Tuesday, January 17th, 2023

Distance travelled 199 kilometres

As is usual on our holidays, we repeatedly have a wake-up call very early in the morning. This time it was at 5:00 to leave at 07:00 at the latest, for the Hobbiton film set in the Matamata district.

My burns from the toaster incident did not look very good.

Presumably, not having foreseen a need for bandages, Lucie did not have any. We could buy them, of course, but probably not at six in the morning. Ever the improviser, she cut up (with her nail scissors, bought in Auckland) one of the face masks we had brought for the flight, but had not been required to use. Taped in place (yes, she had tape), a 5×10 cm strip prevented my glove rubbing the wound. Clever girl, my wife ….

We were ready early, so I retrieved the Harley from the “secure zone” and we packed and left early. A short trip down the SH1 led to an exit specified by the SatNav, but there was not the tiniest indication that we were heading in the right direction.

In the USA, for example, there would have been a sign every few metres to get the excitement levels up to boiling point. But here, in New Zealand, it was just kilometre after kilometre of narrow, winding, country road. It was all so rural and so totally deserted that I began to worry that I had somehow typed an incorrect address into the SatNav.

It was not until we were a mere three kilometres from the actual front door of our destination that the first sign for Hobbiton manifested itself.

The film set itself is carefully concealed in the same unspoiled countryside that had attracted the attention of the Film Director, Peter Jackson, in the first place. All tours are escorted and visitors gather in a pleasantly themed reception centre to await transport to the site by bus. When we arrived, at around 08:30, we were almost the first people there. We parked the Softail easily in the capacious car park and looked around.

We had beaten both the ticket office and the café staff to the proverbial draw, so we ambled around (and you know who had a quick smoke), as the place came to life. The ticket office opened and we managed to exchange our tickets from the second tour of the day to the very first one – and to take a picture of me with a model of Gandalf …

We had a quick breakfast in the “Shire’s Rest” café. Electronics abounded and we were given a small disc that somehow guided our waitress to our table – when there were only four tables occupied. It would be more use if the place was crowded, methinks.

Then it was time to sort ourselves out for the bus. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic young Kiwi girl called Zante who was a mine of knowledge. She led us through the set and gave us many little insights about the shooting of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogies. Strangely, after the “Rings” films (shot first, although chronologically second) the site was largely demolished and had to be rebuilt and even extended, for the “Hobbit” trilogy.

I could blind you with facts, but here are just two.

In “The Hobbit” book, a plum tree is mentioned. The fruit trees on the site are all apples, so every leaf and fruit had to be removed and silk leaves and (real) plums attached – and they appear for SIX seconds in the movie.

Above Bag End, (the Hobbit Hole of Bilbo Baggins), stand two trees. One is real, one is false. The false tree had, originally, 375,000 silk leaves, all hand attached. Shortly before shooting began, Peter Jackson decided that the leaves were the wrong shade of green – and EVERY SINGLE ONE was recoloured by a team of artists ….

There are still over 250,000 leaves up there. Almost as aside, Zante mentioned that a lot of leaves had been lost in a recent cyclone – and that another cyclone was expected soon ….. More on that later.

Being in the first tour was a huge bonus. We saw everything without the crowds of people that were now trekking around the site behind us in groups that were spaced twenty minutes apart.

We were later told that, at the time of our visit, 67,000,000 people had visited the set. To put that in perspective, New Zealand has a resident population of around 5,000,000.

We ended the tour in the Green Dragon Pub, where we got a complimentary cider in a flagon.

We were able to take our Tuesday Night Drinks photo for our friends in Prague in a very famous location indeed.

After the tour, we sat in the “Shire’s Rest” café for a while and asked if we could do an early check-in at our lodgings in Rotorua. After receiving a reply to the affirmative, we left the fantasy of Middle Earth behind us and returned to the fantasy of the real one. Hobbiton was a pleasant and enlightening experience. Even Lucie, who is not as familiar with the story as I am, loved it. I see a Hobbit and a Lord of the Rings film marathon taking place soon …

We rode through the rolling green countryside to Rotorua.

Immediately, upon arrival, we were welcomed by the stink of rotten eggs – not real eggs, of course, but Hydrogen Sulphide (H₂S) gas escaping from the innumerable fumaroles that are bubbling away in the surrounding district. I suppose that, if you live there, you get accustomed to it but we were glad that our accommodation, the Young Woods Lodge (66 Iles Road, Rotorua) was on the edge of the city and some distance from the worst of the stench.

The Lodge was managed by a young Chinese couple who were super obliging and let us into our room early, so that we could change into “tourists” for the next part of the day. That was a great bonus, because it was starting to be very hot in our biking gear.

Dressed to hike, we got back onto the Softail and rode it (ironically) towards Gisborn, our destination the next day, for about 30 kilometres and, seemingly, straight uphill. After a while, we found a turning with a sign for mud pools. After riding a little way up a track we found a big pool of stinky, bubbling mud.

Although this was quite impressive, Lucie soon determined that we were not where we really wanted to be. We drove on again and soon found the place we did want, Wai-O-Tap. This was a bigger, tourist-style attraction with a large parking lot, a café and a souvenir shop. The parking lot, however, was suspiciously empty and it turned out that the site was open only 3 days a week and those days had ended the previous evening.

Nowhere in the guides or on the Internet was there any mention of this – a fact confirmed by other tourists who came in just when we (quite annoyed) were about to leave.

In the end, we all went in a disgruntled convoy to a second location where bubbling mud pools were promised, Waimangi. In the end, this might have been a win because, overall, it was probably ultimately more interesting. A map was provided at the reception that detailed a hike.

During the walk we saw not only some bubbling mud, but also various jets of steam coming from the depths of the earth,

boiling springs, a boiling river which had a temperature somewhere between 55 ° C and 95 ° C,

a beautiful blue lake

and many interesting rock deposits. Lucie tried to touch a rock above the river and it would have been hot enough to cook on. With the sun burning from above and volcanic activity all around, the narrow valley was very hot indeed.

Sites like Waimangi can actually be quite dangerous, at least in theory. One of the points of interest was the spot where, in August 1903, four tourists (who had ignored warnings) were swept away to their deaths by a flood of boiling water from what is now a non-existent geyser There were also prominent signs in evidence everywhere that detailed where you should run to if you suddenly heard warning sirens ….

The track for the hike mirrored and in some places followed, a track upon which a bus ran at intervals picking up the lame and the weary. It soon became apparent that we did not have enough time to make it to the far end of the hike in time to take the final bus back. This meant we had to wait at station 2 for the last bus and did not quite see everything. However, as our original plan had been to spend time at Wai-O-Tap and then go to Waimangi, it is fairly certain the latter would have been closed when we arrived and we would have seen nothing at all.

Based upon our experiences with evening dining, we had planned in advance that we would go to dinner straight from the hike. We had no wish to be, yet again, in the situation that everywhere would be closed. As usual, we had identified the main “food” street, but when we got there, around 18:00, most of the places had already closed. We vacillated briefly between Thai food and Chinese dumplings, before plumping for the dumplings (it was apparently a Dumping Festival, that is NOT a spelling error …)

The dumplings were OK, but even after us having had only six meals, thus far, in New Zealand, they did not make it into the top ten ….

On our way home, we refilled the Harley at a BP station and bought ourselves a dessert of cookies from its attached coffee shop. That, we thought, could very easily become a habit ….

Back at the Lodge, our small cozy room with the terrace leading to the garden was like being in an oasis.

We took a shower and, I have been informed, I immediately fell asleep. My good wife started preparing the plan for the next three days and eventually woke me up to agree to the plan so she could book the accommodation. At least, that is what she claims….