Piopio: Hoggets and hobbits

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright takes her family in search of small, hairy footprints on a movie location tour in Piopio.
The landscape of Hairy Feet Waitomo is a huge drawcard.
The landscape of Hairy Feet Waitomo is a huge drawcard.

Suzie and Warrick Denize are the third generation of the Denize family to live at the 280-acre sheep farm in the Mangaotaki Valley. They always hoped to turn their land into a tourism enterprise so when the "film people" arrived one spring day in 2010 door knocking for locations in the area for The Hobbit, they welcomed them with open arms.

"They're just ordinary Joes," says Suzie, remembering when Peter Jackson and his crew turned up at her family farm in four helicopters.

"We didn't know who was who, so we didn't get starstruck."

Unfortunately, unlike the Hobbiton movie set tour in Matamata, memory is all that remains - apart from a small marker indicating Bilbo's position.

Luckily for film fans, Suzie's memory is long and she has many stories of the time the film people came to stay, which is just as well as she hosts 90-minute tours of the farm and sets.

She's a little more starstruck now they've gone, telling story after story about the production.

After eight months of planning, six weeks of set building and almost 500 people descending upon the family farm for a week's filming, the troll and campfire scenes were complete. The result was six and a half minutes (or 20 minutes with special effects) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The scenes filmed here are memorable - who can forget the poor dwarves being turned on a spit by the hungry trolls, or the film poster photo where Gandalf bestows the sword "Sting" upon Bilbo?

Suzie remembers the filming days, when 30 big trucks arrived. Each of the 16 main characters needed their own caravans, alongside makeup and catering trucks. Not to mention 50 horses and the stables.

As we listen, I'm distracted by the rams, who have done their job for the year. They stretch out like seals to sleep in the morning sun as hoggets hop nearby.

The working sheep farm is as fascinating as the film stories for us city folk.

We head to an area of thick forest, trees with branches any art department would dream about finding. It's like a child grabbed a green crayon and scribbled the air with gnarled branches growing in every direction: if only Tarzan was a hobbit.

There are also impressive limestone rock formations on the land, which was once under the sea. Our children love to jump from rock to rock. There's a cave and an old mahoe tree with lots of other plants growing on it.

Suzie tells us geologists love the tour and botanists argue with her that a certain tree should not be growing where it is on the farm. Though it's nice the film was partially set here, the real drawcard is the amazing landscape.

The ground is covered in green, brown and yellow leaves - every season's markings at once - and the rock formations are natural skyscrapers, at one time drawing in the climbers.

"Base jumpers came but they cost too much to insure and one got stuck in a tree," explains Suzie. "We told them not to come back."

Instead, we watch pigeons doing aerial displays and are told they fly like this because they eat too many berries and the high diving acrobatics help with digestion.

The tour combines short bursts of gentle walking with a car ride in an air-conditioned van, a CD of native bird sounds playing in the background.

Suzie offers our children iced hairy feet-shaped biscuits - she's thought of everything and is the perfect tour guide, it's just a shame the film people didn't leave her anything when they left.

"Some people are so keyed up and stressed out by city life that the tour is also just a nice break for them to come out here and take a breath," says Suzie.

"It's not just the movie they're interested in - overseas visitors are amazed by our country."

After a few obligatory family photos holding Gandalf's staff and huge knives, we bid the friendliest tour operators good-bye. These ordinary Joes have an extraordinary farm in a town that, unlike Bilbo Baggins, loves nothing more than visitors from out of town. You should stop by.

NEED TO KNOW

Walk this way: Hairy Feet Waitomo, which began in November 2013, are not connected to the Hobbiton Movie Set Tours in Matamata. Tours are run from 1411 Mangaotaki Rd, Piopio (approximately 115km from Hamilton). Adults $50, children $25. Bookings advised. Suitable for all levels of fitness - the big hills are reached by van - and tours operate whatever the weather. Snacks sold on site, with the nearest cafe in Piopio a 15-minute drive away. Ph 07 877 8003.

Stops to make along the way: Pull in at Otorohanga and check out the Kiwi House.

DIRECTIONS

Danielle travelled with assistance from Hamilton and Waikato Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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