If you've been following along for any amount of time you've probably figured out I am a certified geek. I admit it - I dig sci-fi, comic book stuff and all-things cinema related. I get excited about rumors on upcoming projects, new movie trailers, and all these cool superhero flicks coming to the big screen. Hell, I used to write my own year-end movie reviews. And, I know some of you have thought it simply a matter of time before reading about me jumping on some geek-fest Lord of the Rings tour here in New Zealand. Well, I'd hate to disappoint you...
Surprisingly, there's not much open in downtown Rotorua at 8:00 on a Friday morning. I was on my way to a convenience store with designs on getting a bottle of extremely overpriced water. The newspaper billboards in front of the shop touted today's headlines - one about a jail sentence for a sex offender, and one about Peter Jackson and the Hobbit. Now as a true geek, I actually heard the news yesterday about Jackson and New Line burying the hatchet to make the long-awaited prequel to the trilogy. It was however, fitting (and kind of cool) that the news hit the stands the very day I was headed for a tour of Hobbiton.
At 8:30 a white van with Hobbiton Tour logos splattered on its paneling pulled up in front of my hostel. And yes, it was kind of embarrassing. But, who cares? The driver, a jolly fellow named Danny, welcomed me on board with a firm handshake. He was probably in his late 50's with close-chopped white and silver hair. He had a tanned face with a big white moustache that rolled from the bottom of one cheek to the other. He looked like Paul Sr. from American Choppers, just minus about six inches and 75 pounds.
We made a few stops at three or four other hostels to see if anyone else was coming, but it ended up that I was the only soul going this morning. After a few pleasantries, we started talking about film in general - him asking me cheesy questions, and he quickly getting the picture that I knew more about the genre than his average passenger. We moved into specifics on Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings - as you do on a tour to Hobbiton. Fortunately, he was pretty well versed, as he should be. I grilled him about the recent news surrounding the Hobbit, but either he didn't know anything more than I did, or he was pretty good at denying it.
In the end, he was actually a lot of fun to talk to. A true Kiwi - laid back and open-minded, but passionate about "his stuff." He had the aura of someone who raised his fair share of hell back in the day and likes to think it's still in there somewhere. I could tell he had some amazing stories. He started talking with his hands about something, at which point I noticed his left hand had only three fingers.
45 minutes later, we rolled to a stop in the gravel parking lot of a two-story corrugated steel-clad building called "The Shire's Rest". It was actually a nice little set-up. It was early, and I was the only visitor - in fact a woman was still cleaning up from the night before.
Soon, another van rolled into view and pulled up in front of a gate on the other side of the road. I followed Danny across, and we both jumped in. There were four other Hobbits (as he called them) on board - two youngish girls from Finland, and a couple from Germany. Our driver was a twenty-something brunette gal with a baseball hat who was narrating a well-rehearsed tour script to us. The co-pilot's seat was occupied by our actual tour guide; an 82-year old Kiwi named Eric. Laugh if you will, but I pray I'm still reciting memorized tour dialogue and hiking up steep farmland hills three or four times a day when I'm 82.
As the movie set is on an actual working farm, there are lots and lots of sheep and lots and lots of fences. Four different times our little van pulled up to a gate, and each time old Eric hopped out to open and close it for us.
We rambled around a nice gravel road, which we were told was built by the New Zealand army specifically for the scenes shot here. About 400 meters after the last gate, we climbed a small hill and stopped in what looked to be a small parking lot. We all jumped out to take a look at "the view." We walked up to a point overlooking some of the most beautiful farmland I've ever seen. Rolling hills of jade. Full, dark trees randomly spotted in clusters here and there. A placid lake providing a runway for three or four large ducks. White specks dotting the entire scene, grazing on the beautiful emerald grass. This had to have been what was in Tolkien's head. This "view" is apparently what sold Jackson and other execs from the production crew on this property. Easy to see why. It had everything they needed and more.
We walked around for a few minutes, Eric telling us both particulars and a few stories about the production; about the ridiculous number of vehicles parked on this land, the size of the crew, the preparation of meals, importing water to the site, satellite hook ups for Jackson... They even had a few permanent pictures of what the scene looked like during the filming. It was all fascinating. Well... to me anyway.
Soon thereafter, we drove down the gravel road to a small covered sitting area equipped with rows of umbrellas. Eric went over a few of the rules - mostly existing due to regulations imparted by New Line Cinema who still technically owns all the sets. We then moved a few steps up a small hill and were treated to a pretty cool sight.
Six or seven white Hobbit holes were tucked away into the green hills just before us. I could actually see the scene from the movie in my head. Pretty cool, even for non-geeks I'd think. We spent the next hour or so just walking around; dodging sheep crap and listening to Eric relay little bits of trivia about each sight. Fortunately, our small group allowed us to spend a bit more time in each spot, which in turn translates into a lot more pictures.
There were sheep all over the place. Every time we'd change direction, two or three balls of wool would scurry off in one direction or another. Weird little creatures. They can be either pretty cute or really damn gross. Danny had mentioned earlier there were over 12,000 head on the farm, which is about 1,250 acres in total. Pretty good sized operation.
As I mentioned earlier - New Line still owns all the sets on the farm. Interestingly, way back before production started in the late 1990's, a big part of the agreement between New Line and the New Zealand government was that after filming all sets had to be removed, and the land restored to its original form. True to form (and much to the dismay of geeks everywhere), this has been done in all 120+ filming locations across the country. Hobbiton, however is the lone exception - but not by design. After the filming was completed in 2000, demolition crews came out and started dismantling everything they could. Alas, Mother Nature intervened, and torrential rains made it impossible to finish the work. New Line asked the Alexanders (the owners of the farm) for a six-month grace period. It was granted, and life went on. Until the next day, and the day after, and the day after, when neighbors and tourists started knocking on the door asking if they could see if anything was left. A couple of years later, the Alexanders and New Line brokered a deal to allow the family to set up a tour company and allow people to visit the site. They now run five to seven tours a day. Pretty cool stuff.
The sets here were only designed to last for 6 months, and only built about a foot deep into the earth - just enough to provide the right look for the film. Some of the originals are still there, and look pretty good seven years later. The Alexanders leave them alone for as long as possible, and then rebuild them when they collapse. Eric told us a couple of tales about holes collapsing due to just the traffic of wandering sheep.
We eventually made it up to Bag End, which as you may or may not know was the home of Bilbo and eventually Frodo. It's the most important of the holes, and obviously, the one in front of which we took the cool pictures.
Toward the end of the tour, I talked to Eric a bit about the news on the Hobbit, trying to see if he had any indication whether or not the production might move back here. He too was either a very convincing liar or as out of the loop as Danny. I should imagine it's simply too early for anything as detailed as filming locations to be decided, but... you never know. And I'd like to think they'd be coming back to Hobbiton - after all, most of the work is already done.
Once back at the Shire's Rest, Danny and I hopped into his van and we headed back to Rotorua. We had a very different conversation this time; after he found out I had at least a peripheral knowledge of cars. Actually, my limited knowledge is gleaned purely from my father, who is a true gearhead. Dad, you'll be proud to know I've picked up enough of the lingo along the way to at least convince a Kiwi "Petrolhead" I knew what I was talking about. We talked about muscle cars, drag racing and hot rods the entire way back to town. Danny has apparently met John Force and Tony Pedregon and a few other top fuelers in his trips to the US. He told me stories about hanging out with Ed and Zeke Justice, and went on about his recent car purchases in the states. He pulled out a copy of, appropriately, "Petrolhead" magazine and showed me a picture of the 1970 Plymouth Satellite he just bought.
It was a good day. A geeky day, but one that was well worth the time and effort. Not every day you get to visit Middle Earth.