A tour of Hobbiton
The Windle family have taken the twisty Waikato road to Hobbiton today.
The Windles are from England, and Hamilton. Philip Windle read The Hobbit as a schoolboy 40 years ago, he's watched all the films, now he's walking through the Hobbiton Movie Set, the magical village created from the pages of J R R Tolkien's famous book.
''It's wonderful to visualise what you've seen in the films,'' he says, admiring the enclave nestled into the folds of the Hinuera hills, near Matamata.
There are four generations of Windles on this Hobbiton visit. Baby Olivia is eight weeks old, she lives in Hamilton with her mum, Hope (who is Kiwi) and dad, Paul (who is English). Paul's parents, Philip and Jill, have come from near Manchester in the UK to admire their first grandchild, and Olivia's two great-grandmothers, Sheila Windle and Joan Fowler, have travelled, too, plus Olivia's Uncle Mark, her dad's brother.
Lovely Olivia, of course, is the focus of the trip to New Zealand, but Hobbiton's been high on the Windle family's to-do list as well. Especially with Philip's longtime interest. They string out along the pathways, everyone happy.
Russell Alexander, general manager of Hobbiton Movie Set Tours, says Olivia would be one of the youngest visitors Hobbiton's had. She's an alert little soul, but she won't remember this trip. The others will, though, and there will certainly be a plethora of photographs to remind her. The Windles take heaps, as does everyone else in our tour group.
Guide Melanie Teahan is unfailingly helpful as visitor upon visitor thrusts a camera into her capable hands and asks her to take pictures of them. ''This is a good job to do if you want to learn to use lots of different cameras quickly,'' Melanie says, as she looks through the umpteenth viewfinder.
Waikato Times chief photographer Peter Drury shoots his own pictures; he and I have joined this group of 41 people doing a midday Monday tour into the movie set. We're meeting a handful - including the Windles - from among the thousands and thousands who have streamed through Hobbiton this summer alone. Putting faces to the statistics of a bumper season that on its biggest day last month, January 2, drew 2700 visitors.
Hobbiton hides neatly in the rolling Hinuera farmland, the perfect location for shy little people to go about their business. To get there, you drive along narrow Buckland Rd, wondering if you've actually misread the map because there's not a whiff of Kiwi film maker Sir Peter Jackson's famous movie set created for his Tolkien trilogies - Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Overseas visitors must wonder where on Earth they're going as they pass farmhouses, barns, barberry hedges, the trappings of rural New Zealand rather than blockbuster movies and Middle-earth. Then, out of nowhere, a huge parking lot, a cluster of cars, buses and buildings, and you're getting close to The Shire, homeland of Hobbits.
This is the Alexander family sheep and beef farm where Sir Peter and his team painstakingly built Hobbiton. It has subsequently become a major international tourist destination, a permanent set drawing half-a-million visitors since it opened in 2002. The half-million milestone was reached just before Christmas.
Russell Alexander grew up on the property selected by Sir Peter after an aerial search of the North Island. Alexander's family continues to run the 500ha farm. He lives next to the carpark and gets the same buzz out of Hobbiton that he always has. ''You get taken to another land,'' he says, ''taken to the mystique and magic. I love it.''
So we are transported to this other land. Again, like Buckland Rd, there's no hint of the village on the first leg of the 2.2km road into the set. Then there are tantalising little glimpses of the lake and Hobbit dwellings; we finally get off the bus, walk through Gandalf's Cutting, and it lies before us.
Our fellow tourists are from Norway, Finland, Malaysia, England, Scotland, Germany, Fiji, Australia, New Caledonia and New Zealand. Ten nationalities on one bus.
We have at least one thing in common. Almost everyone raises a hand when driver Teresa Hopson asks who has read the Tolkien books or seen the ifLord of the Rings/The Hobbitnf movies.
Norwegian veterinarian Caroline Haaden, visiting Hamilton for the International Symposium on Equine Reproduction, says she doesn't typically like doing touristy things, but as a Tolkien fan, she couldn't be so close to Hobbiton and not do this. ''It is so cool.''
Kayla Telford, from New Plymouth, is showing partner Craig Pejic, from the UK, around her country. The pair work on yachts in Europe and are heading back shortly for a season in the Mediterranean. Telford says it's amazing how many people overseas talk about Hobbiton and the movies. She and Pejic have seen them all; now they'll be able to say they've been to the set as well. They're loving it, they take photographs in every possible location.
A Malaysian tour party of 13 marvels at the small-scale village; many of them have seen the Jackson movies, they're excited to be visiting. The Millet family from New Caledonia - Stephane, Sophie and their children Maelle, 11, and Titouan, 9 - are similarly impressed. They've seen the two Hobbit films, they like what has been created at Hobbiton.
Visitors pose beside Hobbit holes, they pose in sturdy little outdoor chairs, they're photographed pegging washing on clotheslines, standing beside the famous Party Tree, drinking ale at the Green Dragon Inn. Everything, anything, is recorded on camera. Except they can't pose with Hobbits. They vanished when filming wrapped up on The Hobbit trilogy in November 2011. But their village, of course, remains intact, so beautifully, meticulously realised that it looks like the Hobbits may have just wandered over the hills for an outing and plan to return at nightfall.
Their allotment-style gardens are plump with summer produce of courgettes, rhubarb and silverbeet, their washing dries in the sunshine, smoke drifts from some of the chimneys, a bread stall is ready for customers, there are tools awaiting new tasks, wood is stacked for the evening fire, baskets of apples suggest fruit is much favoured. About 400 extra props have recently been added to the set, and more are to come.
''They've thought of everything,'' says someone from the depths of the group. We wind our way along the well-maintained paths, past quaint Hobbit holes, our journey building towards the distinctive green door of Bag End, the most impressive of the dwellings, redolent with Baggins family history.
Melanie Teahan tells stories about Hobbits, and movie-making, explains that the holes don't actually have interiors. The interior scenes were all created and filmed in the studio in Wellington, she says. There's just one Hobbit hole where you can go inside and take a photograph from the inside out. People form an orderly queue to get this shot.
Teahan's a student at Victoria University; she's relished her summer job at Hobbiton. ''I was looking for somewhere really fun to work - this is fantastic.'' She's read all the books, seen all the movies, met untold people. Some visitors dress up as Hobbits and other characters. The most incongruous of these she's seen was a toweringly tall German man, dressed as a Hobbit. ''He wanted to stay here.''
Head guide Teresa Hopson, from Matamata, our bus driver today, has worked on the set since 2004. The best part of her job is meeting people from all over the world. ''They come to our little corner to see us. The set is awesome, it is great to be part of something so huge.''
Hopson has met visitors who've seen the movies so many times that they can recite the right lines at the right locations. Some re-enact scenes when they're on the set, some speak in the Elvish languages used by Elves. There are serious fans, Hopson says, and others who simply love it for what it is. Apparently it's also a popular place for marriage proposals, these mostly taking place at Bag End or on the Party Field.
Teahan has a little knot of people around her most of the time. She answers questions, gently shepherds her flock along pathways, gathers us in at the Party Field, explains that the next stop is the Green Dragon Inn for beverages, before we take the bus home. She hasn't lost anyone yet.
There are other groups in front of us, more coming behind. But there is no congestion, it works seamlessly in such a big space. The pace is unhurried, the village story building towards Bag End, the Party Tree and Green Dragon. The more time you're there, the more subleties you see, the more immersed you become.
A number of our tour party say they're getting value for money. At $75 per adult, priced as an international tourist product, it's a cost that Kiwi visitors apparently sometimes find a bit steep.
Kayla Telford, though, says she and Craig Pejic have just done some touristy things in Rotorua and Taupo, and prices were around the $100 mark. She thinks Hobbiton is reasonable. One of the Malaysian group says that having seen the work that has gone into Hobbiton, it is certainly worth it.
While some may crunch the Hobbiton visitor numbers with the entry fee, and speculate on turnover, chief executive Alexander says they'd be wrong. Hobbiton's partnership with Sir Peter precludes Alexander from discussing financials, but he says such speculation does not take into account the huge investment that has been made in new infrastructure, development and staff at Hobbiton, and the associated risks of borrowing and mortgage repayment.
The final in the The Hobbit trilogy is due for release later this year and Hobbiton can expect plenty more mileage from this. Alexander's answer to questions about what might happen in the longer term is succinct: ''Look at The Sound of Music.'' Tours in the Austrian city of Salzburg and its environs, where scenes from the famous 1965 musical were filmed, continue to attract visitors.
''We're doing everything so it will last a lifetime,'' Alexander says.
Meantime, our group returns to the real world. The spell is broken, we bus back to base. People say goodbye, some head into the souvenir shop to buy memorabilia, others to the cafe for lunch. One lot is driving on to Rotorua, another to the Waitomo Caves.
The Windle family's great-grandmothers, Sheila Windle and Joan Fowler, now have the movies on their must-do list. They haven't seen any of them, vow to put this right when they return home. And baby Olivia will most certainly have lots of lovely photos to peruse when she's older.