Visiting Middle-earth in New Zealand

By Caris Bizzaca

First created back in 1999, Hobbiton was all but destroyed after production on 'The Lord of the Rings' wrapped. Photo / Supplied
First created back in 1999, Hobbiton was all but destroyed after production on 'The Lord of the Rings' wrapped. Photo / Supplied

Standing in front of a round green door, set into a cheery hillside, I half expect to see Gandalf the Grey and Bilbo Baggins wandering up the footpath.

Perhaps it should be known as the Hobbiton effect. It's possibly because unlike other locations in the movies, which were changed with CGI, Hobbiton is exactly the same as it appears onscreen.

Walking down a gravelly footpath, you recognise it as the spot where Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood) greeted the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

In the distance, a giant tree rears into the sky - The Party Tree where Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) held his eleventy-first birthday.

Now that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in cinemas, there's even more moments of deja vu to be had.

And, thanks to The Hobbit, Hobbiton is here to stay.

First created back in 1999, the tiny village was all but destroyed after production on The Lord of the Rings wrapped.

Hobbiton owner Ian Alexander said there was an agreement that the site would be returned to the way it was before the movie, as a working sheep farm.

"I had asked so many times, should we keep it going, and my family did too, as a tourist thing and right up til the end of the third film coming out, we were told, 'wasting our time, don't even think about it'," he says.

So as agreed, a contractor came in and bulldozed half of Hobbiton, but by a twist of fate, was pulled away to another job, promising to come back first thing the next morning.

That night Alexander had a call from a person in Auckland who worked in tourism and wanted to see the site, so the demolition was put on hold at the last minute.

"That's how close we were to having not a thing and we wouldn't have had a tourist thing here today," Alexander said.

Despite its unfinished state, the Hobbiton movie set tours became a popular attraction. Ian's son Russell Alexander, who manages Hobbiton, said since the tours began about a decade ago, they've had around 300,000 visitors, but they're expecting the number will grow to 100,000 visitors this financial year.

It's largely thanks to The Hobbit trilogy, because when Jackson came back to Matamata to recreate Hobbiton for the films, unlike on The Lord of the Rings, they rebuilt it with permanent materials to stand the test of time.

For many Tolkien or movie fans, coming to Hobbiton is something of a pilgrimage. Whether you're getting a photo outside Bag End (Frodo and Bilbo's house with the green door), or sitting on the see-saw beneath The Party Tree, it truly is an experience.

Some like to get dressed up ("we often get a Gandalf or two,'' said art director Brian Massey), while others have even been married there.

Hobbiton board director George Hickton said he met someone recently who had been waiting ten years to visit.

"She said 'I've been dreaming of this moment'. She was shuddering. It was extraordinary...

"I've seen people come here and stand in front of a hobbit hole and almost start screaming.''

Another positive is Hobbiton's close proximity to other established attractions, all within driving distance of Auckland.

So within a few days, you can visit Middle-earth, then delve into the Waitomo Caves to see the glow-worms, or maybe do some black water rafting for the more adventurous, before travelling to Rotorua, where you can sip hot chocolate before the Pohutu geyser and watch the Haka at the Maori cultural performance in Te Puia.

Hobbiton is a work in progress, with additions like Shire's Rest Cafe, and most recently The Green Dragon Inn, a fully licensed pub for 120 people, being built.

The pub's construction was overseen by The Hobbit's art director Brian Massey, who ensured everything - down to the mugs - had total continuity with The Green Dragon seen in the films.

Massey, who originally worked on The Lord of the Rings as greensmaster, caring for the landscapes, trees and streams in Hobbiton, said he can remember the first time Sir Peter Jackson visited the place he had so long envisioned in his mind.

"It was a really cool reaction," he said.

"With Hobbiton you can walk over the top and just wander around and he was sort of deep in thought.

"You could see him picturing himself in Hobbiton."

For many people, their experience of coming to Hobbiton is very similar to Jackson's, where they feel like they have stepped into the movie.

In the end, it doesn't matter if you're a die-hard fan or not. Visiting Hobbiton is like taking home your own piece of cinema history.

- AAP

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