Published: 07:11 EDT, 11 November 2012 | Updated: 08:13 EDT, 18 November 2012>
I chose the quietest table in the shadows at the back of the Shires Rest Cafe and beckoned my companion to take a seat.
Checking that we were alone, with no other covetous eyes watching, I held out my hand to reveal the precious items nestling in my palm...four green and glossy oak leaves from a Hobbit’s tree.
‘I didn’t steal them,’ I promised. ‘They were just lying on the ground, honestly. Do you think I should sell them on eBay?’ My companion laughed. Assessing my ‘find’ was Ian Brodie, one of a handful of people in the world best able to judge its value.
My precious: Wendy Gomersall meets the character Gollum at the Weta Cave mini museum in Wellington
Ian is the author of what is reputedly New Zealand’s best-selling book – and it’s not the Bible, Fifty Shades Of Grey or even Rugby: The All Blacks’ Way. It is The Lord Of The Rings Location Guidebook.
It’s 11 years since the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s trio of movies based on J R R Tolkien’s book. The films were shot in New Zealand and since then the country has become Middle Earth for millions of fans worldwide, obsessives known as ‘Ring-ons’.
The phenomenon is again about to burn as hot as the fires of Mount Doom with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a new trilogy based on the prequel to Lord Of The Rings.
The premiere is on November 28 at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, the country’s capital and Jackson’s home city. The film is then due for worldwide release in cinemas in December.
Fantasy land: The Hobbiton set at Matamata is a mecca for Lord Of The Rings fans
Fans will have to wait until December 2013 for the release of the next one – The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, with the final instalment – The Hobbit: There And Back Again – scheduled to come out in July 2014.
In the films, Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Grey, with Martin Freeman (famous for The Office) in the central role of Bilbo Baggins. There will be much rejoicing among Ring-ons the world over, and especially within New Zealand’s tourism industry.
The government has been collaborating wholeheartedly with the filmmakers, hoping to benefit from a surge in visitors, particularly those based in faraway destinations such as the UK, whose numbers have dropped due to the recession.
Everyone is gearing up for total Hobbitmania. Of course, you don’t have to be a full-time Tolkien-ite to want to travel the 11,500 miles to New Zealand, but even non-Ring-ons will want to include some film locations in their holiday.
Starring role: Actor Martin Freeman is set to play Bilbo in The Hobbit, a prequel to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy
After all, they do showcase many of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. But therein lies a problem. Trying to get official information about the filming locations proved nigh-on impossible.
The filmmakers are seemingly keen to keep it all a surprise and confidentiality contracts have been signed by those involved.
But thanks to some friendly Kiwis, I did pick up plenty of clues. And anyway, many of the locations used to represent Middle Earth in Lord Of The Rings have been revisited for The Hobbit.
I started my Hobbit journey in Queenstown, South Island. Queenstown sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by the stunning Southern Alps.
It’s been called the adventure capital of the world and adrenaline junkies by the truckload come here to bungee-jump from bridges or try white-water rafting, jet-boating, skiing and hang-gliding.
I didn’t do any of those, but I did clamber aboard a helicopter for The Grand Circle tour, a breathtaking whizz around the mountain-tops and various Lord Of The Rings locations, landing 4,500ft up on The Remarkables, which became Dimrill Dale in the films.
Magical peaks: The Remarkables became Dimrill Dale in the films and you can explore them on an exhilarating helicopter ride
As you might expect, the views were truly remarkable from such a height, and the landscapes fantastical, as if they were created especially for Peter Jackson. Helicopters have been used by the Tolkien filmmakers to reach several remote locations and The Helicopter Line (www.helicopter.co.nz) also offers scenic flights from Queenstown to Mount Cook (New Zealand’s highest mountain), and to the Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers.
Ring-ons should definitely book themselves on a four-wheel-drive tour of dozens of Tolkien film sites with Nomad Safaris. The company’s Safari Of The Scenes to Glenorchy takes in locations including Isengard (Saruman’s fortress) and the Forest of Lothlorien (the elves’ home).
There are no actual sets left but the landscapes are still gorgeous. You can also explore the scenery on horseback through Dart Stables (www.dartstables.com), which has more than 50 horses, some of which were used in The Lord Of The Rings.
Any Queenstown experience should include a 'Fergburger', a massive burger with all the trimmings, reportedly a favourite of actor Orlando Bloom. It set me up nicely for my next adventure – a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Queenstown to Manapouri for my overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound aboard Fiordland Navigator (www.realjourneys.co.nz).
Moody: Doubtful Sound's name fits right in with the film franchise's sense of other worldliness
Even when the conditions are misty, Doubtful Sound is beautiful and if the location wasn’t used in The Hobbit, it certainly should have been.
Dedicated Ring-ons should not fly out of Queenstown without spending a night at Minaret Lodge (www.minaretlodge.co.nz), a bed and breakfast that’s a short stroll from picturesque Lake Wanaka.
It has a Lord Of The Rings-themed room called Barlimans and a ‘Hobbit menu’. Now, I must point out that this is absolutely not a Hobbit hole (the term being copyrighted), though its owners do provide both first and second breakfasts for guests. As any Ring-on will know, a single morning meal was never enough for Bilbo Baggins.
Options include Frodo’s Favourite – mushrooms, bacon and the Lord of the Bangers. Ring-ons from as far afield as Brazil and Kuwait, China and Britain have travelled here specifically to stay in the special room.
‘One couple turned up in full Lord Of The Rings costume and disappeared into the room to watch the DVDs,’ the lodge owners told me.
Adventure capital of the world: Queenstown, South Island, perches on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and attracts thrill-seekers
If you would like to dress up in public as a Hobbit – complete with green cloak, large pointy ears and curly dark hair – head for Wellington, where Wellington Movie Tours (www.adventuresafari.co.nz) offers guests the chance to impersonate a number of Tolkien characters, and even recreate scenes from the blockbuster films.
Wellington is also home to Weta, the special effects and props company behind The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit.
Ring-ons can spend hours in a shop and visitor centre called the Weta Cave (www.wetanz.com/cave), which shows a fascinating behind-the-scenes film on some of the techniques used by the company.
There’s a treasure trove of goodies on sale, from postcards to Lord Of The Rings figures that are actually works of art, especially a scarily realistic Gollum. You can even treat yourself to a real gold ring on a chain.
Lofty ambitions: Glenorchy is home to Isengard (Saruman's fortress) and the elves' Forest of Lothlorien
I must admit I was sorely tempted. During my time in New Zealand I was lucky enough to chat to Jared Connon, supervising location manager for The Hobbit.
During The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, fans did cause problems, he admitted. ‘They were all over us, even hiding in trees overnight so they could get photographs the following day.’
This time, he said, it had been calmer. More filming has been done in the studio, and of about 40 locations used, only a quarter are accessible to the public.
Rampant Chinese whispers and an enduring national curiosity in the Tolkien phenomenon mean there’s a lot of misinformation out there.
For example, I had been assured that filming for The Hobbit had taken place in the world-famous Waitomo Caves, too – but it has not.
They are certainly worth a visit, though. Formed more than 30 million years ago, the caves feature some amazing formations – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sang in one called The Cathedral – and thousands and thousands of glittering glow worms.
Small world: Wendy takes a quick break at Bilbo Baggins's underground house in Hobbiton
Visitors can even take a boat ride through the caverns. The Hamilton and Waitomo region of New Zealand includes Matamata township, where there’s a Gollum statue and the mecca for Lord Of The Rings fans – enchanting Hobbiton itself.
The Hobbiton set, built on the Alexander family’s 1,250-acre sheep farm, was used in the Lord Of The Rings films and then dismantled.
For The Hobbit, it was rebuilt permanently, with loads more Hobbit holes, The Green Dragon Inn – where you can actually enjoy a pint – The Mill and other Hobbity bits and bobs.
The Hobbiton Movie Set is now a tourist attraction jointly owned by Peter Jackson and the Alexander family, and the venture is predicted to attract 150,000 visitors a year, bring in 18.9 million New Zealand dollars (about £10 million) and create more than 130 jobs.
A two-hour tour costs about £38 and there’s a shop on site with official Lord Of The Rings/Hobbit merchandise. Farm stays are available via www.hobbitontours.com.
This was the reason I hooked up with Ian Brodie – the attraction’s media and communications manager and perhaps the world’s foremost Lord Of The Rings expert, he was on hand to show me round.
It’s a delightful place, with the rolling countryside really capturing the flavour of The Shire. I’d quite like to move in myself.
Most of it is real, even the wonderful rainbow that appeared as if by magic as I took photos. That Peter Jackson obviously has some powerful friends.
You can’t actually go inside the Hobbit holes, though, and it’s hard to believe but the splendid ‘oak tree’ marking Bag End, residence of Bilbo Baggins, is artificial, though it had shed a few leaves like any normal bit of shrubbery.
I collected four of them and hid them in my pocket. Though Ian did not admit to being a fully-fledged Ring-on, he is certainly a Tolkien aficionado: he has read The Lord Of The Rings about 40 times.
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‘I actually have only a passing interest compared with a lot of people who visit here,’ he said. ‘We have people here who can quote it at length and speak fluent Elvish.’
For his Lord Of The Rings guidebook he was given a little help but had to track down many of the sets and locations himself. This time, he has been given all the information he needed to produce The Hobbit film locations book, which will no doubt be another bestseller.
Sadly, he wouldn’t reveal any more about The Hobbit locations to me. But he didn’t seem too worried about me taking Hobbit leaves home, either. ‘I’ve got a chunk of the Mines of Moria in my garden shed,’ he confessed.
Now there’s a true Ring-on.
PS: Dear Peter Jackson, the four ‘oak leaves’ have now been posted back to you via Weta Cave. Honest.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will be released in the UK on December 13.
Tailor Made Travel (0800 988 5887, www.tailor-made.co.uk) offers a 12-day Footsteps Of Film holiday – a self-drive tour that allows you to take in many of New Zealand’s most recognisable and spectacular film locations, including Hobbiton, from £1,409 per person.
It includes ten days’ car hire, accommodation, Hobbiton tour and the Rings Tour in Wellington. Qantas (www.qantas.com) flies from Heathrow to Auckland. Return fares start from £1,093pp.
For more information on New Zealand visit www.newzealand.com.
Source : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2231281/The-Hobbit-New-Zealand-film-locations-The-Hobbit-hunter-Middle-Earth.html