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Saturday February 16, 2013

Most unexpected journey

Artificial leaves from Taiwan were wired
on a dead tree on top of Bag End, home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Artificial leaves from Taiwan were wired on a dead tree on top of Bag End, home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

Peter Jackson and his The Lord Of The Ring trilogy of films have helped put New Zealand on the tourism map like no other, and now the focus continues with the Hobbit movies.

NEW Zealand is famous for its scenery and nature, and as a country whose economy thrives on agriculture, green farms are abundant.

But not all farms are the same – there is the one (pun intended) farm that tourists from all over the world flock to.

The Alexander farm, which has been rebranded The Hobbiton Movie Set Tours, is where the outdoor scenes of the blockbuster The Lord Of The Rings trilogy were filmed. It is also one of the sets for the latest movie in the franchise, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

When I was told that I would be visiting the movie set, I did not know quite what to expect. I thought it would be at a studio or a small, rebuilt outdoor set in a man-made environment.

I was wrong.

Nestled on a 10-acre plot of private land near Matamata, in the North Island of New Zealand, the Alexander farm has been transformed into Middle Earth and is a draw for Lord Of The Rings devotees.

Now, while New Zealand is not short of vast, green hills, director Peter Jackson had a specific vision in mind of how Middle Earth should look like, based on the description in the books by J.R.R Tolkien.

“The hills they wanted weren’t your typical, ordinary hills but had to be ‘green, rolling hills’,” said the Hobbiton Movie Set & Farm Tours media and communications manager Ian J. Brodie.

Two journalists on a private tour at the Hobbiton Movie Set got a chance to play with the props and pretended to be hobbits working at the Shire. Generally, visitors at the farm are not allowed to do this as
there have been unfortunate cases of stolen props. Two journalists on a private tour at the Hobbiton Movie Set got a chance to play with the props and pretended to be hobbits working at the Shire. Generally, visitors at the farm are not allowed to do this as there have been unfortunate cases of stolen props.

Jackson found exactly what he was looking for at the farm, owned by the Alexander family.

The production team then sought the Alexanders’ permission to start a movie shoot on the property.

“We said that we wanted to shoot Lord Of The Rings. And the reply was, ‘Lord of the what?’” Brodie told us with a chuckle.

The farm had no roads, buildings or power lines. So in March 1999, site construction began from scratch, starting with a 1.5km-long road.

The farm became home to 400 people – including Jackson, actors Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Sir Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), and Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee) – and filming of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy commenced in December that year.

Despite a major movie production taking place on the property, to this day, the farm still operates as a working sheep and cattle farm.

The Hobbiton Movie Set Tours is fast becoming the central attraction of New Zealand, with a projection of 100,000 visitors to the farm for the year ending March 31, 2013.

It includes a two-hour guided tour around the property that was completely rebuilt in 2011 for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a three-part prequel to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

One of the attractions on the tour is definitely the Green Dragon Inn, a watering hole and meeting point for the hobbits in the movie.

As all the interior scenes for the movie were shot in studios in Wellington, for the purpose of the movie set tour, the interior of the pub has been recreated to an amazingly accurate detail.

I felt magically transported to Middle Earth as I stepped into the inn.

The furniture, floor rugs and tableware used were in tune with the Middle Earth theme, such that you would forget you were actually in New Zealand.

“That’s Bilbo’s chair over there,” said Brodie, gesturing to a brown armchair next to a small round window.

Well, we quickly took turns sitting on the chair used by The Hobbit’s titular character.

Tour visitors receive a complimentary drink of traditional ales, cider and non-alcoholic ginger beer at the Inn. With a seating capacity of 100 people, the inn is also available for hire after hours.

As we tucked into our farm-style lunch at the Green Dragon, I could not help but feel I was in the movies myself. By normal human standards, I am considered a hobbit-sized person!

We later headed out to visit the 37 hobbit holes (houses of the hobbits) around the farm. Each hole has its own characteristics that match the personality of the hobbit that resides in it.

Look out for Samwise Gamgee’s house: it has a chimney and a yellow door with colourful flowers outside, showing off his profession as a gardener.

It was a different experience altogether seeing the huge Party Tree – where Bilbo held his party – it was so majestic and grand that you felt you were a small creature standing in front of something so big.

At Hobbiton, Middle Earth is a real place.

The excitement of being at the movie set was clearly seen on the faces of all the visitors we ran into on our trip. The popularity of the movies, coupled with the vast landscape of the farm, makes it a perfect tourist attraction for avid movie-goers and families alike. No New Zealand trip would be complete without visiting the Hobbiton Movie Set Tours.

If you are looking to bring back souvenirs, a gift shop near the entrance of the farm is where you can purchase postcards and Tolkien’s books, among other things. You can also get a signed copy of The Lord Of The Rings Location Guidebook, written by Brodie. n Visit hobbitontours.com to book your tour in Middle Earth. The tour price starts from NZ$75 (RM189) per adult. For more information on New Zealand as a holiday destination, visit newzealand.com. Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) flies to Auckland six times weekly.

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