Good things come in threes
Playing tourist in his own backyard is an eye-opener three times over for Chris Gardner.
J R R Tolkien proved that with his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which Wellington film-maker Sir Peter Jackson turned into one of the most successful film trilogies in history about a decade ago. You may have heard of it.
Jackson is about to try his luck again with another film trilogy based on The Hobbit, which Tolkien wrote before The Lord of the Rings. The world premiere of the first part, An Unexpected Journey, is on Wednesday and the film gets its general release on December 14.
The eyes of the world's hobbit-botherers will be on New Zealand as Bilbo Baggins discovers just how dangerous it is putting his hairy feet outside his front door.
That front door, of course, is of the manorial family residence of Bag End at Hobbiton in the Shire of Middle-earth.
It featured in the opening scenes of The Felllowship of the Ring in 2001 and the closing scenes of The Return of the King in 2003.
Hobbiton was carved into the hillside of a Waikato farm, with Jackson's crew removing all of the set dressing and all but the most basic earthworks before the first film's release in 2001.
When filming of The Hobbit became inevitable five years ago, Jackson bought half shares in a company set up to offer movie-set tours and it wasn't long before builders took to recreating the set they had built for The Lord of the Rings, this time using permanent materials.
Hobbiton will last forever, Russell Alexander of the attraction near Matamata told me during a tour of the four-hectare site, which I had made a pilgrimage to after The Lord of the Rings.
Where a plywood-framed hole in the ground was previously, now sits a fully furbished hobbit hole complete with round door frame and door and windows. Although you may not speak friend and enter, as Gandalf does, peek through the windows and you will see an array of hobbit-sized ornaments on the sills.
Each hobbit hole is adorned with tools belonging to the inhabitants - fishing nets for the fishing folk down by the lake, for example.
Each hobbit hole is also landscaped, as if one of the little folk has just been tending the garden before suddenly being called away.
While Hobbiton offers more than there has ever been before, it's like a kind of Mary Celeste - as if all the residents have scarpered at the first whiff of the nine black riders descending on Hobbiton in search of the One Ring of Power.
Wood lays partly chopped; honey partly collected.
I was surprised at how little Alexander could share about the filming of The Hobbit, although I expect that will change as the film trilogy trickles out.
I'd also expect Hobbiton to become more popular than ever once the new films are out and pictures of it start to proliferate around the internet.
Hobbiton has joined the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Ruakuri Cave, at Waitomo Village in the King Country, and Te Puia, at Rotorua, to offer tourists the chance to experience what tourism operator THL is promoting as the trilogy of New Zealand's must-see attractions.
It's where Middle-earth meets below-earth and living-earth.
While Hobbiton has changed amazingly over the last few years, the Ruakuri (or den of dogs) cave hasn't changed a bit since I last went through with Ross O'Halloran about five years ago. Actually that's a lie. The stalactites have grown about half a centimetre since my last visit if O'Halloran's statement that they grow one millimetre a year is correct.
We enter the cave through a manmade entrance with a sliding metal door bearing a sign advising that damage to cave formations will incur a $10,000 fine.
"You'd be surprised how that keeps people's hands in their pockets," O'Halloran says.
The door slides open, like the entrance to Batman's Batcave, to reveal a spiral ramp which takes us deep into the bowels of the Earth.
We spend a few minutes descending to another door. My daughter, Rebekah, 5, says she wants to leave because she can hear water falling and she's frightened something will fall on her head but O'Halloran lightens her up by asking for a password for the next door.
This trick works again and again as we head further underground through door after door.
During the walk, which takes a couple of hours and takes us down 80 metres, we take in all manner of natural sculptures and take time to spy on the blackwater rafting party making their way through the underground river snaking its way through the caves metres below us.
At one spot, we stop to listen to the sounds of the cave as O'Halloran reveals that Jackson's sound crew had been through to record wild track - background sounds - for the cave scenes in The Hobbit. So, if you're quiet enough in Ruakuri, you can hear the sounds of Middle-earth below the Earth.
To the right of the walkway, where my three children cling on for dear life in the dark, O'Halloran points out a series of ropes and pulleys which form part of the newly created Odyssey cave trip. It's adults only, as it involves dangling on the cave wall metres above the river, and Waitomo's cave guides have evidently had fun putting it together.
Footing is solid, thanks to a walkway that has been built through the cave. In fact, Ruakuri is the only wheelchair accessible cave in the southern hemisphere, evidenced by a wheelchair at one of the passage junctions which awaits an out-of-puff passenger.
Te Puia, the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute at Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley, has also changed lots since my last visit 12 years ago.
Gone is the wooden palisade which greeted me back then, replaced with a modern, covered area standing on carvings of the ancestors of those who still live in the village.
While Pohutu (big splash) geyser continues to erupt about 20 times a day, the walkway down to it from the institute is better kept than it was in 2000.
My son Thomas, 6, is keen to have his photograph taken with Pohutu blowing its top in the background but Rebekah is not. She's much more receptive to the invitation to go poi dancing in the meeting house where she is by far the youngest person on stage. Thomas is anxious to join the men in the haka and does himself proud.
But the highlight, after a sumptuous buffet dinner cooked hangi style, is returning to Pohutu aboard a road train where we are encouraged to sit on the warm rocks close to the geyser.
If you call yourself a New Zealander and haven't done these attractions, it's probably time you dropped by.
The Hobbiton Movie Set - In September 1998, Sir Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema discovered the Alexander farm during an aerial search for suitable film sites to transform into Hobbiton.
The views and the rolling countryside of the Alexander farm closely resembled that of the Middle-earth described by J R R Tolkien. The farm was ideal. In 2009, the set was rebuilt for the filming of the The Hobbit trilogy. Now the sets have been permanently constructed and a joint venture owned by Jackson and the Alexander family has been established to operate tours to the Hobbiton Movie Set. The farm is still run as a commercial operation by the Alexander family.
About Ruakuri Cave and Waitomo Glowworm Caves - Ruakuri Cave is part of the business portfolio of Tourism Holdings Ltd, along with the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, the Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company and an assortment of touring businesses, including significant campervan operations and Kiwi Experience.
Waitomo is 2 hours from Auckland and claims to offer one of New Zealand's most inspiring natural wonders.
About Te Puia - At the core of Te Puia in Rotorua is the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, set up by legislation in 1963 to foster the customary art forms of Maori. Since then, Te Puia has nurtured and trained hundreds of artists, first in carving, then in weaving and other skills, including kapa haka.
Te Puia also offers the wonders of Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley, incorporating traditions of guiding and hospitality that visitors have experienced there for almost 120 years.
Chris Gardner's Trilogy Experience was courtesy of THL.