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Today, we arrived in Tauranga, New Zealand, and the world just got a little bit smaller.

I must confess to having been more than a bit excited about this stop, because we were booked to go on an excursion. Not as escorts, for a change, but as bona fide punters. It required us to be up at stupid o’clock (6am) in time for a quick breakfast (although I’m not big on eating at that time in the morning), and to be in the Show Lounge for 7am, ready to be taken to the coach at 7:15am.

Tauranga is in the Bay of Plenty, in the top end of the North Island, and our coach journey lasted just over an hour.

Finally, we arrived at our destination… Hobbiton.

When film director Peter Jackson set out to film Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings ‘ and subsequently ‘The Hobbit’, he sent a helicopter out scouting for good, appropriate locations. In particular, he was on the lookout for somewhere that would make a good Hobbiton, in The Shire. Our guide explained how it was that Peter Jackson came to knock on the door of a farm house, whose farmland had exactly the look and feel that he was looking for. When they were sat around a table and he explained to them that he would like to film part of The Lord of the Rings there, the owner was reputed to have said ‘Lord of the what?…’ he’d never heard of it. His son, who kicked his dad under the table had, though, and told him to say yes. Several years later, that son now manages the operation that we saw today, in conjunction with Wingnut Films, known simply as ‘Hobbition Film Set Experience’.

The area that was chosen had many things going for it. It had lots of rounded hills that would comfortably double as The Shire, but it was also a long way away from anywhere, and more importantly, away from prying eyes. Everyone involved, including the land owner and all the contracters who worked on transforming the area into Hobbiton, had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The New Zealand government provided the film company with an army, to help build the access road into the area, and who were also subsequently employed to play orcs in the movies. The airspace above the site was even listed as out of bounds to all aircraft, to prevent the media from taking video or photographs of the operation. Any pilot flying over it would lose their pilot’s licence permanently – it was that serious.

I must admit, both Tracey and myself were a little apprehensive about what we were going to see. We’re both fans of the movies, and had taken the time to watch a few of the Hobbiton senes on the tablet in our cabin last night, in preparation. As we sat in the coach that took us along the dusty access road, and then an official guide led us down a little track through some trees, I don’t think were were quite prepared for what came next…

… First came the painted door and little garden of a hobbit hole, natural as can be, and then another… and as the trees opened out and we turned a corner… there we were… in Hobbiton itself.

As our guide – who was very good – led us along the path (all visitors are on guided tours – no-one is allowed to wander around freely by themselves), he pointed out particular locations and viewpoints that corresponded to specific moments in the movies. Looking across the village, we could just make out the pond and the watermill. There was the party field, and the party tree, where Bilbo slipped the ring on during his birthday party. There was Sam and Rosie’s house, where Sam returned at the very end of the final movie, and the door closed to the end credits. And, of course, there was Bag End; a grand hobbit hold to be sure, with a distinctive character all of its own. The sign ‘No Admittance except on party business’ is fixed to the front gate, and the bench where Bilbo and Gandalf sat blowing smoke rings is clearly visible, as is the window, where Gandalf drags Sam through when he’s been listening in on his conversation about the One Ring with Frodo.

The large tree above bag End is the only tree that is totally fake (but looks competely believable); all the other trees and shrubbery are totally genuine. The whole area is watered daily to keep it lush and green. Our guide explained that some doors are large and some small, to accommodate different shots required by the director; large ones for when hobbits are stood in front of them, and small ones for when Gandalf is stood in front of them.

Eventually, the pathway led us, winding through the village, down to the little stone bridge next to the mill with its waterwheel, and to the Green Dragon pub, where we were treated to a cheese scone and a tankard of ale.

We absolutely loved it!

The thing is; they don’t have small people dressed up as hobbits walking around, and there are no information boards or other overtly ‘touristy’ touches. It just is what it is; the hobbiton film set, exactly as it was, as built for the movies, and the whole experience is very respectful of that fact. We were blown away by the amount of detail; little tables outside the front of hobbit holes with pipes propped up, and washing lines with little hobbit clothes hanging on them.

There were, of course, lots of photo opportunities galore, and everyone got their chance to pose in front of hobbit houses, and Bag End. You can’t go in them because they don’t have any interiors to speak of; all of those were filmed in a studio set.

In the afternoon, after a quick lunch back at the ship, we went for a walk into Tauranga. There was lots to see, all within a very short walking distance of the quayside; we walked along its extensive beaches, and along the wooded pathway that went all the way around a headland with an interesting hill upon it. We saw lots of birds and a seal basking upon a rock by the waters edge.

We even finished our visit off with an ice cream before reboarding the Columbus.

This has been our first taste of New Zealand, and we’re quite in love with it already. The landscape is stunning, they speak English, and the cars drive on the left-hand side of the road. What’s not to like?

Peter Woolley

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