On Monday the 12th of December, I achieved one of my biggest (and nerdiest) New Zealand goals: I went to Hobbiton. The set is constructed in the middle of a farmer’s field in Matamata, a sleepy little farming town about an hour outside of Hamilton, and it would be easy to simply drive straight through if it weren’t for the hobbit-hole-shaped bus stop right outside of the city’s i-Site (information centre). As it was, I drove through the countryside outside of town in the pouring rain and arrived wet, cold, and super excited to eat my nerdy little heart out at the real-life version of the Shire!
Even though it was pouring rain, I was lucky to tour the set when I did – filming for The Hobbit had just finished four weeks earlier, and the set had been totally reconstructed (and 5 new hobbit holes had been built) for the film! The private farm the set is built on was ‘discovered’ by the film company during an aerial tour of the area in September 1998 – the rolling countryside was perfect for the Middle-earth described by Tolkien, and the farm even had a lake with a large established pine tree (later to become the ‘party tree’ in the films). The holes themselves are facades (indoor filming was done in Wellington), but the guided tours through the set allow you to walk through the property while being told all sorts of interesting trivia. (They make you sign confidentiality agreements when you enter the set, so I’m not allowed to post any pictures or any information I was told on the tour, but everything I just told you is available on their website, so please don’t sue me New Line Cinema!) Unfortunately no one showed up in costume for my particular tour (HUGE bummer), but it was a beautiful place and I officially want to live in a Hobbit hole. So cute!
The entry fee for the tour also includes the “Sheep Farm Experience,” where you get to watch a sheep being sheared and feed teeny tiny lambs with milk bottles. It warmed my cold, wet heart to feel somewhat superior now that I’d lived on a sheep farm for two months. Silly tourists!
In Matamata their other claim to fame is Firth Tower, a totally useless stone tower built in the middle of a farmer’s field in 1882. Josiah Clifton Firth built it to “provide a lookout over the countryside” (i.e. show off to his neighbors), but over the years they’ve created a historical reserve around it and built some replicas of other old buildings from the time period. I stopped and snapped some pictures for a few minutes, but seriously, there wasn’t much to do other than look at a big building and some fake stables and a schoolhouse. I moved on.
I skipped along SH27, 26, and 1B back towards Hamilton, and drove through Ngāruawāhia along the way, the official residence of the late Māori Queen Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu and home of the Māori Kīngitanga, or King Movement. Kingitanga began in the 1850s in response to the sale of large amounts of land to the colonial English government. Worried about the challenge this presented to their ability to negotiate with their colonizers, some of the Maori tribes in the central region decided to band together and elect a king in the hope that it would make them appear more legitimate in their dealings deal with Pākehā (Europeans). It didn’t exactly work, but Tūrangawaewae Marae, the sacred meeting place of the movement, still sits right on the edge of the Waikato River on the edge of the city.
Nearby in Taupiri is Mount Taupiri, a sacred mountain and Maori burial place. Tourists aren’t welcome, but those driving by the mountain often honk their horns in greeting to their sacred mountain and their loved ones buried there. It was also the place where, according to tradition, Dame Te Atairangikaahu was buried in an unmarked grave alongside other members of the Maori Royal Family. I drove past and mentally honked my own little horn to the mountain spirits.
Just up the road from both towns is Rangiriri, a town known for a famous battle which took place between the British and Maori in November 1863. I stopped in the tiny Rangiriri Heritage Centre & Tearoom for a brief look at the memorabilia (mostly scattered around a small cafe), then went across the street to pay my respects at the graveyard where all of the soldiers and many of the Maori were buried. It’s a tiny cemetery on the side of a major highway, but the weather was brooding and it was a sobering experience to walk through the aging tombstones and think about their inhabitants. Towards the back of the cemetery is the mass grave where the Maoris were buried, and I was struck by the deep sadness of so many people who lived and fought and died, to be tossed into the ground like sacks of flour. People are so good at hurting each other.
I had planned to travel straight from Rangiriri to Auckland, but decided to take a detour and see Port Waikato instead – traveling alone has its perks! The port town itself is small and sparsely populated but the rock outcroppings south of it were used in the filming for Weathertop Hollow in LOTR, so I decided to make it a themed day and see if I could find the movie location(s). I never ended up finding the particular rock (damn you vague Lonely Planet directions!), but I was treated to some of the most wild and rugged scenery of my trip. The gray, misty weather was the perfect backdrop for the lonely little town set right on the sea, and winding metal road eventually gave way to green hills covered in massive boulders and rock formations. The road wound up into the hills and eventually dropped into huge steep valleys; looking down from my car gave me vertigo. The stones had a haunting, ancient quality about them, and the trees were some of the most Ent-ish things I’ve ever seen – I half expected them to start lumbering down the hills towards me. They had also somehow managed to string telephone (?) wires across the gorge, which completely baffled the mind!
Eventually I gave up and turned Auckland-bound, but you can bet it won’t be my last time in Port Waikato – I’ll be back, and this time with a better map!