Of Hobbits and Hobbiton: A Visit to Middle Earth, New Zealand.
By Max Milano (Travel Writer)*
Having read Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ quite a few years before Peter Jackson’s movies came out, I always thought that ‘The Shire’ was located somewhere in that bit of British Midlands countryside visible from atop Warwick Castle. And that is exactly what the scenery sorely lacked: A castle. At that point I would have settled for a village, a hamlet, a shed, anything that would break the monotony of the landscape. I’d been driving south from Auckland, deep into the rural heart of New Zealand’s north island, and for the last hour and a half, the scenery had consisted of rolling green hills dotted by white fluffy dots (sheep) and slightly larger black sports (cows). Not a town, nor village, or gas station for miles, just a narrow country lane forever twisting itself around the sheep dotted hills. Traffic was so light that it was almost nonexistent, apart from the occasional big truck barreling down on the wrong side of the road. I had to remind myself that Kiwis drove on the left in order not to panic, but every truck that appeared on the opposite lane still looked like it was heading for a head on collision with my windscreen.
Someone had told me the night before that there were ten million sheep in New Zealand (down from twenty million). In fact New Zealand has more sheep than it has people and my drive down had proved the point beyond a shadow of a doubt; I’d seen plenty of sheep, but hardly any people.
My reason for waking at the crack of dawn and leaving my warm Auckland hotel bed in the middle of a Southern Winter was to find Middle Earth’s loveliest place; ‘The Shire’ (or at least Peter Jackson’s castle-less Kiwi version of it).
I finally entered a town (the first one for miles). A large sign greeted everyone with ‘Welcome to Hobbiton, Matamata, New Zealand’. A large stone goblin gargoyle stood next to it. I couldn’t make out which character from The Lord of the Rings it was. It could have been Golum, as it was hunched and looked slightly menacing, but the face was less round (perhaps the artist found inspiration in the books and not the movies).
Matamata, Middle Earth
Matamata is what we would call stateside a ‘two mule town’. In its case a ‘two mare town’ as lots of Matamatans raise thoroughbred horses. Leather and riding shops abound in Matamata’s main drag and the surrounding countryside is divided between sheep estates and dairy farms. Wool, milk and thoroughbred horses were the town’s only exports until that fateful day when director Peter Jackson (scouting from a helicopter) landed in a particularly picturesque sheep farm nearby and claimed it for the world as the location of Hobbiton. It turns out that the property had a very large tree right in the right spot; a slight hollow where a camera could make a 360 degree pan and never see any evidence of the modern world.
The Hobbiton set was supposed to be destroyed after filming ended, but the sudden appearance of pointy eared ‘Hobbit Pilgrims’ from all over the globe in Matamata’s main drag, asking for directions to ‘their town’, convinced the landowners to lobby the movie studios to preserve the set as a tourist destination.
And a tourist magnet it is. That rainy mid June day still attracted half a bus load of Hobbit fans from all over. I counted six or seven different nationalities, everyone talked excitedly as we boarded the tour bus in Downtown Matamata for the short drive to the farm where the magic happens.
Our tour guide was a local Matamatan girl and she was very knowledgeable about every aspect of the film’s production, full of behind the scenes titbits. She pointed to the farmhouse Peter Jackson rented during the shoot to oversee the daily rushes and she acted out the different parts that actors played outside of the Hobbit homes (all interior scenes were filmed in a studio in Wellington, but all the magical exterior shots of hobbittown were filmed there). We all smiled when we saw the familiar round doors and grass roofs, the large party tree, Bilbo’s house and the tiny brick bridge over a stream. I for one was glad that ‘The Shire’ had not burned down in real life, as it’s a lovely place that deserves its daily pilgrims.
The set is so realistically weather beaten that it was very easy to imagine Frodo frolicking with his friends and Gandalf smoking his pipe at dusk outside Bilbo’s house. But soon, just like Frodo, we had to abandon The Shire and return to the outside world. The estate, being a true working sheep ranch, had one last treat in store. We stopped by a wooden shed in the middle of a field by a dirt track and were introduced to New Zealand’s second national sport: Sheep shearing (the first being Rugby). A woolly sheep was promptly sheared in seven seconds flat and we even got to bottle feed a couple of baby sheep. I told the tour guide that after seeing how cute they were I could never eat mutton again. “That was my plan all along “she said, using the same gruff voice she had used to impersonate Gandalf back in Hobbiton. “And by the way” she continued, “Hobbiton is copyrighted, so if I ever find any pictures of the Hobbiton set on the internet, we’ll have to track you down and kill you”.
There was no way on earth that I wouldn’t post these pictures, so here they are for your enjoyment. And If I were to suddenly disappear, you know who did it; those pesky Hobbits from Matamata, NZ.
* Max Milano is the Author of “The Mechanicals of Recoleta”. Available at Amazon.