Vacation Down Under 2016 Quicklinks
- Travelling Down Under – Getting To Australia in 2016
- Cairns 2016 Adventure One: Cairns Business District Walkabout
- Cairns 2016 Adventure Two: Nobody Expects the Spanish Rainforest Castle Ruins!
- Cairns 2016 Adventure Three: He rode a Blazing Saddle, He wore a shining star…
- Cairns 2016 Adventure Four: Onward By Rail, Homebound By Air
- Cairns 2016 Adventure Five: Adventure Island – Fitzroy Edition
- Cairns 2016 Adventure Six: Above and Below the Reef Sea
- Brisbane: Woo~ I’m on top of the world!
- Auckland: We’re Going On An Adventure!
- Auckland: Rain changing ALL the plans…
The Auckland airport had the perfect greeter! Thanks Middle Earth!
It was time for the last leg of our adventure: Auckland, New Zealand. We had to wake up quite early in the morning in Brisbane to head to the airport, but the trip was painless enough. We had already bought our train tickets back to the airport, so literally we just had to walk the few minutes back to the train station and jump on it when it arrived. The departures side of the airport was much like the arrivals side – notably more urban and modern looking than the tropical party adventure cousin it had in Cairns. It was an easy process to get through to the other side, work through customs and security, and then make it to our gate. We waited inside next to a guy who seemed like some sort of quality control inspector. He was taking notes about how things were running and he seemed to be going through all the motions of check-in as if he were departing. He was talking to the suited folks at the check-in desk so it seemed like he was with the airline. We would be flying Qantas into New Zealand and the trip was much like the first – very brief, very comfortable, and very full of little snacks and treats along the way. Jeff read and finished his book along the way. Our arrival was pretty seamless, though we noted that customs regulations were steep in New Zealand. You had to report almost everything you had and everything you did in the preceding country and they were very thorough with their inspection. Polite, but thorough. We had to show the undersides of our shoes to check for traces of soil from our rainforest and riding expeditions. We also had to report the teas, fudge, and handful of other little candies and treats we had from Australia. Everything was OK, they just wanted to know it all. It was the most thorough customs check I’d ever gone through. We exchanged our money at the airport, causing Jeff to grit his teeth at the awful exchange rates. We resolved to try to get as much money changed while still in Korea from now on, since their rates were awesome and they take little to no commission off the top, especially during peak travel seasons. It’s some sort of incentive for the Korean people that we can benefit from as well.
This is what a simple country farm looks like in New Zealand. Look in any direction and you’re met with absolutely gorgeous landscape.
We took the skybus from the airport, which is a dedicated airport shuttle sort of bus that stops in all the major areas of the city for hotels. Our hotel was at the farthest point out that the bus went, and in fact we actually had to switch buses. The main bus went in a small circuit, and then at the end you could get out and pickup a smaller shuttle bus that went farther into the city. We took this shuttle bus out to it’s farthest point, and then had a small walk around the corner to our actual hotel. The bus driver was super nice too. He stopped us as we got off to check that we knew how to get to our hotel from there, and even drew the path to take on our map. Check in was a breeze and I remember going through the process and heading up to our room in a sort of daze. This hotel was essentially a small apartment, and we’re pretty sure at least parts of the building were actually used as apartments. It had a full kitchen and a washer/dryer in the room. The feel of the hotel was somewhere in between our previous hotels: not as good as Cairns, but nicer than Brisbane. Less polished, perhaps, but more roomy and with more in it for our convenience.
We lucked out a bit and arrived at the sheep farms in lambing season.
We rested for just a little while before heading out to explore Auckland a bit. It was still pretty early in the day, and the city actually seemed interesting. It’s difficult to describe, but it actually reminded me and Jeff of Pittsburgh. We both agreed that the home-ey feeling to it in spite of its size and the overwhelming diversity of architecture, unbounded by district or surroundings, made it feel a lot like the Pennsylvania city. It was one of the things I remembered and Jeff noted when visiting there, and Auckland shared strongly in this quality. We spent most of our time wandering in the Queen St. area by the docks. It was actually really nice and we ended up going into one of the pierside souvenir stores, picking up some local snacks and some bags of dirt. The dirt was actually Rotorua mud, a mineral-rich volcanic clay that they packaged with Manuka honey as face masks. We thought we’d pamper ourselves a bit with these later on. What followed was a ton of additional window-shopping and wandering by the harborside as we ate up the evening and got out bearings in North Auckland. We spent some time admiring the ocean views and checking out the islands off the coast from the shore. We probably walked without aim for a few miles before heading back toward our hotel, grabbing some quick food, and returning to our room.
Did I mention that the land looks gorgeous and green no matter where you look?
We headed to bed early as we had yet another early day ahead of us, and it was essentially our reason for coming to New Zealand so the excitement was high as well. We woke before the sun to prepare and head just up the street to the main bus terminal. They run a ton of tours from there, and we were actually a bit disappointed that we didn’t look into them a bit more earlier. Apparently you can use these tours to move around New Zealand. They have luggage space on the bus, and you can switch buses at different locations so that you can finish somewhere different from where you started. We also discovered that they ran a tour for something I had really wanted to do but couldn’t find a way to get to and from it. It was a caving adventure where you went abseiling and climbing and rafting in the dark and all sorts of crazy nonsense. We would be seeing part of one of said caves later in the day, but on a very normal sort of tour instead of an exciting adventure sort of tour. Maybe next time. Anyway, we ended up being a little too excited for the day’s adventure to come, and got to the bus station a good 30-45 minutes earlier than necessary. We used that time to grab a quick breakfast and then chilled out just waiting.
The side of the property that wasn’t dedicated to the Hobbiton Movie Set. Those mountains in the distance are the same ones used as the Misty Mountains in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Recognize them?
We quickly found a bus labelled similarly to our plans for the day. We asked the driver, and he told us we needed the next bus, and also to check in with a lady nearby. So to that lady we went, but she just told us to wait. As I said, we were about 30 minutes early, so she was busy checking in all the people for the bus that left about 30 minutes before ours. Eventually she came back to us and checked us in. We got little stickers to wear, and in proper hobbit fashion: second breakfasts! They were small bowls of fruit and water bottles. Within just a few minutes our real bus pulled up and we jumped on board, grabbing seats right in the front. We wanted to be able to see everything all day.
The sheep always came first on this farm! Even when they got in the way of tour buses.
Our bus was one of those really big tour bus style buses, but it turned out to be less than half full, which we were happy about. As soon as our bus headed out of the bus station, our driver started up commentary. He literally didn’t stop until Hobbiton, about 90 minutes later. Some might find that annoying I’m sure, but he actually had some really interesting things to say. He of course talked a bit about Hobbiton, including the story of how it came to be. Apparently Peter Jackson and his crew had been having a really hard time finding the perfect filming spot for Hobbiton. They had looked everywhere, but could only find places that fit one or two of the things he had in mind. He needed tons of rolling green hills with no signs of man-made structures, especially electrical wires. He also needed a small pond or lake in a valley with a very large tree nearby. They were about to start filming for the movies at these pieced together locations when somebody on set suggested checking out the Matamata area of New Zealand, known to have tons of rolling green hills on sheep farms. Some crewmen were sent over to check it out by helicopter and couldn’t believe their eyes. Nestled at the back of a random sheep farm, they had found the perfect valley for Hobbiton. It had literally everything that Peter Jackson had been looking for in a filming location, even the “Misty Mountains” in the background. The crew knocked on the sheep farmers door to request permission to go check it out on foot. They were simply told to be careful of locking the gates and not letting the sheep get mixed up. After taking ALL the pictures, they went back to Jackson. When he came back to look at it himself, they were given the same simple instructions, and Jackson pretty much immediately threw out all the other potential Hobbiton spots. He no longer needed any of them because this one had everything.
Our target destination for the day. Next stop: Middle Earth!
They of course drew up a contract with the farmer, which included a clause stating that they would be sure to put his valley back to it’s original state when they were finished. They built all of Hobbiton, as seen in the original Lord of the Rings movies, but they built it to only last a few months. They used materials that were cheap and would come down easily. After filming, they started to immediately tear everything down. When they were almost finished though, there was a nasty storm that caused them to take a break. The crew then had to rush off to a new job, but promised they would come back eventually to finish destroying Hobbiton and putting the farm back to normal. The sheep farmer was in no rush, and so neither was the crew. Other projects took up the team’s time before they could return for the clean-up project and it took a few months for them to show up again. They waited so long though that the movies ended up being released. A bunch of people in the nearby Matamata area that saw the movie immediately recognized the scenery as being their own, even though the filming locations were kept completely secret. They started calling up all the farmers in the area, and eventually found the right one, asking if there was anything left to see. The farmer warned them that there was very little left: just a couple of hobbit holes that were falling apart, but they all wanted to go check it out anyway. Despite being a bit disappointed with what was left, the locals still kept coming to see it and telling all their friends to do the same.
You have no idea how much fun it was going through our photos while re-watching the movies once we got home and comparing our shots to the actual footage used in the films. WE STOOD RIGHT THERE!!!!
So when the crew called to finish tearing things down, the farmer told them not to worry about it. He would just keep what was left, since everybody wanted to see it. Things stayed that way for a little while, until Peter Jackson decided to film The Hobbit as well. He called the sheep farmer back up asking if he could film there once again. This time, in the contract, the farmer requested that Hobbiton be made with lasting materials and be left in place after filming. Jackson agreed, and they built the Hobbiton that still stands today. It is infinitely more detailed and intricate and well thought-out. This of course took a lot longer to build, but I don’t think anybody was complaining. It also introduced the only manmade natural feature to Hobbiton. Originally, they had transplanted a tree onto the top of Bag End to fit better with Jackson’s vision and the original book. This time though, instead of searching for and placing that perfect tree there that might grow to big and not quite fit the image anymore or even start hurting Bag End with it’s root system, they made a fake one. So now there is a fake tree atop Bag End, but it is a super intricate and detailed fake tree with tons and tons of individual leaves wired onto it. (Sidenote: apparently after getting the OK on the leaves and thus wiring them all in place, Jackson arrived later and decided that they were the wrong color, so they had to be removed and redone.)
Holy crap it’s Bag End! The tree above Bilbo’s house is a false one, made to look a few decades younger than the original used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy
After finishing his story, and pimping Hobbiton up a bit more, he continued on with a very different sort of story: essentially, the story of New Zealand. This guy was so clearly proud of and loved his country, and wanted nothing more than to share that with you. He even mentioned at one point that the goal of his commentary was to inform you about what it was like to live in New Zealand and to help you understand being a New Zealander (or Kiwi). He doesn’t want to just spout off a bunch of facts regarding the locations and things you are passing by, but instead wants you to take away a feeling for what makes New Zealand different and special. We definitely really appreciated and enjoyed his approach more than other guides we’d had on this trip.
Behold the immensely huge and glorious Party Tree!
He told us all about the history of the Maori people in New Zealand, and their relationship with the newer New Zealanders of European descent. The Maori came first, from what they originally thought was Hawaii, but later decided was more likely Polynesia. They rode over in giant canoes, and lived there in tribes for a good while before anybody else showed up. They were always very warlike though, constantly fighting amongst themselves, mostly over land. Eventually Europeans started to appear. We had heard about the first ‘finding’ of New Zealand from another tour guide in Australia. He had talked about Captain James Cook originally discovering Australia, and how he had briefly also found New Zealand. We heard a very truncated version of Cook’s story here as well, but from a very different angle. We had previously heard that Cook’s expedition having been to study the stars was a fake reason, but this guy seemed to think that was his main goal after all. Whatever the case the most amusing part was the expanded bit about New Zealand. After finding Australia, Cook couldn’t believe that that was the only landmass in the area, so he went searching for more. He came across New Zealand easily enough, but ran into problems immediately. The Maori, being warlike and all, started a battle immediately with them on the water. Cook never even set foot on New Zealand before turning tail and returning back to Britain. From just that one little interaction though, New Zealand finally was on world maps. It was just a squiggle with a name though, since nobody had ANY idea what was actually there. They just knew that there was some manner of land there with people that didn’t want you to come land on it.
OK I’m here! Where’s the party at?
There was then just a small trickle of people going to New Zealand, until some people in Britain decided to try and get rich off of the idea of New Zealand. They put up tons of flyers selling land in New Zealand. They painted a pretty picture of the country as being a wonderful tropical paradise with super welcoming natives and an easy start to a wonderful new life. Super rich elites bought their lies and spent all their money on a voyage to claim the land they bought (from people that had no right to sell it in the first place.) Their boats came at the islands from what seemed like the best option at the time, the west coast. This coast has tons of cliffs and rocky shores and turbulent waters. (Had they taken the slightly less logical route and gone to the east coast, they would have found calm waters and lovely beaches.) They ended up having to anchor the boat pretty far offshore, and then make small trips in small boats onto the land. This always ended with everybody getting completely soaked, and most of their possessions being dumped into the sea. The boat’s crew had done their jobs though, and left the ‘settlers’ to their fate on New Zealand with their fancy little pieces of paper saying that they owned land there and not much else. Having been a super expensive trip and all, these were really only the super rich, so most of them never did hard labor or much of anything by themselves. Suddenly though they would have to do everything, especially since the “friendly and helpful natives” were actually warlike natives that didn’t want them to be there. They also found mostly jungle to work with, as opposed to the lovely pastures and beaches described to them. Thus, most of these ‘settlers’ failed miserably.
The Party Fields and a few hobbit holes as seen from across the “Brandywine River,” not a river at all but more of a small, cleverly positiioned lake.
Eventually, obviously, people started to succeed and create a European population there. They even started trading with the Maori and thus getting the land from people that had more of a right to give it. (This is one of those points in time where the tour guide sort of glossed over in his explanations because it was less necessary to what he was trying to do.) Jump ahead in time a bit more to the point where the Maori decided that they had given away enough of their land. This of course led to arguments, which led to wars, which led to the attempted extermination of the Maori as a whole. The British sent in some of their best troops to deal with the issue, and they almost succeeded. The Maori that survived, retreated to very heavily forested areas to keep fighting using somewhat sneaky tactics. The precise ending of things, I can’t at all remember, but I know it lasted a long time, and things didn’t exactly go well for either side.
The Shire must be a truly wondrous realm where gardeners are held in high honor.
Skip ahead in time again, and we have both peoples still living and sort of doing their own thing, but neither quite happy with the other. So the government of New Zealand decides to have a tribunal to figure out how to solve everybody’s grievances. The Maori had been getting especially mad over a land ownership law passed by the government. It stated that to own land, you had to have a building on it and some manner of fence around it, and it was yours. The Maori built all of their cities this way for as long as they’d been building things, and thus claimed that tons of land had been wrongfully taken from them throughout history and they wanted it back. This was the biggest sticking point throughout the tribunal, and was really the hardest thing to figure out. Yes, perhaps it had been wrongfully taken, but there was really no way they could give it all back now, what with how long it had been in the hands of others at this point, and the government just paying the Maori for all of that land would simply bankrupt the country. So they decided on a sort of middle ground of that. The government went around and found all the land that was still owned by the government and gave it back to the Maori. Then, for everything they couldn’t give back they gave them money. The way they gave the money though was a bit awkward, but also both brilliant and slightly sneaky. They put money in an overseas account that had great rates, and said that the tribes that were awarded it were never allowed to touch it. Instead, the tribe got all of the interest that it accumulated. So basically they paid back all of the tribes whose land they’d taken without actually spending a cent of their own money.
The Party Tree is STUPIDLY huge
Following the start of this (which negotiations with some tribes is still ongoing) relations got a lot better between Maori and European New Zealanders. The government has also put forward a lot of new laws and such to help bring the two people of New Zealand together. Maori and English are now both official languages in the country, and all kids learn both cultures and languages in school. The guide also talked a lot about recent politics in New Zealand, which was a bit harder to follow. The takeaway message though was just that New Zealand is much further along with the idea of equality. They’ve had tons of women in positions of power, and have thus passed a lot of laws that he doesn’t think would exist with only men in power. One example was about midwives. In the past, pregnant women would have a doctor that they chose to help with the whole ordeal, but they wouldn’t really do much on the all important birthing day. So they changed it to cut out that doctor, and instead the mothers-to-be choose a midwife, who is with them from beginning to end and is the one to deliver the baby and even continues to help them after birth until they decide they are ok on their own. Another example was that prostitution was made legal. One of their leaders decided that it wasn’t fair that those women were looked down upon so much and not actually protected under the law. So she made it legal and made laws so that they got regular health checks and didn’t have to sneak around to do their business. It made things much safer for them, and even if you don’t approve of the profession, that doesn’t mean it should have to be unsafe for those that choose it, whatever their reasons.
The Old Ted Sandyman Mill
Our guide had one more bit of story before we arrived in Hobbiton, but it was sort of a random aside triggered by something we drove past. A trio of very large rocks uncovered when they were building the road we were on. These rocks apparently had carvings and lines on them that were pretty obviously not natural. A few other groups of these rocks have popped up over the years, always in threes, standing up like a sort of pyramid with lines on them somewhere. They also tended to be on the tops of the tallest mountains in different areas. Maori apparently had always told stories from their ancestors saying that there had been a people in New Zealand before them, but nobody believed it because there was no evidence. These rocks are now essentially the only evidence. The stories though say that these people were extremely tall with blonde hair and blue eyes, and they were extremely peaceful. For this reason, they really didn’t last very long after the Maori arrived, what with them being especially warlike and all. Their stories say that when they attacked these people, they wouldn’t even defend themselves. They also said that they had some weird habit of going up to the tops of mountains and screaming. Once one location screamed, they started a sort of chain reaction of nearby areas, so that all of them would start screaming.
She fits right in here
Anyway, after all these stories, we eventually approached Hobbiton. The town closest to Hobbiton has super adopted all of the tourism coming in for Hobbiton. A lot of the buildings in the town have added Lord of the Rings characters or made their buildings fit the Hobbiton style of building. As we drove up to Hobbiton itself, excitement was running really high. We stopped first near the front of the farm, at the Shire’s Rest. Here we were given about 45 minutes to hit the bathroom, grab some coffee from the cafe if we wanted, and peruse the gift shop. This is also were the tickets to Hobbiton can be found, and all tours to the village itself start. Nobody goes into Hobbiton itself without first stopping here and collecting a tour guide. Me and Jeff spent most of our time in the gift shop, looking at all of the fun things they had for sale. There was the normal stuff of course like books and t-shirts (most of which you could find elsewhere), but also some fancier replica-style items too (including the Elven cloaks the fellowship wore and Gandalf’s hat.) There were also postcards, which if you filled them out and bought a special stamp there, they would put in their special Hobbiton mailbox to be stamped as having come from Hobbiton before being sent as normal mail. It was pretty cute, but without having known about it beforehand, we wouldn’t have had time to send any without wasting the rest of our time there. We picked up a giant Hobbiton mug, a Dwarven bracelet, and Kili’s runestone, before heading upstairs for a quick hot chocolate for the road.
Hobbiton’s two newest residents!
We all piled back on the bus, followed by a new Hobbiton tour guide. She gave us a similar but shortened version of the story our guide had told us on the way here, but out focus was mostly out the windows. We were now driving through the sheep farm that Hobbiton sits in the middle of. There were rolling green hills as far as we could see in every direction, and they were all dotted with sheep. It was also the time of year when they all had babies, so there were tons of those too. As we got a little closer, we passed a spot where you could see down into Hobbiton just a bit, and our guide asked us a trivia question. “When Gandalf first arrives at Hobbiton, and Frodo is standing on a hill and tells him that he’s late….Does anybody remember what Gandalf said in response?” Of course me and Jeff both gave her the entire Gandalf quote, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.” Both of our guides were quite amused, and we were told that we had just passed the spot where they filmed that scene. We also passed by their film camp before shortly arriving into Hobbiton proper.
One of the first hobbit holes witnessed as you enter the village.
We all got off the bus, leaving the driver to his own devices, and following our Hobbiton guide around the bend into the village. The entrance to the village is actually the very same entrance that Gandalf drove through as he arrived, with the rock walls on either side. As you leave the walls, the entirety of Hobbiton opens up in front of you. It’s really hard to properly describe the feeling you get walking into Hobbiton; it really is just like walking into a fantasy world. One second you are walking through an (admittedly beautiful but still quite) ordinary sheep farm and suddenly you are in Middle-Earth, surrounded by familiar sights that you never thought you’d actually be able to see or touch. For everyone who ever wanted to set foot in their favorite storybook, this place actually gives you that opportunity. It was like a dream for us. How many people can say they took a stroll through the very same paths walked by their favorite wizards and heroes of fantasy? Our guide led us over to the first hobbit hole and told us a bit about the village and how and why the holes were all different sizes. (They would have different actors stand in front of different sized holes to give the illusion of the hobbits being smaller and Gandalf being taller.) She also told us that behind the doors of each hobbit hole was a wall of dirt. Most of the holes weren’t really meant to open, but we were able to go inside one of them later in the village, so wait for it! We were then given a couple of minutes to wander around and take pictures of the nearby hobbit holes, before congregating again farther down the path.
Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton’s home. Jeff actually pointed this out before the guide could mention whose it was.
Each hobbit hole was unique and different and each one was so intricately designed. Each one had it’s own set of trinkets strewn about the front lawn or sitting inside in the windows, different landscaping, front gates, mailboxes, and designs of brick, wood, and stone. You could walk around in here and study all the little details for days. As we moved down the path, there was a small garden on one side. It looked completely fake, but was apparently 100% real vegetables growing there. We also walked by a sign pointing the way to Tuck Borough and the East and West Farthings. We continued to wind our way through the village with periods of talking from our guide and time to just walk around and take pictures in different areas. We walked past another few hobbit holes before coming across what was known as the frog pond. It was just a small inconspicuous looking pond in front of some other hobbit holes. It was dubbed the frog pond because in summer it is always full of frogs, and they are always making a ton of noise. They actually had to stop filming a couple times, all the way off across Hobbiton at Bag End, because the actors couldn’t hear each other. Somebody ended up with the extra job of going in to catch all the frogs and take them to a different pond, and then bring them back after filming. Nearby, there was also a small orchard of ‘plum’ trees. These were actually small apple trees because plum trees were too big for hobbit children to climb. For filming though, they put a ton of plums into the trees to make them look like plum trees.
“No, thank you! We don’t want any more visitors, well-wishers, or distant relations!”
As we wandered our way up the hill, we came across a few more small gardens, a wood shed, plenty of bird houses in the trees, a table full of honey jars, wells, benches, clotheslines complete with tiny hobbit clothes on them, and plenty more random things strewn about. They spared no detail and it really looked like hobbits were living there. During filming, they apparently even had people assigned to walk between the hobbit holes and clotheslines over and over again so that it looked like there was a well-worn path there. They even had smoke rising from some of the chimneys, even now.
Jessy is never late. Nor is she early. She arrives precisely when she means to!
Finally we found ourselves going up the hill in the back of Hobbiton, to find tons of amazing views of the surrounding farm. The Misty Mountains even came out to play for a little while. Eventually we found ourselves at the hobbit hole that we could go inside of! Everybody was SO excited to see that blank dirt wall. We all lined up to get our pictures standing inside of a hobbit hole, before moving on to Bag End. There really wasn’t much exciting to say about Bag End actually. It was just a bigger hobbit hole really, but knowing whose hobbit hole it was in the movie made it exciting anyway. We wound our way back down the hill past a few more holes to arrive at the party tree. It was a really big tree. There were also all the party toys strewn about the place though, and we were given some time to play with these before moving on. Me and Jeff immediately went over and frolicked at the maypole to laughs from a few of the other folks gathered there. It was like a cue for everybody else to break off and start playing with things though. There were benches and seesaws and swings and stilts. Me and Jeff went for the stilts. I tried first, failing pretty miserably. I just couldn’t get my balance while getting into them. Jeff took over and basically had no trouble, and just started walking off down the party grounds. Show off.
Creepin’ on Hobbitses.
After fun at the party grounds we ended up at the 100% to scale hobbit holes, and I was told that I am the cutoff point of height for hobbit actors. If you weren’t 5’2″ or less, then you couldn’t be a hobbit. It also turned out that one of these hobbit holes was Sam’s home! We grabbed some last pictures before heading off down the road to the Green Dragon. This path took us through some woods, over some small bridges and around the lake to the Green Dragon on the other side. We reached the mill first, which was just as intricate as the hobbit holes, and even had a notice board in front of it with the cutest little notices. We also noticed a family of swans and a ton of geese playing in the waters as we finally crossed the last big stone bridge to the Green Dragon. It was especially cute inside, and I would have loved to wander around it a little longer to see all the details here too. Instead though, we had to pretty quickly grab our free drinks, nonalcoholic ginger beer for us, and head around the back for our special hobbit lunch buffet! (Apparently they have a handful of drinks, including the ginger beer, that are only served here at the Green Dragon.)
Inside the dining tent, ready for a meal fit for Hobbits!
We headed inside the tent to find a really fancily decorated dining area. We all sat down at the tables and were set free to enjoy the buffet. Our tables had big bottles of the Southfarthings best water sitting on them, but we didn’t need any what with our giant glasses of ginger beer. The buffet had a ton of different options and they literally all looked delicious. We both grabbed giant plates full of breads, meats, potatoes, veggies, noodles, and eventually cakes. Everything was in fact delicious, and we stuffed ourselves to capacity. As it was time to head out, we headed over to hit the bathrooms before the bus ride to our next destination. I wouldn’t mention this, but even the bathrooms were adorable and themed. They were all wooden and old timey looking and even had those little pull cords to flush. When I was waiting for Jeff to finish up, our guide appeared. He checked to make sure I was one of those that knew the Gandalf quote way back at the beginning of our tour, and when I said that I was, he told me he had a special prize for me and Jeff. He had talked to the staff at the Green Dragon so that we could get a picture behind the counter. With this one last surprise finished, we walked off behind the Green Dragon to reboard our bus and head back up the road, leaving Hobbiton behind us.
…but the only brew for the brave and true….comes from the Green Dragon!
The one hobbit hole that actually had a fully realized interior.
As we went back past the Shire’s Rest, we noticed a small helicopter sitting across the road in a field. Our guide said that it probably belonged to somebody famous, as they often helicopter in for a tour instead of taking forever to drive up there. He said that recently somebody from the Jonas Brothers had done just that, but he had no idea who it might be that day. Too bad. Our ride continued on from there, heading off towards the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. The guide decided to give us most of the ride to relax without commentary, since people often seem to sleep on this leg of the trip. He would wake us up when we got close to our destination, in maybe 30-45 minutes, to tell us a bit about it. I was feeling more energized than sleepy, so I just sat there quietly taking pictures of everything out the window.
Eventually, we drove through a small town that our guide decided to tell us a bit about. Apparently this town created a town project (which is apparently a super common thing in the area) to help out one of the species of kiwi in the area. They’ve apparently really helped said species’ numbers climb back up, and have thus erected statues to celebrate their achievements. They also have a Kiwi House, which is like a sanctuary or zoo especially for kiwis, that attracts tons of visitors. While we would have liked to stop there and have a look, we were on a schedule and needed to quickly get a few more minutes up the road to the caves so that our tour didn’t leave without us. We got a little bit of information about the caves on this last leg of the trip as well. Apparently, these caves once belonged to the New Zealand government, and for a while were quite popular with tourists. Eventually though, the facilities started to get too old and outdated and thus not as many people came. The government got the wrong idea, and thought people just didn’t care about the caves anymore, and spent even less money on them. Not too long later though, that tribunal that I mentioned between Maori and European New Zealanders began. These caves were government owned, and like a lot of similar land, they were given back to the local tribe to own and maintain. The tribe immediately started to revamp the facilities and make it a really worthwhile stop for tourists again. They even included a giant canopy over all the buildings and entrance to the caves to protect folks from the ever common rains, and it won some manner of architectural design award. They also started a secondary sort of tour of the caves, called the Black Water Rafting Company. This is actually how I had wanted to see the caves, but it didn’t work out logistically this time around. These tours are more like adventures. They have you abseiling, climbing, ziplining, jumping, tubing and all manner of other crazy things inside the caves as opposed to our tour where we would simply be walking along a simple path.
A Maori totem outside the caves.
With that, we had arrived. It was raining lightly now, but we had that canopy above us and would soon be underground anyway so it was no big deal. We all piled out of the bus and headed around back to meet our guide for the caves. Probably in large part thanks to our morning adventure, the entrance to the caves looked like we were heading into some sort of Dwarven hall. It was sort of a big metal sunburst set into a rock wall. As we gathered outside of it, we were told that we wouldn’t be allowed to take any pictures inside, and some other general rules about not touching the cave formations, being careful not to slip, and being quiet.
Our guide opened the door and led us inside through the very low-ceilinged entrance, thanks to tons of stalactites. We wandered down the path, with simple commentary from our guide. It was almost entirely just generic info about how caves form so I honestly didn’t pay attention to much as I quite like caves and knew the info already. I instead spent most of my time gawking at the surrounding formations. The cave was admittedly quite small, and really nothing compared to other caves I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still gorgeous and neat. There were tons of stalactites and stalagmites, some right smack in the middle of the walking path. There was also a ton of water dripping all over and some walls had it essentially cascading down them constantly. The guide mentioned that those drips that land on us are like our souvenirs. We meandered past a few branches in the cave that they don’t walk down, and even a big hole dropping straight down to who-knows-where way below us. As we continued down the path, our guide pointed out a few of the stars of this show, the glowworms. He said that they live all over the area really, and you can often find them along river banks, but here in the cave they were especially numerous. They like the damp and the dark and this cave was full of that. We passed a few that he pointed out, hanging in especially dark crevices. He did say though that those living in these random locations throughout the caves probably had it a bit rough, since food would be more scarce there than their normal haunt which we would see soon.
The boat and our guide as he slowly receded back into the gloom (You can’t get pictures inside or you scare the glow worms into darkening their glow, so this is all we could get).
The ornately decorated entry gate to the Waitomo Caves.
Eventually we got to a very open area of cave that has amazing acoustics. We heard a group in front of us singing in it, and our guide asked if any of us would be willing to try it out for our benefit too, but there were no takers. Back on the bus, our driver-guide had mentioned this saying that the guides usually will sing when nobody volunteers, but apparently our guide was not of that sort. He did mention though that a ton of famous people have come to test out their acoustics and have all loved it. They also apparently have events in there sometimes, a Christmas caroling concert, weddings of local tribe members and the like. At this point, we had essentially reached the end of the cave, or at least the part that this tour walks through. It ended in a big sprawling platform above the underground river. There were quite a few glowworms on our current walls and ceiling. If we squatted down we could see even more though, since we were standing at about the same height as the river’s ceiling. Our guide told us to look closely at those glowworms above the river, because from here you could actually see how they catch their food. They drop a sticky line, sort of like a spider, down below them. Things are attracted to their lights and fly towards them only to be caught in the strings and gobbled up by the glowworms. We all squatted down again after this news and could in fact see tons of strings dangling from the ceiling awaiting their prey.
A cozy hearth to warm your furry little feetses inside the Green Dragon Inn.
Hobbit stilts are hard to play with!
After we had all gotten a good look at some glowworms, we backtracked a bit to head to the real reason we were all here, Glowworm Grotto. We descended some stairs to reach the river, and all quietly climbed into our boats. Our group ended up being split into a couple of different boats as they were so small, fitting only maybe 20 people in each, but there were other guides waiting here just in case that happened. We ended up being the first people into a new boat, which was kind of like a wider canoe: wooden, sitting pretty low in the water, with just little benches to sit on and literally nothing else. As we got into the boat, which rocked quite intensely, we could finally see what had been going on with boat #1 before us. Above this river, somebody had installed a series of wires or ropes, and the guides used those, and only those, to pull the boats around in the river. The first boat loaded up, and was pushed back behind us and completely disappeared almost immediately. I’m fairly certain they ended up going back past us since that’s the way our boat went once it was full, but we literally never saw that boat again so that’s just speculation.
Little touches like this (actually inhabited) bird feeder made the village really come to life.
When our boat was full, we headed off with our same guide pulling us along silently. (We had been warned multiple times to stay completely silent and not use anything that made light while we were on the boat. If we didn’t follow those two rules, the glowworms might get scared and turn off their lights and then everybody would be ticked.) So off we floated into the complete blackness and complete silence. Above us were millions of glowworms, with their tiny blue lights shining brightly. It looked sort of like a galaxy of stars right above your head. We drifted around the area very slowly, giving everybody enough time to gaze up into the lights. Some parts of the ceiling were especially low too, so the height of this galaxy of glowworms changed as we floated. Despite the cave being rather basic and simple, this part of the tour makes everything entirely worthwhile. It was seriously mesmerizing. After at least a good 10 minutes of floating around under these worms we headed towards a small hole in the wall. Our boat just barely squeezed through this little tunnel. It popped us into a much more open bit of river that led us to the exit of the cave. We all climbed out of the boat, thanking our guide profusely, and walked back up the forested path to the gift shop and ticket area. Our guide meanwhile disappeared with our boat back into the darkness.
Hobbit stilts are fun to play with!
We wandered around the gift shop for a while, debating if we should grab anything. They had taken our pictures on the way in, and we could buy a little booklet of pictures where they had photoshopped us into different parts of the cave. It was cute but also tacky and lame at the same time so we opted out of that. Soon enough it was time to hop back onto the bus for our drive back to Auckland. Most of this drive was quiet and sleepy, but with a few things of note. One was a giant river that we drove over where you could see tons of springs bubbling up into it. Our driver also chose to take a smaller backroad for part of the journey so that we could try to spot some New Zealand pheasants. We managed to find quite a few, with me and Jeff being especially good at spying them, and also a few other species of birds as well.
Some New Zealand wildlife on the rainy road home.
After that bit of fun, it was pretty much a straight and quiet shot back to Auckland.Until, we got close. We hit a ton of traffic, which caused out journey back to take probably an hour longer than anticipated. It was pretty intense. Eventually though we did arrive safely back at the bus station, and headed off to find some dinner. It was raining super heavily by this point though, so we grabbed an umbrella from the bus terminals convenience store. It was overpriced and especially flimsy, but succeed in getting us home in one piece, and at least somewhat dry. Not having come across anything on our walk home, and not wanting to go back out to find something, we grabbed cheap microwave meals from the shop attached to our hotel. It was extremely unsatisfying but we were tired, damp, and cold and just wanted to be inside and able to go to bed so it was ok. We worried a bit about what would happen the next day if the rain held, but decided to figure that out when we woke up, and instead just crashed pretty much right after dinner.
Good bye Hobbiton! You were incredible!