A quiet valley in the middle of the Waikato isn't the first place you'd think to find the perfect union of art and nature; but then, life is full of unexpected events. Just ask Bilbo Baggins.
A 40-minute drive from Matamata's new Hobbit-themed i-Site is a world-first: a permanent movie set open to the public. This is the location of Hobbiton, the village featured in first the Lord of the Rings movies and now The Hobbit trilogy.
It's on the Alexander family farm and tours depart every quarter-hour for a 90-minute wander around the set. On a ride from the Shire's Rest carpark to the 5ha 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 partnership between the family and director Peter Jackson, who had spotted the farm from the air while searching for a setting for Hobbiton, where the Lord of the Rings saga begins.
The huge old pine tree beside a lake was the clinching factor - Henry said it had almost been felled earlier as it was in the way on a stock track - 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 it could begin again, so many rabid Tolkien fans came knocking on the Alexanders' door 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. When filming The Hobbit was proposed, the Alexanders knew what to do.
This time, over 70 workers spent two and a half years constructing 44 hobbit holes that are built to last, and once filming finished Hobbiton Movie Set Tours started. Now visitors can walk around a village that is complete in the tiniest detail, with hobbit trousers hanging on clothes lines, firewood piled up outside doorways, and moss and lichen clinging to the picket fences. The artichokes are real but the lichen is the result of artifice, a small-scale example of the obsessive care that has been 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."
The examples of Jackson's finicking care are fascinating. On the hill above Bag End, the house belonging to Bilbo and Frodo, is an oak tree painstakingly reconstructed in fibreglass, its thousands of leaves made in Taiwan and individually wired in place. "It was in shot for 11 seconds," Henry says.
Further information: Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours is close to Matamata, 175km from Auckland. Entry fees are $75 adult/$38 youth/$10 child and 90-minute guided tours run every quarter-hour from 9.50am to 4.05pm, seven days a week. Busiest periods are 11am to 2pm.
* Pamela Wade was a guest at Hobbiton.