Remnants of Middle Earth
Tourism continues to thrive in New Zealand long after The Lord of the Rings movie franchise ends
The hobbits are no longer here. They have gone the way of the Incas and Aztecs. They have gone the way of the lost colony of Roanoke. They have gone the way of elves and dwarves, of wizards and faeries and everything that seems magical for a time. There are remnants however, pieces of what was left behind when the great adventures were finished.
Tourists squat like giants next to hobbit holes. They line up to take photos in front of Samwise’s house or drink beers at The Green Dragon. They trek by the hundreds down the dirt paths through the hills, staring at the seemingly never-ending line of doors. Some don’t even know the difference between legendary British novelists Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, or that director Peter Jackson was a Kiwi long before he ever threw his hat in the ring for king of geekdom.
The Shire belongs to the tourists now.
There’s pride and surprise in learning The Lord of the Rings was pretty much filmed in your backyard. When Smit watched the films, she had no idea they were filmed in New Zealand, much less a 40-minute drive away from her hometown.
Smit joined Hobbiton, located 161 kilometers (100 miles) from Auckland, in the summer months when the tourist destination is at its busiest. It employs between 220 to 260 employees to oversee tours of 40 or more that’ll crowd the narrow pathways. Being a guide has changed her, made her more open and social than she used to be. She’s seen fans breakdown because they can’t believe where they are. An overeager fan flashed her, just to say they did at Hobbiton. She handles it all with a calm smile.
Guiding a family that wandered off back to the path, Smit stops to take pictures of tourists in front of a hobbit hole. Inside, the magic dies as promised. Some disappointed tourists stare into nothing but darkness, dust and spider webs almost a meter (3 feet) thick.
The garden is empty except for blossoming flowers, wild pumpkins and strange, lumpy-leafed plants. A small axe lies forgotten, buried in a piece of log. A chessboard sits waiting for its master to play as clothes flutter on the line. The sprawling hills are dotted with doors that do not open, to homes waiting for no one to return to them.
The largest door sits on top of a hill, fenced off for a birthday party that has long since passed. Bag In, the sign greets, it’s the famous home of adventurous hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from J. R. R. Tolkien’s best-selling novels series The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Auckland to Matamata
To get to Hobbiton, you can take InterCity Hobbiton day tours from Auckland and Rotorua for $155 (U.S. $108.39). Buses depart at 8 a.m. from the Sky City Bus Terminal and return by 7:30 p.m. Included is bus travel and a guided tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set. A free shuttle also leaves Matamata every
Tourists, tired after sifting through the relics of Middle Earth, flock to the bar. Maybe they caught Gollum on the sign or maybe one of the tour guides recommended it to them. When they see a cut out of the wizard, Gandalf, hanging over the bar, they know they’re among friends.
Opened 10 years ago by Jacob and Kelly Henderson, ReDoubt sells specialty pizza made with local ingredients, inspired by the film series and its popular characters. These homemade thin crust pies include Sauron’s Fury, the American equivalent to a “meat lover’s” pizza and Frodo’s Secret, a ham and pineapple pizza.
“When we started to get more tourists coming through, we realized they were so invested in Hobbiton and The Lord of the Rings, if they saw things on the menu that corresponded with the theme of [the series], that would attract them more to these items,” said Christina Carter, assistant general manager.
Since the release of the last Hobbit movie, Carter said tourism has boomed in the town and that has helped many of the local businesses. It is her hope that people will come to ReDoubt because of Hobbiton, but come back for the customer service.
“People still work for the town and community, but having a lot more tourists come through has been a wake up call for a lot of businesses,” Carter said. “They have to up their game. You have all these tourists coming through, [so] you have to present your business the best way you can. Your customer service can’t just be average, it has to be excellent.”
As a Kiwi, Smit has seen a positive effect the film franchise has had on the economy and is glad to see that it is not only continuing, but flourishing. In the remnants of Middle Earth, years after the cameras have stopped rolling, the writers have laid down their pens and the hobbits have moved to lands elsewhere, Matamata and its country thrives.
“Hobbiton is one of the main things New Zealand is known for,” Smit said. “It does bring a lot of money into our economy, so it’s really good in that way. Also with the local businesses, we get a lot of people coming through so it supports them as well. It puts Matamata on the map.”
“I am going to apologize in advance in case I ruin any magic for you this morning,” Amanda Smit, a Hobbiton tour guide said to the crowd gathered around her. “Once you do open up that hobbit door, there is actually nothing inside.”
Managing expectations, Smit seemed to have said the line so many times, she’s committed it to memory. Every year thousands of people flock to the small New Zealand town of Matamata, to see Hobbiton, one of the film sets where director Peter Jackson filmed his fantasy adventure trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit prequel trilogy.
It’s fitting that Hobbiton, made up of rolling green hills of farmland on a country road, should be one of the few remnants of the film franchise. After all, Hobbiton was where the series both opened and closed. As tourists stand in the middle of the 4.85-hectare (12-acre) film set, New Zealand gives way to the fantasy of Middle Earth.
Hobbiton employs five gardeners on the premise, but the tour guides help with maintenance and upkeep in the mornings. Smit always volunteers, even though it means being on set at the early hour of 6 a.m.
“When I first started, I loved the idea of getting behind the scenes, keeping the set looking as it does,” she said. “I think it’s really cool to say you’ve been a part of that.”
They cut the grass, picking a different part of the set each morning in a never-ending cycle. They pick up rotten fruit and clean the hobbit holes. The stronger staff members handle the weed whackers, chopping through the emerald sea, while others follow behind with rakes.
“Not a lot of maintenance goes into keeping them weather-proof, because the set itself is supposed to look hundreds and hundreds years old,” Smit said. “It kind of adds to that.”
Kelsey Hay, another Hobbiton tour guide, remembered the buzz and excitement of The Lord of the Rings being filmed in the area when she was younger. Growing up 25 minutes away, her family gave up their house for two weeks to a cast member from the film. To this day, she still wonders who it might have been.
“We all know somebody who’s been in the movie one way or another,” she said. “Going back and watching the movies after you know all about this set is really cool because you’ve got all this background information and knowledge. It’s really cool to see it all on screen.”
If tourists didn’t know what they were looking for, they might drive through one end of Matamata and out the other with hardly a thought of the tomes of Tolkien. Matamata is unassuming in its role as a tourism hotspot. There’s no Hobbit Book Store or Lord of the Rings Bakery. A sign sits outside the small public library insisting no hoodies or skateboards on the premise. A café sells pastries in a glass case. The only clues to suspect Middle Earth or the film’s set may be nearby is the tourism center housed in a cottage, and a sign with the bug eyes and sneering smile of Gollum beckoning visitors on Broadway to the ReDoubt Bar and Eatery.