14-17 March 2015. Arriving in the small town of Ohakune, we check into the motel, dump our bags, and go for a short forest hike. Everyone knows about the famed New Zealand silver fern, don’t they? It is New Zealand’s iconic logo. It is the emblem seen on all of the country’s tourism promotions, and on international sports clothing – rugby, cricket, Olympic uniforms: a silver fern frond on a black background. We even bought black underwear decorated with the image of the silver frond for our grandsons. It is the underside of a particular species of fern, and can be used effectively to outline forest tracks in the darkness. We’d seen glimpses of the fern on other forest walks but this time we find a shining example. Finally I understand what it is about.
And at the end of the day, another of New Zealand’s spectacular sunsets.
I had been hoping and hoping Don and I would be fit enough to hike the nineteen kilometres of the famed and much vaunted Tongariro Crossing, which passes by two active volcanoes, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro, with a third, Mount Ruapehu, in the distance. All three are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. We investigated the idea of hiking just the first couple of stages of the Crossing, but by then you might as well go all the way as turn back. We know we’re not nearly fit enough for that, so we find a hike we can do in the same area. It is enough. It is more than enough. On a magnificent sunny day two chair lifts to take us part way up Mount Ruapehu,
then we continue to the top on foot over the rough gravelly unforgiving volcanic landscape.
We wonder if we’ll ever make it to the top, to the best views. We ask others on their way down if it’s worth it and they assure us it is. Just the next ridge. Then the next. Up and up we go. Then it appears:
From the top we can see the other two volcanoes, and the mountains beyond them stretching out into the distance.
Mount Ngauruhoe, which is the closest to be seen from the top of Mount Ruapehu, is the famed Mount Doom of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. What could possibly be a more perfect location for the dreaded evil centre of the story? Even seeing it from a distance I feel the power of the landscape: so barren and merciless. Mordor and Mount Doom are spread out before us.
On a rainy lazy day we drive to the town of Taupo. Lake Taupo, roughly the size of Singapore, is the biggest lake in Australasia. We arrive in time, and in wild weather, for another meeting with the sunset.
The next morning thankfully the sun has returned for our tour of Hobbiton. If Mordor and Mount Doom are the evil centre of The Lord of the Rings then Hobbiton is the loving heart of it.
From the beginning of the tour we step into a magical world and are completely enchanted. For the next two hours we are shown the entire town, from individual hobbit dwellings, to gardens, to Bag End, to the water mill and the double-arched bridge, and finally the famed Green Dragon Inn. The detail is immaculate, and the feeling of being in a fantastical, but real world, is completely entrancing. It’s easy to believe that people, well hobbits anyway, live here.
Hobbiton is situated on a family livestock farm on New Zealand’s North Island. Originally to be destroyed and the farmland returned to its owners, it was saved due to visitor interest, and then completely rebuilt in 2009 for the filming of The Hobbit. It will remain as a permanent attraction.
Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings films first saw the site from the air and felt it looked “like a slice of ancient England”. Jackson wrote: “I knew Hobbiton needed to be warm, comfortable and feel lived in. By letting the weeds grow through the cracks and establishing hedges and little gardens a year before filming, we ended up with an incredibly real place, not just a film set”.
His attention to detail is legendary. The “party tree” that sits above Bag End originally came from the nearby town of Matamata, with leaves being wired on by hand. It was removed after the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy as part of the process of returning the land back to the owners. An identical tree, built from steel and silicon, had to be made for the filming of The Hobbit. The leaves were hand painted, and once again were hand-wired onto the tree. Upon seeing it Jackson decided the leaves were the wrong colour. Every single one was re-painted by people up on “cherry pickers”.
Bag End with the “party tree” above.
As I walk through the village I become aware of the enterprise of each dwelling. Outside the baker’s house there are loaves of bread for sale, at the beekeeper’s house there is honey for sale.
At the fishmonger’s there is a smoke house and smoked fish for sale.
I notice details like the things in the windows,
the picnic table out front,
the village well,
the lamp down on the dock,
even smoke coming from a chimney,
and the clothesline with its old-fashioned pegs. I’ve not seen pegs like that since I was a child at my Gran’s.
Every house is different and yet each retains that quintessential hobbit feeling.
We walk by the mill with its water wheel, cross over the river on the double-arched bridge, and arrive at the Green Dragon Inn, the only human-sized building on the site and the only one with an interior. There are forty-four facades of hobbit houses but no interiors. Interior shots of Bag End were filmed in a studio in Wellington.
Inside the Green Dragon Inn
We end the day inhaling yet another glorious sunset, in a seemingly endless procession of glorious sunsets, down by the lake in Taupo.
Next post: the astonishing geothermal fields and geysers of the North Island. A landscape that is simply jaw-dropping.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.