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TheOneRing’s first search for Hobbiton set out under trying conditions. It was raining like stink, and visibility was down to two carlengths if the car in front was fluorescent yellow or something, you sort of had to hope they knew where the road was. And this was State Highway 1 in the Central City we’re talking about. I had visions of being forced to send Xoanon pictures of a wall of rain with an X drawn on it marked, ‘We think Hobbiton is around here somewhere.’ How pathetic.
But the weather cleared, at least to dappled sun and clouds. It’s autumn still and the leaves are changing colour. I used to think that the landscape around Matamata, where we were headed, was just one of those boring green rural bits people have to drive through to get somewhere else. There’s a range of wild forested hills to the East, a flattish plain at their foot, and then further west the countryside becomes more rumpled with small hills and valleys of brilliant green grass. I’d forgotten the way farmers there make beautiful hedges that wander over the countryside in long intersecting lines, rising and falling with the lie of the land. It’s a feature of that area.
And I’d not been there in Autumn.
The native trees here are evergreen, so it’s only in areas where there’s been a great many European trees planted that you see those incredible colours at this time of year. Since, in The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbits leave the Shire in Autumn, it’s going to be important to have that in the landscape where it’s filmed. Rumour has it that the Hobbiton set, once built, is going to be left to ‘age’ for a year. Which would put the filming there right in the middle of the leafturning season. Around Matamata that’s quite spectacular, because the landscape is full of oaks and poplars and other trees that look brilliant right now.
We wondered if we’d be able to identify the farm where the set was being built, but it was obvious enough. There were at least three ‘No Tresspass’ notices on the big gate, a very new-looking road, and beyond that, a few big pieces of earth-moving machinery.
Opposite the gate was a caravan pulled up into a bit of land by the road, and visitors were directed to report there. We did, and met Barry, whose job it is to keep a twenty-four hour watch on the gate.
“Looking for anything in particular?” he asked.
“Just another f***ing Aucklander, looking for the film set,” I said. (Hence the title to this piece.) But he was from the South Island, and hadn’t heard of JAFAS either.
Barry sat us down and talked to us. He seemed a bit bemused by the whole thing.
“Sixty-six people came out here last Sunday to look at this place. Some guy went in duckshooting, and a reporter with a camera went in with him pretending to be doing a story on the duckshooting, but he was trying to get photos of the set! And there’s nothing there, just the road they’re building to where the set’s going to be!”
I asked him if he’d read the book, and he said he hadn’t. He looked like he was used to working outdoors, and this security work was getting to him. Nothing to do all day except talk to strangers who turn up, and then only in order to tell them to go away.
“We’ve had everything out here – people flying over in helicopters…they’re trying to get the area declared a no-fly zone.”
I began to wonder if Mr. Alexander, whose farm this was, was getting unpopular with his neighbours. They hadn’t signed on for a year of being buzzed by light aircraft during lambing time; they couldn’t afford a security guard to keep sightseers from crossing their land…
“I can’t stop you from taking photos from the road. But don’t do anything you shouldn’t. Because then it’s me you’ll be getting in trouble, see?” said Barry. I thought he would make a good Sam Gamgee, except he looked big enough to break a fencepost with his bare hands. “Here’s the number of the publicity woman from the film company, I’ll just see if I can find it.” He leafed through pages and pages of contact numbers for people involved in the film, shaking his head a little over the sheer size of the undertaking. “See, she could ring you and tell you as soon as anything happens out here, and you’d be all square and above-board.”
I was driven crazy by the fact that, under the pages of phone numbers, I could glimpse a hand-drawn map of what they were building out there. Which of course I couldn’t get to see properly. I mean, what can I describe? There seemed to be a stream widening out to a pool, some lines that could be lanes…But you can find out that much from reading the books. Still, aaaaaaarggghhhh!
We drove off promising not to trespass. I hoped that nothing would happen in the coming year to destroy Barry’s Sam Gamgee-like faith in human nature. He believed that appealing to our sense of fair play would be enough. The farmer’s son arrived on a farm bike and gave us a foul look, so we left, and we didn’t climb any fences.
A little way along the road we came to a spot that had some view of what they are building: A road. Hmm. Very scenic bit of road, though, so we took photos of that, and of the landscape around the place generally. Subtract the fenceposts and telegraph poles, and you’ll have a good sense of what the Shire is going to look like.
It looks like there’s some native forest on a hill on the other side of the area where they’re building, and it seems likely that the set could be seen from there, so a later expedition could tackle that. It doesn’t seem to be private land. It’d mean a few km.
walking through trackless forest, and if you got caught by an irate film crew you’d have to pretend you were looking for, um, what is it that people are usually looking for in the bush? Dope? ‘Sorry, officer, I swear I wasn’t trying to get close to Peter Jackson’s film crew….I was just, y’know, looking after business…’
On to the Okoroire Tavern, which is doing a roaring trade since the army is staying there while they build Hobbiton. I wonder how much choice you get in the army – ‘Hey, do you want to go to Kosovo on a peacekeeping mission? Or would you like to go build Hobbiton?’
I asked the barmaid if the troops were enjoying a change from marching or whatever they do normally. She sort of sighed and said ‘no.’ Apparently it’s hard work. The hotel charges people $10 to use the thermal springs on their land, and they were totally booked up. (The bar, meanwhile, was empty.) We wandered over for a look, hoping to find some exhausted army people soaking away the pains of a hard day’s work, but the hot pools were inside corrugated iron huts, so we didn’t get to overhear any fascinating gossip there.
Back to the pub, which is old and gracious. Its grounds would make nice locations for some scenes. Huge old trees, greensward (actually a golf course) and a rather surprising bit of wild rapids hidden in a forested ravine below the thermal springs. Suddenly you drop out of this totally English landscape into a mossy, ferny dark slot in the land with a whole lot of white water churning around at the bottom of it.
The only people in the tavern who weren’t watching rugby were speaking Swedish, so we drew a bit of a blank there. Nobody had any obvious interest in The Lord Of The Rings, so we finished our beer and drove home past a really gaudy Paramount sunset.