Press play and read on:
My last full day in New Zealand (May 12, to be exact) ended up being a rightful trip to Hobbiton and the Waitomo Glowcaves.
And to all who ask, “Why did you move to New Zealand?” The Lord of the Rings (slash Hobbit slash everything thanks to Tolkien) accounts for 99% of my reason. SO THIS IS WHY I WAS SO EXCITED TO FINALLY SEE HOBBITON.
Being the control freak/planner guru, I ended up cramming both activities into an 11-hour day, departing and returning to Auckland. All went well, and it allowed me to leave Wanaka after a week of restlessness. It was pretty fast-paced and didn’t give me much time to prepare myself to move to Melbourne – by the time I crawled into bed that night, I got about three hours of sleep and then was on a plane to Australia.
Ironically, when I arrived in Auckland the night before, it ended up being a beautiful hello/goodbye. Unlike my other visits (the first in which I was a distraught mess), I finally was able to appreciate Auckland as a visitor passing through. Some of the laneways, shopping arcades and waterfront area paralleled Melbourne, which oozed happiness through my veins. For once, I saw the beauty in the city – it could be because I was disconnected from civilization for a bit and couldn’t stand that (South Island). I never thought I would feel refreshed or “at ease” with traffic lights, malls, and loud hubbub, but that’s exactly what I experienced that night.
Despite my hatred of tours, I took a small tour bus – mainly because I had to. There was literally no other way I could have crammed in both things in one day otherwise. Thankfully, because this was a brief one, it was fine— there were only about 14 of us total and I blasted music the entirety of the trip to drown out the tour guide’s voice.
On the way from Auckland to Waitomo, we passed through Waikato – yet another grassy, green land that looked like every other patch of New Zealand (what a pattern). But ah, here’s the difference: it’s home to NZ’s biggest dairy and sheep farming activity. Big surprise, right? Because NZ doesn’t have a lot of sheep and cows in the first place. Rrrrriiight, moving on… (gee, no wonder I’m in Melbourne now) We also passed through the fringes of Hamilton City, through farming settlements and into the birthplace of the Maori Monarchy, the King Country.
I know that the Black Water Rafting is supposed to be one of the best adrenaline activities in New Zealand, but I opted out and did the quick 45-minute tour of the caves and boat ride instead. It was a far cheaper option (about $45NZD) and we saw thousands of glowworms up close – far briefer than I would have liked, but still amazing nonetheless.
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves itself were spectacular – truly something that only New Zealand can showcase. Our guide was the great-great granddaughter of one of the first Maori explorers who trekked through the caves in the dark, feeling his way around with another explorer. The caves seem to be sacred of New Zealand and are well-protected by direct descendants in the explorer lineage.
We ducked and slowly trod through the caves of stalagmites and stalactites- it was quite surreal, for the caves were pin-drop quiet and all we could hear were the occasional *drip drip* of some of the water trickling into the river (lagoon? Dark mini pool? Don’t know what to call it) area where our boat ride took us.
Our eyes were forced to adjust after a couple minutes. With minimal lighting everywhere, we had no other choice. Staircases whirled and spiraled down as we descended further and further below, farther into the areas where the glowworms dwelled. One of the rooms (if you can call it that – or “portions” of the cave) was known as the art gallery, since the formations of stalagmites and stalactites coming together formed odd shapes with the imagination. Our guide pointed out shapes such as a kiwi bird bungee jumping (again, huge imagination skills had to be put in place here), an elephant, and a dog.
And ah, the glowworms. What a feast for my eyes. I will never, ever view the Peter Pan attraction at Disneyland quite the same ever again – that simply pales in comparison, to say the least (DUH, this is freakin’ New Zealand).
The threads of the glowworms appeared to be clear, skinny strands of morning dew hanging from a stalactite. The tiny blueish-greenish dots were the faint glow emitted from each worm, and at first glance, all the lights blurred together until my eyes adjusted and squinted out the details of each light.
I’ve heard that the blackwater rafting/canyoning experience in the caves is surreal, but you mainly get to see the glowworms while ziplining through the cave for a few seconds – probably not for as long as we got to admire them. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Even as we continued walking away, I kept my neck and eyes fixated on the glowworms – it’s something I never had the chance to see until then (and I didn’t grow up with fireflies, being on the west coast of America). Unfortunately, no photography was allowed in the caves (as to not disrupt the glowworms in their natural habitat), but the photos online do the actual sight a bit of justice (again, it’s something you really need to see in person to take all in, though).
Our journey through the cave ended with the most tranquil, quiet boat ride I’ve ever experienced. And damn, those sturdy boats probably fit at LEAST 30 people. WTF Disney, take notes – talk about efficiency, Kiwis don’t mess around. Our guide basically navigated us through the pitch black darkness – all we could see were the glowworms above us, hanging from the stalactites of the cave, and my glow-in-the-dark Evenstar (yep, it was the same color as the glowworms).
Sidenote: Imagine being a guide for the caves – they could only feel around for the ropes hanging from the caves while standing, shrouded in pure darkness, and trying to pull the weight of the boat to navigate to the cave’s opening. If only there was an attraction or obstacle course for this in the future…
For a good 10-15 minutes, we stared up at the beauty of the glowworms in the subterranean cavern. It was like stargazing, except we were only about 10 ft. away from the actual gems, rather than miles away. There were all sorts of formations – most were clustered together, so it just looked like a huge blanket of blue glowing dots. In some spots, however, some formed spiderweb/star-like clusters that really added to the unique features of the cave. I was so mesmerized! I didn’t want the boat ride to end. If I could sleep in a cave full of glowworms every night, hell yes I would.
Because we couldn’t even see the person next to us (or even the back or front of the boat), it felt like being in space. It truly did. Being a HUGE astronomy nerd and space lover my whole life, this was a dream come true for me – after all, I’m the geek who will literally bolt to an observatory or astronomy tower just to try and scout out a huge telescope to use. (Sidenote: Thanks a lot, parents, for never buying me that telescope I always wanted, ha.)
The only thing that was missing was some tranquil, space music – the soundtrack for MOON would probably do it justice.
We had a good 15 minutes to decompress after our journey through the cave was over – and then we were back on the bus, moving rapidly through Cambridge and Rotorua. Rotorua, I’ve heard, is full of charm and sulfur pools – but it never interested me much to visit. Perhaps one day, when I go back to NZ to visit, I’ll hit up some of the North Island spots I missed, but it’s not a dying desire of mine. We stopped outside the smelly Agrodome (famous for its sheep shearing demonstrations), and then I was whisked away via the Hobbiton Movie Tours bus to Matamata – HOBBITON ITSELF.
The bus driver/tour guide for the Hobbiton bus was quite cheery and did a great job of explaining all the NZ LOTR history, except there was one downside – I already knew everything (perks of living with Wetanarians for six months), and I also knew even more to what he was talking about. Cue the reasons for me blasting all my favorite tracks from the LOTR and Hobbit soundtracks to pump myself up for the visit rather than be drowned in the repetitious tourist spiels of Middle-earth.
After about 45 minutes from Rotorua to Matamata, we arrived at the Shire’s Rest (ticket office, gift shop and cafe). We were dropped off here for a quick gift shop/cafe visit before our tour commenced (and I mean quick – I had to literally run in and out with the things I wanted –downside of a pre-planned tour). At this point, I realized just how in the middle of nowhere Hobbiton was situated – apparently Peter Jackson didn’t want ANYONE flying over the filming locale, and tried to find as isolated of a green place as possible.
Good God, no wonder PJ lives in Wellington (Seatoun) rather than Matamata. I don’t think I could even live in Matamata – I’d last for a good day or two, and then be on the next bus high-tailing it outta there if I tried.
Moreover, Hobbiton is beautiful. It’s stunning. It’s OBVIOUSLY the main tourist attraction of the whole freakin’ country of New Zealand because it’s KNOWN as Middle-earth. Nowhere, not even some of the iconic filming locations in Wellington, are as renowned as Hobbiton and the Shire itself. Had I left New Zealand having not visited Hobbiton, I probably wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.
The drive from the gift shop to the start of the actual tour spot took another 15-ish minutes… yeah, I guess you get used to having to bus around everywhere in NZ, because things are that spread out. Up and down large, green hills – beautiful trees and vast fields on our right, and a few sheep and cattle on our left. Our guide (the fantastic Steve) mentioned that PJ ordered special sheep for the films – primarily because the NZ sheep were “too modern looking.” Those poor sheep were probably pissed for getting rejected from a multi-million dollar movie franchise.
Our tour started at a little fenced gate with a simple sign that said, “Welcome to Hobbiton.” Cue the nerdy fangirl photo.
We descended down a few stairs until we got an eyeful of the vast, familiar landscapes that were used in both the LOTR and Hobbit movies. Yes, this place is real. It was such a neat experience – to be on the same grounds as all of the cast and crew once were (okay, so the sets were all demolished then rebuilt, but still) – and to think of all the billions of tourists that visit on a yearly basis. It’s incredible, really. I can’t name a single place in California that commands as much of a beloved quality than Matamata does for New Zealand.
After all, when someone says, “New Zealand,” don’t you OBVIOUSLY think of Hobbiton and Lord of the Rings?!
We stopped at two Hobbit holes first (there were at least 20 that you get to walk near and take photos near – some of them you can go past the fence in into the doorway, and others you can’t). They looked exactly as I imagined them = cute, colorful, cozy, and quaint. They reminded me of some of the little houses they used to display in Newport Fashion Island that I used to see with my parents.
There were gardeners (not Sam) watering, weeding and freshening up some of the plants in front of each Hobbit hole. There were workers stretching out a tent for a new food site for upcoming special events. There were tiny Hobbit clothes hanging on clothes wires. There were detailed props, including hats, shovels, pints of beer, pumpkins, crops, bread outside the holes – each had its own personality and flair (definitely Disney-like). THERE WAS THE PARTY TREE IN ALL ITS GLORY. There was Sam’s house. There was the most FAMOUS Hobbit hole of all – Bag End – also known as Bilbo’s home, with the infamous “No admittance except on party business” sign outside the fence as well as the bright green door. There was the multi-million dollar tree standing ABOVE Bilbo’s Hobbit hole that apparently is constructed of plastic leaves from Vietnam – specially made based on PJ’s request (it seems a bit ridiculous).
There was the inside of a Hobbit hole. *cue giggles*
There was the Hobbit hole that Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood) stood in front of… and I stupidly missed taking a photo in front of it.
There was the Green Dragon Inn – we saw it from afar and up close (thank goodness I went after Dec. 2012 when it first opened) – and I remembered distinctly how that shot was used in several LOTR films, notably Fellowship of the Ring. Goddamn, it was surreal. Maybe for me, it was like the culmination of all my childhood dreams and geekery come to life – I’m sure I would geek out in the same way once I get to do the Harry Potter studio tour in London.
Your first drink is included in the price of your $75 ticket to Hobbiton (ha), so you can kick back and relax at the Green Dragon Inn when the tour ends. The bathrooms are even Hobbit-themed and even have a pull-flusher. Of course. Love that attention to detail – Hobbiton wouldn’t be the same if there were auto-flushing toilets, right?!
The guest book with most of the cast of The Hobbit (and some crew) is framed in a case in the Green Dragon Inn as well. Apparently Dom and Billy served alcohol in the pub as well last year on a lucky day for some visitors – hoooly cow.
I’m going to sum up the rest of my experience in photos alone, merely because those do me justice moreso than my words ever will. Hobbiton, you’re amazing. Thanks for not disappointing, Hobbiton – I’ll be there and back again sooner that I can foresee.