Hobbiton, NZ, a journey to my childhood

The Lord of the Rings inspired Hobbiton, New Zealand.

Imagine a happy place of green rolling hills, colourful doorways and a beautiful big symmetrical party tree with spreading branches. Well, that’s where I came from. Oh, and it’s also the film set for a crucial part of a couple of little known trilogies – Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. That’s right, Hobbiton is alive, well, and absolutely thriving in Hinuera in New Zealand. Which co-incidentally is where I spent the first couple of years of my life.

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

Hinuera is one of many small farming enclaves in the Waikato, a intensely farmed area of New Zealand a couple of hours south of Auckland. It is a bucolic vision of green rolling pastures (except in summer when it can look like the dried brown hills of a drought, basically because a good summer is a drought!). One particular farm here has housed the Hobbiton film set for about a decade now. It came about as the director Peter Jackson scouted the country by helicopter looking for the perfect “Party Tree” of Hobbiton, huge and spread symmetrically, with its lower boughs brushing the ground, where a whole village can celebrate. He spotted one on this farm, and the whole film set was created around it. (the locals claim the lucky farmer refers to the party tree as the “money tree”, an apt description after a decade of film production fees and massive tourism)

The popular film set tour of Hobbiton, NZ.

And there’s no doubt it is a very popular tourism attraction right now. It’s only about an hour away from where my Dad lives, so I had to visit it for the nostalgia kick on my recent trip to NZ. There are tour buses arriving constantly everyday from Auckland, Tauranga, Rotorua and Matamata, as well as self drive visitors like ourselves. The starting point is a cafe, ticket shop and merchandise shop by the roadside.  So what does the tour involve? Well, no matter how you got to Hinuera, you first have to buy a ticket which includes getting taken by bus from outside the ticket booth to the Hobbiton set. (I like the way they use old school buses – makes us feel too large for Hobbiton right for the start!)

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

The enforced bus transport makes sense as we head off down the farm over a few kilometres of steep, winding, gravel, one lane wide tracks. Suddenly from the drought stricken landscape around us, an oasis of green appears – clearly the Hobbiton set has some fairly effective watering systems in place. Our local guide then walks us around Hobbiton, which is bigger than I expected, and keeps us entertained with anecdotes of the set construction, maintenance and filming, as well as some of the more obsessive fans he has met on tours, although you don’t have to be one of them to enjoy this.

It’s hard not to want to stay and live in Hobbiton, it is perfectly staged to meticulous detail, and is almost hyper-real, the saturated colours of the greenery, the bright front doors, the hobbit sized clothes on the clothes line – it seemed very charming and I did start to believe that this was exactly what it looked like when I grew up here.  It’s a kid’s dream village.

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

The enjoyment of the tour is aided by the local guides who understood that everyone wants to get photos of themselves in front of every famous piece of scenery, and had artfully designed the walking tour to make that happen easily. And it wasn’t harmed by the recent addition of the thatched Green Dragon pub, where us weary tourists could stop for a cold beer or cider at the end of our tour, knowing the brews are the ones created specifically by a local brewery for the 3000 odd film crew  that had worked here. I would not have been surprised if a hobbit had wandered on by (actually I was a bit disappointed that none did).

The tour lasts about one and a half hours. On return to the shop by bus, you can also chose to watch a farm demonstration show including cute little lambs and farm dogs.

Good food recommendation for Hobbiton, NZ.
Te Poi cows near Hobbiton, New Zealand
Te Poi cows near Hobbiton, New Zealand

My main tip would be to skip the on-farm cafe, which was disappointing – possibly the worst cafe food I’ve come across for a few years in NZ. If you are travelling under your own steam (or can persuade your tour driver), go just a few miles down the road to the neighbouring farm district of Te Poi, and stop at the Te Poi tavern (by the big black cow) for a feast of good old fashioned home-made hamburgers  – I recommend the Works Burger.

My RWC2011

I love rugby. Maybe not a surprising statement from a Kiwi, it is often said that rugby is New Zealand’s religion. As any expat will tell you, distance makes the heart grow fonder, and since I’ve been an expat for twenty something years now, my passion for rugby in general and the All Blacks in particular burns very brightly.

And I say to you, even if you’re not a rugby fan, if you like a festival, if you like an ongoing party, you might want to go to future RWC’s. Because until you get to the pointy end, the Semis and Finals, the party atmosphere completely overrides the rugby.

RWC 2011 - flag
RWC 2011 – flag

So when there’s a RWC in New Zealand, I have to go. Impossible to stay away. I bought my tickets 18 months ago in the first ballot. I booked my airfares 9 months ago – flying in and out for 3 day weekends every weekend, since I couldn’t get the time off work. My sister, who also lives overseas, chucked her job in and went back to NZ for three months – I am so jealous of that. So on the eve of our big semi-final, here’s my highlights (and lowlights) on the RWC so far.

Week 1 RWC 2011

  • We head to the big open air fanzone set up on the Auckland waterfront to have some lunch and soak up the buzz. Seems like dozens of nationalities in team colours all with big grins on their faces. Get to see the massive waka’s rehearsing on the harbour – cool
  • Go meet a friend for an afternoon coffee in the lobby of the Heritage Hotel – where it just so happens the All Blacks are staying. Us, stalkers?- no… Got my photo taken with Dan Carter, I am totally star struck. Then turned around  and saw Ritchie McCaw on the sofa behind me, lost my mind, left the hotel babbling like a teenager – OMG! Have to say, those All Blacks are very accessible.
  • My tip for future RWC’s – try and have your friends live within 15 minutes walk of the stadium, and go stay with them – every weekend. Even better if there is one french wine bar and numerous pubs along that 15 minute walk. Especially important in Auckland, where public transport is an embarrassing joke.
  • To the great surprise of everyone, Aucklanders actually took notice of all the exhortations for them to “leave their cars at home” and “take the train”, and they did – and the train system promptly melted down, leaving thousands stranded on trains and missing the opening ceremony and the opening game.
  • All Blacks  play Tonga in the opening game. I was really looking forward to the atmosphere, as the arrival of the Tongan team earlier in the week and the turn out and fervour of the Tongans in NZ to greet them, had already kick-started the Cup atmosphere. I am disappointed – there are only a handful of Tongans in the crowd, I have a horrible feeling they got priced out of the game – and that’s a real shame and to the detriment of the tournament. Someone should’ve done a deal for them. All Blacks win.

Week 2, RWC 2011

  • Missed this one as I was in Amsterdam for a very quick work trip – normally that would be a good thing but during a RWC? I’m missing all the fun.
  • Ireland beats Australia and suddenly every single Kiwi rediscovers their Irish roots and cheers them on. All Blacks win.

Week 3, RWC 2011

  • Possibly the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen at a game. Both All Blacks and French supporters are dressed up, revved up, chanting and cheering non-stop, but it’s all good natured, no aggro at all. Even though the French lost, they carried on cheerfully partying all night – I have to love a team whose supporters want to buy us drinks all night after they lose – class act. All Blacks win.
  • If you have a bit of a beer belly and you are going to wear an unforgiving white clingy unitard and a red, blue and white rooster as a cock sock, do it with confidence, just like the French supporters
  • I am getting used to hearing the French Horn blown before every kickoff in the RWC. Its not very ‘rugby’ but it is a great addition to the atmosphere – its sounds like a bull fight is starting and 60,000 people yell Ole! every time.

Week 4, RWC 2011

  • My long weekend doesn’t start so well when, on my flight to Wellington, lady in seat in front of me passes out, needs oxygen, and then throws up everywhere. No thanks steward, I won’t be having dinner, I seem to have lost my appetite.
  • Not sure if I am really in Wellington – the sun is shining like a summer’s day and there is no howling wind from Antarctica. Have a coffee and realise that yes, this is Wellington, not many places on earth do coffee this good – in every single cafe!
  • Nonu nonchalantly walks past us in the street in the middle of the day (for those who don’t know, All Black with magic flying feet and dreads.) I very non-nonchalantly stop, stare, point and gape.
  • The official merchandise stores are all full of French buying up All Blacks gear – guess they like us?
  • We take the cable car up the hill, great view of this city of hills around a perfect little circle of a harbour. We walk back down through the botanical gardens and find the flower beds planted as the flags of the 20 participating countries.
  • All Blacks have no problem beating Canada, as expected by everyone. Canadian fans celebrate that the All Blacks only score 79 points against them – their goal was to hold us at less than 1 point per minute (80 points – well done Canada). All Blacks win.

Week 5 RWC 2011

  • Quarter finals time, now it’s all getting serious. I’m seeing two of the quarters live, two on the big screens in the pubs.
  • I watch Springboks v Wallabies at a pop-up garden bar in a (award winning) burger joint in Kingsland, just next to the stadium, with a couple of hundred people. I am definitely not a short person, but this is the tallest crowd I have ever seen – at least 198 of the other people are taller than me, by a lot! It must be a parallel universe.
  • Worst faux pas of the tournament. During the pre-match entertainment, before the start of the 4th and final quarter final, the All Blacks vs Argentina, the Kiwi TV presenter says to camera “isn’t is amazing that the 4 semi finalists in this tournament will be the same 4 countries in the semi finals in the first RWC in 1987, also held in NZ. Um, hello, a bit presumptuous anyone? Just a little bit rude to our Argentinian friends I think. All Blacks win.

So now our semi final is about to start – our “bogey” game – I think it’s going to be good – go All Blacks!

** update from the semi-finals  – AB’s win, a hard fought game against our favourite foes, Australia, shame it’s not Wales we are meeting in the final, they were robbed by the ref!


Milford Sound – the Wet Wonderland of NZ

As a proud ex-pat Kiwi, I head home to New Zealand every chance I get to visit friends and family. The downside is I am usually visiting the same (lovely) places every time. But sometimes I want to branch out and see somewhere new, because there is no end of beauty in NZ. So when I visit friends in Lake Hawea, outside Queenstown, I finally take the chance to visit somewhere I have always wanted to visit – New Zealand’s wet and wonderful Milford Sound, in Fiordland.

Wet & wonderful Milford Sound

I come here expecting rain and I am not disappointed. Milford Sound has the highest annual rainfall at sea level anywhere in the world – more than 6 metres of rain each year. It rains 2 days out of 3, but usually not all day every day. Of course it is the rain that makes it so stunning, lush rainforest clinging to vertical cliff faces and waterfalls twice the height of Niagara. Perversely, my best chance of a blue sky day is in winter time, but then I am only going to see the five permanent waterfalls, and not the thousands of temporary ones which appear during every rainfall and disappear about a few hours later.

Remote Milford Sound

One of the reasons I have never been into the Sounds is because it is a remote and difficult area to access. There are 16 fiords on the bottom half of the western coast of the South Island of New Zealand. They are hidden behind the Southern Alps, have almost no road access, and open into the Tasman Sea, a notoriously rough piece of water.

But the sounds themselves are deep, calm and serene, up to 500 metres deep, surrounded by sheer cliffs (the highest is 1,600 m) soaring vertically above the sounds, and protected from the sea by many twists and turns.

The thrill of the road to Milford

The drive out to Milford Sound is as stunning and as much an adventure as the Sounds themselves. We pass down the side of Lake Wakatipu, and then stop at Kingston early on, to jump on board the Kingston Flyer. This restored steam engine takes me back to another era of travel for the half hour chug through the countryside to Fairlight, where the bus picks us up again. The high country farmland turns into ski fields, and as we go ever higher up through the Alps and over two high mountain passes, the view from the road alternates between soaring and scary. The penultimate point is passing through the very steep, one-way, 1.2km Homer Tunnel at the top of the pass. On the descent to Milford the view changes again to lush alpine rain forest. We get lots of photo stops as the driver stops whenever we request it, but the rain is so heavy it makes getting the photos quite difficult, (and staying dry impossible)!


The landscapes are dramatic – I recommend stopping at the Chasm, just after the tunnel on the Milford Sound side – the river levels here rises 3.9 metres on the day we stop by, and the small streams become raging glacial torrents. The same big rain dump has trapped about 120 hikers on the famous Milford Trail and other neighbouring trails – stuck between trekking huts, between rivers both in front of and behind them which have become too dangerous to cross, they all have to be helicoptered out.

Overnight on Milford Sound

Once in Milford we get onto our boat as soon as we can and head out into the Sound. The towering vertical walls, clad in rainforest, are so straight up & down that the boat can get really close, nosing in under waterfalls just a few feet from the cliffs, but still with a huge depth beneath the boat. It’s magical, with views emerging from and disappearing back into the rainclouds. As I am already wet from the rain, I have no hesitation to get even wetter standing too close to waterfalls, almost being knocked over by their sheer force. I stay outside, and wet, for a good couple of hours as we cruise up the Sound. The only downside of the wild weather is that it is deemed unsafe to let us out in the kayaks. I have been looking forward to getting out on the water for a paddle. Instead I take advantage of the hot shower and hair dryer in my comfy little cabin. Dry and warm again, I make friends with other passengers over a delicious dinner. I enjoy some good NZ pinot noir with my new-found friends, and the evening is topped off with an entertaining talk from the onboard nature guide. I feel pleasantly exhausted.

Morning on Milford Sound

I know something is good if I am up at sunrise (not normally a morning person), and this is a good one. I can see a rain-free and snow-capped Milford sound in all its cloudy glory (and yes, the winter snows also started last night!). We head out through the mouth of the Sound into the Tasman Sea, the dolphins find us and swim alongside, we pass some seals resting on the rocks, but no penguins today. We cruise back up the Sound, revisiting the scenes of the previous days waterfalls, many of which have now disappeared. Everything looks different and new again without the torrential rain, and I am sure that will be true again if I ever get to see it in sunlight.

The locals say that if you want a change of weather in Milford, just wait a few hours. I contemplate this as I sink into my hot tub back in Queenstown.

Photo Friday – Blooming in the Auckland Wintergarden


Even though it’s started to rain outside, it is stickily humid here in the glasshouses of the Wintergarden in Auckland Domain. It’s a riot of native ferns, bright bold orchids and fuschia’s, ponds full of flowering lilies, and even vegetables – not sure what the aubergines are there for but even they look like art as they glow in this humidity. The kids (borrowed – not mine) really like the flowers that close up if you brush against them, and since they are not going to stick to the official pathways anyway, it isn’t hard to persuade them to clamber among the ferns and emerge blooming from the fronds.

We started at the Auckland museum, high on the hill in the Domain, views out across Auckland city and harbour. A great place to reconnect with my kiwiness, as it is has brilliant exhibits of Maori and Polynesian history, art , carving and culture. I like that there is plenty of ability to get in amongst it and interact, not just look through the glass – museums were nowhere near this interesting when I was a kid. There’s also a nice section of nostalgia – the lolly wall of the old classic sweets, the mid 20th century Crown Lynn pottery – I bet there’s many a family regretting throwing out the old dinner set a few decades ago – naff then, valuable now. And when done with the museum, the Domain grounds are a great spot for a picnic, with amazing old trees with a huge spread of branches that has every child in the vicinity climbing happily for hours – and provides a good umbrella when the rains starts lightly. As it gets heavier, we dash for the glasshouses to sit it out.

How to enjoy an active volcano.

I cling to our little rubber dinghy as the guide times the waves, and gunning the outboard, noses it straight into the rocks directly below a couple of iron stakes and a ladder bolted into the rocks. “Go, go, go” yells the guide, but the woman at the front doesn’t speak English and takes a few seconds to realize what she is supposed to do. As we all repeat “go, go”, she leaps up for the iron pole on top of the rock, sticks her foot on the bottom rung, swings and up she goes.

One more follows, then the guide yells “Sit, sit”, and we all stop sliding forward, and I grab the ropes and hold on as another wave breaks and sends our dinghy spinning around into the rocks. “Go, go”, and up we go again, and this time we all make it ashore before the next wave comes through. It crashes over the rocks where are we are standing, sending us scrambling over more rocks and a couple of steel gangways until we reach the island proper. Adrenalin still surging, I look around and realize, I am now standing on NZ’s most active volcano (and this is a country with a lot of volcanos!)


White Island – New Zealand’s most active volcano

I have just arrived at White Island, a one and a half hour comfortable boat ride from Whakatane, NZ. That includes stopping to watch pods of bottle nose dolphins playing, and more unusually, a pod of orcas as well. I look around at one of the most inhospitable landscapes I have ever seen. I am inside the perfectly curved walls of a conical volcano, but one where a whole side of that cone has previously been blasted away.

The volcano’s floor and walls are a swirl of greys and whites and yellows, seemingly consisting of only ash, sulphur and rock. The yellow is very concentrated close to any steam vents, craters or mud pools. The gap in the side of the wall of the volcano makes it easy (after the initial rock landing, there’s no pier or harbour here), to walk right into the core of the volcano.

White Island last erupted ten years ago. The guide explains how NZ has a classification scale for volcanic activity, where 0 is dormant, 1 is “activity”, e.g. the steam vents, and 5 is a catastrophic eruption occurring right now. “Both White Island and Ruapehu are rated a 1 right now” he says, “and they are the highest rated sites, the most active”. “Phew” I think, “that seems nice and safe”. “Just before White Island erupted ten years ago, it was rated a 2, and we had a tour group on the island a few hours beforehand, it’s almost impossible to predict” adds the guide. I suddenly feel a whole lot less safe.

A lolly a day keeps the volcano away

I am equipped with a hard hat (in case of an eruption and/or rock avalanche from the walls) and a gas mask. I have never used a gas mask in my life, and yet somehow it seems familiar – too many movies? As well as the sulphur smell so familiar from Rotorua, there are some seriously acidic vapours here as well.

However I quickly discover that the guide’s tip, to suck on hard candy, was much more effective that the gas masks. The lolly means that I have a constant flow of saliva going down my throat, which stops the acid wind irritating it. But every now and then a wind gust catches our group out and we are all coughing and spluttering for a minute until the wind changes again.


White Island, Dangerous?

We walk further into the crater, to the main steam vent visible from the sea. It is not only shooting thick plumes of steam some dozens of metres into the air, it is making a huge, loud noise, rumbling and hissing – it sounds so much like a Hollywood soundtrack of an eruption that I cant stop nervously glancing at it over my shoulder as we move on.

Nearby is a large, and very fast growing crater – this one is growing so fast it is undermining the earth surface. It’s the only crater or vent that we are banned from getting even remotely close to, confirming that it is the real deal in terms of possible danger.

And heading towards the towering back wall, we reach the main crater, a huge bright green acidic sulphurous lake, some hundreds of meters in diameter. At the rear is the largest steam vent, shooting steam up to the crater rim and beyond. I am feeling grateful that the breeze is blowing it all away from us at this stage.


On the walk back to the open end of the crater, with the guide’s blessing, I do a taste test on some of the water streams running through this barren landscape. Like the steam, it is acidic, but won’t kill you, at least in a day! Someone claims it tastes like lemons (I suspect they were still sucking on a lolly), but to me it tasted of bitter minerals and rusty pipes, not pleasant but not undrinkable.

Back at the open end of the crater, we explore the severely decayed remnants of old buildings and machinery left over from mining many decades ago. The boat crew get us off the island again in a bit over a hour, quicker than usual.

Today is forecast to be an extreme low tide event and they want us off before the tide goes out too far, as the jump down from the metal ladder to the rubber dinghies may be too risky. I am feeling so invigorated by the adrenalin bursts so far that I am disappointed that we are going to miss out on that extra excitement.

White island white water bonus ending.

The trip back to shore is in beautiful sunshine, unlike the dark and stormy skies on the way out, and we all sit chattering animatedly about our exciting volcano experience. And then as we are close to land and approaching the river mouth, we hear that there is one more bit of excitement in store for us – a special bonus only once every few years.

The extreme low tide means the boat can’t get into the river mouth and back to dock as it will run aground in the shallow water. So we are going to be shuttled in, in small groups, in our trusty rubber dinghy, through the surf and into the river mouth. So I get my final adrenalin buzz after all– dinghy wave surfing my way home.