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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Hobbiton, New Zealand | Down the hobbit hole

It’s a typical Middle Earth summer. The rolling hills on the road to The Shire are as parched as a dry biscuit.

In the distance are patches of green. Those hobbits must have been busy with their watering cans.

In this Middle Earth, there are automobiles too. I am driving one towards a signboard, “Hobbiton Movie Set and Tourist Farm".

Although I live in New Zealand, I’ve never visited the home of the hobbits—the sites where The Lord of the Rings movies have been shot. This has become an increasingly embarrassing omission since many of my friends, even visiting buddies from overseas, have gone out of their way to tour Hobbiton. But not me. Shame.

As a passionate New Zealander, I’ve read The Lord of the Rings books, seen the movies and visited The Weta Cave Workshop museum in Wellington. But a visit to Hobbiton has eluded me. Since it’s just around a 3-hour drive (200km) from my home in Auckland, I decided to go for it earlier this year.

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A Hobbit House

And we do. I snap pictures of the circular painted doors, of the washing on the line, of a wheelbarrow full of vegetables, and of sundry gardening tools. An ice machine produces fake smoke from chimneys. It all looks so appealingly cosy.

While all the outdoor scenes in the movie trilogy were filmed here, the interior scenes were all filmed in Wellington, at the award-winning Weta Workshop. “So when you see Bilbo outside his home and then later inside, he’s actually flown to Wellington," says Shaun.

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At his door were a group of people who introduced themselves as location scouts. Who the hell was a location scout anyway? These people had come with instructions to find a place with rolling hills, a lake and a big tree, and the Alexander farm looked like a good fit for what they were seeking. Would Alexander like to have the fabled Lord of the Rings trilogy shot on his farm? Alexander couldn’t believe his luck—of course he would.

But as he mulled over the proposition, he realized it wouldn’t be roses all the way. Director Peter Jackson’s team wanted to plant the sort of spiky hedges mentioned in the books all over his property. Alexander wasn’t sure he wanted that. Barbs would play havoc with sheep’s wool. So Jackson offered to have the hedges grow only over a small part of the property. Alexander agreed.

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“That," says Shaun, pointing to the oak tree with its 200,000 artificial leaves sitting just above Bag End, “is the most expensive thing here." We, all of us proud denizens of the Instagram generation, point our cameras up at the magnificent specimen in response.

I then walked towards the dell, which is the small community within Hobbiton. It appeared for a mere 3 seconds in the extended version of The Lord of the Rings, and for 5 seconds in The Hobbit. But the dell was mentioned in the books, and so Jackson made sure he created an authentic village.

I learn from Shaun that Jackson didn’t employ special effects to create the imagery of tiny hobbits living in a mini-world, dwarfed by the gigantic Gandalf. That was all done with cunning perspective shots of a lot of children dressed as hobbits. Most hobbit holes are built to 90% human scale; a few at 60% size. When I stand by one of the doors, the trick becomes blindingly obvious. I am a giant—I feel taller than ever before.

The original Lord of the Rings set had just one hobbit hole with a few minimal accessories, even though filming there took three months. It wasn’t until the filming of The Hobbit in 2009 that Hobbiton really took shape. Even then it was intended to be a temporary set, with plans for it to be dismantled soon after. Filming on location took only 12 days, but the subsequent enthusiasm of fans for the place ensured that it would continue to stand. Since then, the buildings have been reinforced to last at least 50 years.

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Shaun tells us that a third of all visitors haven’t seen a single Jackson movie or read any of the books. “They’re usually dragged here by family or friends," says Shaun. “But when they go home, I reckon they have one massive movie marathon on their hands."

Of course, the party is bound to continue while the films are showing, but what of the future? Shaun says Alexander is optimistic. After all, The Sound of Music fans still travel to Salzburg-Vienna, to see where Julie Andrews sang The Hills Are Alive.

Jackson’s movies and the Hobbiton set have also invigorated nearby farming town Matamata, which hums with local businesses. Even the tourist information office is built as a hobbit dwelling.

Jackson, of course, has taken a bit of Hobbiton with him. He loves Bag End so much he has an exact replica on his own property. At Hobbiton, Bag End is the only dwelling built at 100% scale reaching 5m into the earth. The artificial oak rises from the land above it.

The largest hole we visit is perhaps the most significant. It is the home of Samwise Gamgee and it appears in the final scene of The Return of the King. We gaze at the faded yellow door and little round stool, take pictures and repair to the second most important building on the property—The Green Dragon Inn, where I sip a cold beer. Boy do I need it. By now I am as parched as the surrounding hillsides.

Yvonne van Dongen is a freelance travel writer and journalist based in New Zealand. She has also worked at the Condé Nast Traveler in New York.

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