whose farm Hobbiton is built. So what prompted the Hobbit Day celebrations, the first time Hobbiton has thrown it open to the public?

“We’ve been toying with the idea for some years now and decided to go for it this year since the Hobbit craze doesn’t seem to die down,” smiled Russell. Only about 250 tickets were made available for the evening, and they sold out almost immediately. Next year, Alexander and his team plan to make the celebrations “even bigger”, a cue for Hobbit fans to plan a trip rightaway.

The evening over, we wound our way back with lanterns in hand, spying the Hobbit holes all lit up under a canopy of bright stars. A magical experience that words will fail to describe.

What would Bilbo Baggins have said about the Hobbiton experience — and my two weeks in LOTR country? “Thag you very buch!” My sentiments precisely.

 — Priyanka Roy
Pictures: Priyanka Roy &Tourism New Zealand 

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