Once we finished the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we had no choice but to get in the car and keep heading northeast – up to Rotorua, capital of New Zealand’s volcanic wonders. We were staying at the Grand Hotel, which belied its name rather spectacularly; it was a cheap and dilapidated establishment, but central.
The thing you can’t help but notice about Rotorua… the smell. You may have thought the volcanic lakes at Tongariro smelled bad. They have nothing on the entire town of Rotorua. While the hot pools, geysers, and vents may make for wonderful scenery, the entire town is pervaded by a sulphurous reek so powerful that it nearly made me gag. I coined the word “smellacious” in an attempt to distract myself through wordplay.
We spent our day in Rotorua checking out one of its main attractions: the geothermal wonderland at Te Puia, which houses hot springs, bubbling mudpools, geysers, and Maori schools of carving and weaving. While the school of weaving is open to anyone, only young men of Maori descent are admitted to the carving school, and carving is the most prestiguious of Maori arts. The whole history of an iwi (tribe) is encoded in its carvings, for those who know how to read them. After having had the chance to tour the workrooms of both schools and ask questions, we were guided round the park. Hot springs and mudpools, bubbling away ominously, are dotted around liberally, as are vents where gas escapes, often with pure yellow sulphur crusted on the nearby rocks. But the star of the show is the Pohutu geyser, which erupts every few hours on average and can shoot up to thirty metres straight up. It is predicted by watching its nextdoor neighbour, the smaller Prince of Wales Feathers geyser, which reaches a highest height of around 12m and reliably erupts about 30 minutes before Pohutu.
After the geothermal park, we spent the afternoon touring the Rotorua Musuem, which has a strong focus on Maori culture and history, taking you through the complex way of life Maori developed to live all over New Zealand, and the issues facing Maori today. I particularly enjoyed a 20-minute documentary about the Maori regiments from New Zealand that served in the Second World War, all of whom were volunteers, and who suffered heavy losses. While New Zealand’s natural wonders are amazing, they don’t really ask much of you as a visitor, and in a way I was grateful to have to reach a bit harder to understand the cultural and political issues of the Maori now living in a mostly-Pakeha (European) environment. We finished off the day with a swim in Rotorua’s Blue Baths – an Art Deco outdoor pool and bathhouse with spa pools naturally heated to 40C.
The next day, we headed on to the small rural town of Matamata. Once known primarily for its racecourses, the town’s attractions changed significantly when, in 1998, Peter Jackson fell in love with the Alexander family’s farm and used it to create Hobbiton. The sets were temporary when first used for the Lord of the Rings filming, but when Jackson and Weta came back to film the Hobbit Trilogy, they were rebuilt with permanent materials. Even the Visitor Information Centre in Matamata, where tours start, has been retrofitted as a thatched-roof cottage. A good number of local people had managed to wangle jobs as extras, techs, or crew, and as we drove towards the site, the bus driver told us stories of the massive scale of the production and the huge tasks of coordination needed to keep it running. The location itself is stunning in its own right; small hills and valleys roll dramatically, creating a sense of intimacy and cosiness. Once the tour guide took over and began guiding us around Hobbiton, the stories began – all of Peter Jackson’s obsessiveness and fanatical attention to detail. Peter Jackson turns pear trees into plum trees by hand for the sake of a throwaway Tolkien line; Peter Jackson gets people to create fake lichen; Peter Jackson employs a troupe of university students to paint the leaves of a tree the right shade of green; Peter Jackson employs people whose sole job is to peg out and then bring in hobbit washing every day, to create paths worn through the grass. Hobbiton itself is a testament to this obsessive vision, and it’s maintained, by a huge crew of gardeners and staff, as though a full village of hobbits has just stepped out for a smoke – washing still out, tiny ladders perched against trees, fresh fruit and vegetables in the process of being gathered. The effect is charming, but also, to me, came off as though there had recently been a hobbit Rapture.
While most of the forty-odd hobbit holes are nothing but a frontage built into a hill, a few can be opened, and there are some miniscule ones used to create the tricks of forced perspective that can make Gandalf look twice the height of Frodo. The Green Dragon Inn was once nothing but a fake frontage, which Jackson burned to the ground for Frodo’s apocalyptic vision, but in 2012 the landowners recreated it as an exact match of the set used for filming, and tours end with a free pint out of earthenware mugs. So there we found ourselves, sipping ale and ginger beer, in armchairs in front of the fire in the Green Dragon.