ROTORUA — The first full day is in the books in a historic gathering of Middle-earth fans from around the world. And while there were some tired eyes there were lots more genuine smiles and the excitement of anticipation of a fan’s trip of a lifetime. Along with 150 Hobbit fans, about 30 or so journalists met on the tarmac at Auckland airport to get a photo with the pride of Air New Zealand’s fleet, its Thorin-and-company-emblazoned carrier.

The logistics of making just that happen means many buses, many credentials, many places to store luggage and quite a lot of hustle and bustle.

Tourism New Zealand is out in force to get everybody where they need to be as is Warners Bros. and just some of the many faces behind the many travel details that had to come together to bring this world-wide collection together.

BarbadosThe winners are divided into groups that help everybody keep everybody else organized. Credential lanyards are color coded to signify who is who and where they are from. If you arrived from the Americas, including winner Rori Griffith and her father Derek from Barbados, you are signified a Hobbit and get a green lanyard. Australasia are yellow wizards, Asia are blue elves and Europeans are red dwarves. Anybody else instantly transported to the video game Gauntlet? Oh and the media are signified as white orcs. Oh yes, we media are villains! We find our bus with signs and banners with CGI Azog himself and yes, that is me down in the photo gallery taking a self-portrait to demonstrate our similar haircuts. Staff are purple with the ever-present black “staff” shirts. The very helpful and cheerful staff will be present and recognizable in many, many photos I have no doubt.

After the photo-op it was time to grab sandwiches and head out to Rotorua, the birthplace of New Zealand tourism but also a cultural center for the two-island nation. We were welcomed to Te Puia, where we could learn about and enjoy Maori heritage on guided tours. Along the way we were able to view the famous mud pots and the steady geyser that mixes with the cold stream running through the area and was an early feature that put New Zealand on the world-wide map. Journalists were most delighted to catch sight of a nocturnal kiwi bird before getting down to the business of being welcomed to New Zealand.

CheifsJust as in the production diaries, we were welcomed officially after putting forward our chiefs, a contest winner from the U.K. and one from France, to face down a fiercesome warrior and prove that we, as a group or a tribe of extreme Hobbit geeks, were there for peaceful.

CarvedFaceOnce we made that clear we were welcomed inside for a cultural performance and then stuffed with amazing food cooked by traditional processes along with New Zealand wines and deserts and soups and salads and as much of everything a body could hope for. The visit also provided the first real chance (for me) to talk to actual fans who actually won stuff. It was really fun and I was delighted to find myself at a table with one of the San Diego Comic-Con winners, and just great, fun people from around North America. I might try to slip onto the Hobbit bus during the trip and see if I can keep making new friends. The cultural center in Rotorua is still an important part of tourism in New Zealand and an experience not to be missed for those traveling to the North Island.

So far fans are most excited for Hobbiton and to see the film. For me, the screening would be awesome but its the rarity of being in New Zealand with fans that is most incredible. I will own the film on Blu-ray and watch it when I please, but I will not land often (ever again?) in Queenstown or visit Weta or partake of Maori culture with fans from Latvia.

Be sure to check out the gallery below. Its time to catch the morning bus as we are heading today for some high adventure and if I don’t miss my guess, the Hobbiton Movie Set since we are definitely in the neighborhood. In fact, we stopped briefly in Matamata, the launching point for tour buses there, and the entire drive, as commented on by other Hobbit fans, felt very much like driving through the Shire. I never get tired of the fact that its located on Buckland Road.

Follow the trip on Twitter with #HobbitFanContest.