The small town of Waihi was like any other sleepy town in New Zealand: suburban houses, superettes with hot meat pies, and cafes that dispensed ‘flat whites’ and ‘long blacks’. However, their ubiquitous town park was deceptive. Like a Hollywood prop, the manicured hill masked a gaping hole next to the center of the town. The hole had a name, Martha, and it was a strip mine.
Across the street from Martha and tucked inside the basement of the iSite information center, I learned that a single ‘tyre’ could cost $20,000 and that the D11 bulldozer used 100 liters of gas an hour. It was hard not to be worried about the safety and environmental standards of strip-mining after reading it only became profitable with the introduction of cyanide. However, a small plaque hung reassuringly on the wall:
“Miners used to work in dark and unsafe conditions but now they are in clean open air.”
Well, if a mine-sponsored museum says it is safe….
Barret and I hopped on a large tour bus bound for the country. We were leaving a bustling small town behind when our tour guide cleared his throat as we passed the local high school.
“Anyone on board under 5’5” and curly haired? If so, you could have auditioned here for the role of a hobbit.”
The fortune of Matamata had irrevocably changed after location scouts discovered a tranquil sheep farm outside the town. The uncluttered view, small lake, large tree and rolling hills fulfilled the requirements for a successful Shire and have launched a thriving LOTR tourism industry. Today the movie set location is referred to as Hobbiton and unlike early tours, the set is completely intact and extensions have been constructed for the prequel The Hobbit.
As we walked the grounds the gardeners evaded our cameras. They had the unenviable task of maintaining the landscaping to an exacting standard and were unable to make changes without permission. Even the long grass that covered the Hobbit holes had to be raked to remove footprints before filming.
Our guide was quick to point out that unlike previous tours, we were very tame in comparison. Sure no one was costumed and we weren’t a bus full of elves intent on dancing under the party tree for an hour, but the group was a twitter as we approached Frodo’s house. Cameras flashed while one elderly man began video taping the view from the hill. Despite the wind blowing the hat off his head he never wavered from his panoramic mission. When he switched off the recorder there was a look of awe on his face, as if he had just witnessed a Hobbit peeping through a curtained window.
“I knew it was gone,” he whispered as he reclaimed his hat, “but there was nothing I could do about it.”
How to get to Hobbiton: Catch the tour bus from the iSite information center in Matamata.