Deep in the rolling green hills of the Waikato, past some orderly and very English hedgerows, you’ll find Middle Earth and the Hobbit home of Bilbo Baggins and Frodo. Hobbiton the movie set, used in filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy is coming up to its 7th anniversary as a unique LOTR tourist attraction – with more than 175,000 visitors through its gates.
It’s easy to see why LOTR mogul Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema picked out this patch of lush-pastured Waikato to create Hobbiton. ‘Hedgerow-lined lanes provide glimpses of paddocks and grassy downs that are a vision of the Shire,’ says Ian Brodie, author of Lord of the Rings Location Guide Book.
The location - on the Alexander family’s sheep and beef farm - was discovered by movie company scouts in an aerial fly over in September of 1998; the peaceful countryside closely resembled the fabled Middle-earth described by LOTR author JRR Tolkien.
The scouts couldn’t quite believe their luck. They had picked out 158 different locations in various parts of the country to film the trilogy, with Hobbiton ‘one of the hardest and last to find.’ They were looking for three things in one spot and found them – a rolling landscape, a lake and beside it a ‘party tree.’ Even better, the surrounding farmland wasn’t cluttered with 20th century stuff like roads, buildings and power lines that would all hamper re-creating the Shire.
It’s easy to imagine visiting Hobbiton would be a quasi-religious experience for LOTR fanatics. But Rings Scenic Tours Marketing Manager Henry Horne sets the record straight. Hobbiton tours have evolved into a far more rounded experience, with appeal to a much wider audience.
‘Hardcore ringers’ certainly make up a portion of the visitors, but Henry corrects my term fanatics, to LOTR ‘enthusiasts.’ Some have visited up to eight times, including - incredibly - a Japanese woman who turns up in a different costume every time depicting an LOTR character.
Visitors have come from no less than 81 different countries, with the most serious ringers from the U.K. (25%) and Europe, followed by Australians (22%). Germans and Americans are also big fans (18% each). Kiwis it seems are far less LOR-mad, representing only 15% of the visitors.
Over the years, the tours have been tweaked. Their focus is now focus on the ‘authentic-ness’ of visiting a working farm, and guides telling the intriguing story of how the Alexander family worked with the movie bosses on the LOTR project. The ‘storylines’ brought out during the tour are based on the (Alexander) family and ‘their involvement with Hollywood, and how they worked together, a story that can’t be told by anyone else,’ says Henry. Although he adds that ‘the hardcore ringers are certainly going to get a real buzz out of it.’
It’s partly a tale of big budget film set logistics – such as the need to install sewerage facilities with 400 people on the set. From 1000 (short) people who auditioned for Hobbit extra roles, 300 with the requisite apple cheeks and cheeky grins were chosen.
Tours leave daily from the Shire’s Rest, a cafe where you can stock up on supplies of Hobbiton key rings, shot glasses, and other mementoes – and books like the Lord of the Rings Location Guide Book.
Visitors are taken by mini-van through a gate, and past grazing sheep, towards the Shire. Guide Carolyn Ellis keeps up a flow of anecdotes and facts on how the farm was transformed for the film shoot. The army had to be brought in to construct this 3.5 km road that could handle up to 120 44-tonne truck and trailer units daily.
‘I cannot dress up as a hobbit and re-enact any part of the movie for you,’ says Carolyn. ‘However if you people brought your favourite costumes with you, you‘re most welcome to get dressed up and re-enact your favourite scene. You wouldn’t be the first, and you won’t be the last.’ Our guide explains why you won’t find a faithfully reconstructed version of Bag End – plenty of copyright and contract restrictions. Russell Alexander family took over two years to thrash out a contract with New Line Cinema which still owns every hobbit home we are viewing.
‘Welcome to Middle-earth,’ says Carolyn smiling broadly, as we disembark, with Hobbit holes in sight at the top of a grassy hillside.
The guides use large sign-boards with blow-ups from filming to illustrate their talks, and breathe life into the former sets. The photos are some of the 30 gifted to the Alexanders by New Line Cinema’s photographer.
Peter Jackson, needed beer for the party scenes, says Carolyn, so he contacted a small brewery in the South Island, and a special beer was brewed with only 1.1% alcohol, so that actors would remain standing.
Up the hill by the Hobbit holes, Carolyn points to more of the film makers’ painstaking attention to detail – no expense spared. The script called for an oak tree with an overhanging branch at Bag End. A 26 tonne oak was purchased from a nearby farmer, ‘sliced and diced’ and the pieces numbered. The tree was re-assembled at Bag End like a jigsaw puzzle. ‘Nice green leaves,’ 250,000 in all, were in fact fake leaves from Taiwan.
The film shoot called for four vets on duty to look after all the animals on location. The local Romney sheep were the wrong colour and breed, so black faced sheep were brought in to create ‘that English look.’ Some of the animals – such has the horse that pulls Gandalf’s cart – had their own ‘doubles.’
Back at the Shire’s Rest, the tour finale is a well-chosen add-on for a tour in a working farm. Visitors are treated to sheep-shearing demonstration (and in spring) are given the chance to bottle feed some lambs.
Rings Scenic tours staff are quietly excited at the prospect of fresh filming for The Hobbit. A small ‘vegetation crew’ has already spent some weeks on site, working more than a year in advance of re-constructing the Hobbit village set for the new film. They are doing ‘cosmetic work,’ Henry Horne says, preparing hedge lines, and mature orchard trees, before the set is created.
New film or not, Hobbiton Movie Set provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how effort went into the LOTR phenomenon.
FACT FILE :
How to get there from Tauranga: head over the Kaimais on SH 29 to Hinuera, then on towards Hamilton for 2 km. Turn right off the State Highway, following the Hobbiton signs, onto Puketutu Road, then Buckland Road. Travel 5.1 km to The Shire’s Rest, 501 Buckland Road, Matamata.
Tours costs $58 adults, $29 youth (10-14), $5 children (5-9), infants free. Further information 07- 888 9913, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
www.hobbitontours.com (online booking)