Our Twelve Days of Christmas part two

Tue 3 Jan 2017 07:15

Our Twelve Days of Christmas

The 22nd 23rd and 24th December

Another early start and we were moving towards the south central area of the North Island, a land of lakes, mountains and geo thermal activity. On route we passed paddocks filled to the edges with glossy, well fed dairy cows and woodland edges necklaced with bee-hives; a land of milk and honey indeed.

Matamata is the closest town to Hobbiton and referred to its younger, wealthier friend with just a few commercial references in the form of the I-Site (tourist information) made to look like a Hobbit hole, complete with a bronze, life size crouching statue of Gollam, just as I imagined him.

Our tour bus took us the short distance through bucolic countryside to the Alexanders’ 1250 acre beef and sheep farm which was spotted in 1997 from the crew on a film location helicopter as it flew over the emerald green hills and valleys dotted with white sheep.

East Farthing, Northmarch, Gandalf’s Cutting, Sackville’s Apple Orchard, Ferny’s Fen, Bag End and Bagshot Row to name but a few of the locations created by J.R.R.Tolkein in his Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, are there to be thoroughly explored up close and personal.

In 1998 they were built of perishable materials, green timber, plywood and polystyrene for the 39 hobbit holes with the addition of scaffolding poles in the construction of the double arched bridge with its water mill, located near the Green Dragon Pub.

The varying sizes of the hobbit holes meant Sir Peter Jackson, the director who was by now firm friends with Mr Alexander, the farmer, could experiment with the scale and size of the characters in relation to each-other and their surroundings.

The filming of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy started at the end of 1999 and took three months to complete using the ‘temporary’ site. We know many of the stars who would have walked those pretty grassy lanes and be seen to enter their homes through the round painted doors; Ian Holm and Martin Freeman as the old and young Bilbo, Sir Ian McKellen the tall Gandalf with his wooden staff, whom we met in his Limehouse Pub, The Grapes in London, where his staff now stands behind the bar watching the comings and goings, Elijah Wood who played Frodo and Sean Astin as Sam.

After the filming had finished, the cast and crew of over 400 left and the white faced sheep were allowed once more to graze the area; they had been banned as they were too white and big and Sir Peter wanted the smaller, black faced Cumbrian sheep. The noisy frogs, who had halted filming because of their amorous croaking, were allowed back into the village pond and the site was dismantled without thought to the possible commercial benefit of running tours in the area.

Naturally, over the next ten years many people visited the area asking where fictitious re-incarnation of the village might be, so that when in 2009 Sir Peter once again approached Mr Alexander with a view to rebuilding Hobbiton to film’ The Hobbit’ he was welcomed with open arms on the proviso it was constructed of long lasting materials so Mr Alexander could run it as a visitor venue and keep the magic of the Shire alive for the dedicated followers.

The building of the ‘new’ Hobbiton, using wood, steel and other durables, took two years followed by a mere 12 days filming ‘The Hobbit’.

Today visitors are herded in small, manageable groups around the winding site as dedicated gardeners manicure the ‘Hole’ gardens and tend the healthy vegetable plot, enjoying the products in their own homes. The climate of NZ keeps things watered and growing while the plentiful sunshine brings out the best in the rich floral colours. It is a finely tuned organisation that allows 2500 visitors through daily while each groups gets the feeling there are only a few other folks on the pristine site at any one time.

The contrast between the massive, well organised nature of the visitor business and the tiny, homely scale of the village locked in a time of isolated rural innocence was well maintained by our Glaswegian guide Julia, who clearly had loved the stories from childhood and was only too pleased to regale us with all she knew on the subject, at the same time ensuring we kept to the paths and took plenty of photos and not mementoes home with us so future generations will have the same delightful experience we had.

The four of us sat outside The Green Dragon Pub, by the working watermill, its wheel clanking and swooshing around and around, and supped our earthenware beakers of frothy ale, taking in the atmosphere for one last time before Sir Peter Jackson told us from the TV screen at the front of the coach that he would actually consider retiring there when his filming days are done. He might have rather more visitors than he would like!

Our accommodation that night was at the Opal Springs Holiday Park where we sat in the lounge-diner of the two bedroomed apartment enjoying fine views of the distant hill range, covered in dark green fir trees.

Next morning, our fifth day of Christmas, we headed south and so did the temperature, (plummeting to 7’) towards Turangi, Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park. A chill wind blew over the wide fetch of the lake covering the surface with white foals on foot high waves, but the hardy New Zealanders were making for the water in their little aluminium boats regardless.

Every now and then we would pass through a frontier town, not so unlike the North American equivalent, with artificial ‘grand’ facades that fooled no one and quirky unique creations like shops and bars fashioned out of corrugated iron sheets into animals! A mail box made from an old outboard motor is not considered eccentric here.

Vineyards, or wineries thrive in this area and Rob and I plan to sample a few on our camping trek to the South Island later on.

From Whakapapa Village, the hiking, information and accommodation hub of this two season resort (Skiing in Winter and trekking in Summer), we drove to the chair lift car park through lava fields that brought back to mind Charly and Tom’s last visit on board while we were in Lanzarote, with its own volcanic terrain.

We had come higher to around 2000 metres with a view to taking the chair lift to the summit of Mt Ruapehu at 2797 metres, but the top section of the lift was on hold as it was snowing on the summit. The photos you will see on the webcam show the conditions at the top. We sat in the café enjoying drinking chocolate and cake watching the rain outside turn from rain to sleet and then snow.

Unperturbed we descended to the village once more to trek the short distance to Taranaki Falls through pretty woodland and moorland of heathers, Manuka, Kanuka bushes and gorse. Rob has since informed me that when we embark on our figure of eight camping trip around the North and South Islands we will trek the Tongariro Traverse; six to eight hours (10 hours in my case!) of moderate/easy terrain a distance of 20km. over lava fields, around volcanoes, up and down and located near to where we were at the time. Ah well its only for a day, unlike Machu Picchu which was four days.

Our accommodation that night at the National Park Tavern, took us back 40 plus years in its décor and fittings with seemingly no refurbes since the place was first built. Walking into our bedroom we were greeted with a bright blue tubular steel three person bed, a double beneath the single bed on top and a single on the opposite wall. The sink in the corner and the radiator beneath the sash windows reminded me of my childhood home and the pink collared white goat in the tree outside the window munching leaves at our eye level just completed the mood of charming decadence. Tom immediately plugged in the tiny modern free-standing radiator since the temperature was arctic. Rob was amazed by the fleece sheets on the beds which along with our warming bodies and the little radiator created a nice snug fug in the room for the night. The gentle enquiries the next morning on who owned the various snores just added to the homeliness of the place.

Standing in the well-appointed kitchen preparing our breakfast the next morning we could see our breath. German Lars was determined to have a solitary Christmas in one of the mountain huts and joined us for a quick breakfast spooning some of our honey onto his crispbread while keenly awaiting the lift to take him to the start of his hike. The weather was still dangerous at the top so he was having to make amendments to which hut he would reach safely before nightfall.

Before we left we chatted to the new lady owner of the Tavern who said she was responsible for the whereabouts of the trekkers who left from her Tavern and she was awaiting news of two young girls who had spent the snowy night high up in one of the huts.

24th December, Christmas Eve, our sixth day of Christmas.

After the fresh air blowing across Lake Taupo, the stinking hydrogen sulphuric gas was quite a shock, but at least it was much warmer at Wai-O-Tapu as the crowd gathered around The Lady Knox Geyser while she prepared to shoot upwards with a little help from the lady guide. I was reminded of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park in the US which erupts over part of the super volcano area in North America which is well overdue for its next big bang. God help us all when that happens!

Vast lakes of steaming water and boiling bubbling mud cover the 18sq.km, of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. The guide book describes the Rainbow Mountain, Mt Maungakakaramea, as forming part of the Northern Boundary, I just like the name. Also we are told, DO NOT SMOKE IN THE PARK, the earth is doing plenty of that already I thought.

We took a walk around this dramatic area, across a boardwalk over boiling water and gravel paths fenced around pits of bubbling mud and steam. Manuka (famed for its health giving honey) and Kanuka bushes seemed to thrive in the chemical rich atmosphere. They are both similar in leaf shape but the Manuka leaves feel harder than the soft foliage of the Kanuka. In the shop Manuka honey was for sale in small 1lb jars, guess how much? You’d best sit down. $78, around £50 (I’m not sure of the exchange rate at the moment). I won’t be buying any at that price anyway.

The best thing I thought about the Te Puia Cultural and Historical Centre was the recognition of the hard work in promoting the amazing area and Maori culture in the form of a wall of fame in the shop showing hundreds of photos of past guides. This is a site just outside Rotorua which is designed to show mass tourism, many from cruise liners moored in Auckland Harbour, a snapshot of NZ Maori pre-European life and the topography of the land.

In trying to cover so much some displays were a disappointment, especially the living Maori Village that was deserted and looked as if the ‘tribe’ had left months before. There were no people or other living things to give the village life as we had experienced in a ‘village’ on the shores of the Amazon in Ecuador with the Kitchwa Indians. The modern Maori way of life is one of western integration and their past ways are history, this seemed a sad reminder of the fact.

On our way home we did a quick final food shop at Countdown and then back to Zoonie, home, warmth, comforts, a light supper and to bed with Santa on the foredeck waving to passers-by in readiness for the ‘big day’.