An unexpected journey to Hobbiton

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, and that hole was neither nasty nor dirty nor smelly, but rather “it was a Hobbithole, and that means comfort.”

True enough, despite the rains and winds, a sense of homey comfort welcomed our group that recently visited the recreated Hobbiton tucked away in the postcard-pretty countryside of Matamata, an almost three-hour drive from Auckland, in New Zealand. 

The sidetrip was squeezed into the media junket hosted by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions with Bambi Verzo of Concertus Manila for the smash-hit musical Wicked, which runs until November in Auckland and hits Manila next in January (but that’s another story).

Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people who read Tolkien long before he became fashionable. I got introduced to Tolkien, his imagined world Middle-Earth and his works through Peter Jackson’s blockbuster big-screen adaptation (from 2001 to 2003) of his Lord of The Rings three-volume series. But whether you are a diehard fan, a late convert and even a non-fan, the Hobbiton is a must-see, and that anyone would want to be, as Tolkien puts it, There and Back Again.

It’s because the New Zealand native Hollywood director could not have found a more perfect place for the centerpiece of LOTR and The Hobbit, which stands on a 500-hectare working sheep and beef farm owned by the Alexander family. 

Hobbiton, in Tolkien’s writings, is described as one of the oldest villages in the Shire, the “beautiful and fertile” homeland of Middle-Earth’s “small people” who dig socializing and simple living.

The Alexander farm’s lush, rolling and untouched landscape (the kind of environs that make you wanna swirl and break into song, the hills are aliveee) caught the eye of Jackson during an aerial search for ideal film sites in 1998. The icing on the cake was the already-existing imposing pine tree by the lake, which would later be known to fans as the Party Tree of the fun-loving Hobbits. Construction of the Hobbiton started in 1999. 

Our guide was Tobias, whose mom was part of the LOTR and Hobbit films as a Hobbit while dad worked behind the scenes. Tobias wasn’t an extra on the films but would have wanted to. “I’d make a perfect Hobbit, wouldn’t I?” he told us.

Our journey began with a brief bus ride through a dirt road. The driver jokingly reminded us that we’re not on our way to meet Harry Potter. Apparently, they have had guests who couldn’t tell the difference between the book series created by Tolkien and his fellow British author J.K. Rowling. 

Interestingly, there are actually fansites devoted to the similarities between LOTR and Harry Potter (apart from the fact that Gandalf and Dumbledore are played by the same actor, Sir Ian McKellen), as well as crossover fan fiction. But of course, thousands visit Hobbiton because it is the Hobbiton.

We learned from Tobias that they average about 1,000 guests per day and that a nice summer day (December time in Auckland) could bring in as much as 2,500 guests. Chalk it up to the so-called “Tolkien tourism phenomenon,” wherein fans make a pilgrimage to sites, both obscure and famous, that are of film and book-related importance, and which is credited for helping boost yearly tourism figures in NZ. Some would even come in character, although there was none in our batch made up of tourists from China, US, Mexico and the UK.

During the tour, we learned that it was only during the shooting of The Hobbit from 2011 to 2012 that what used to be a temporary Hobbiton became “eternally enshrined” in the area.  

Tobias walked us through most of the 40-plus Hobbitholes (with enough time at each stop to have pictures taken or even redo them). The highlight, of course, was the stopover at the home of the esteemed residents of Bag End, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. No Bilbo sitting on a bench, smoking on his pipe to welcome you here nor are you permitted to enter even the gate (strictly off-limits!) most likely because, as someone in the group suggested, the occupants are out-of-town for one dangerous adventure (how appropriate!).

The large Oak Tree overlooking Bag End is not real. It was cut down and brought in from near Matamata, with each branch numbered and chopped, then transported and bolted together. Its artificial leaves were imported from Taiwan and individually wired into the dead tree.  

We further relived LOTR and The Hobbit scenes by passing through the mill, the double-arched bridge and the Party Tree. The tour wound up at the Green Dragon Pub where refreshing rounds of the Sobering Thought ale (or the Ginger Beer for the ages 18 and below) are offered for free. Want a second breakfast or an elevensies? There are also some food choices fit for a Hobbit-ish appetite but for a fee.

The entire tour lasted for about two hours. Entrance fee is priced at NZ$75 per person. The tour to Hobbiton was also made possible and more personalized thanks to kababayan Tony Peralta, a Bicolano hotelier who is also a managing director of And So Forth booking services (with tel. no. +64-021-022-79510 and e-mail asp.andsoforth@yahoo.com). Tony, who also organizes concerts for Filipino artists in NZ, arranged it with the company Legend Tours.

In December, the Hobbiton movie set should expect a deluge of Tolkien tourists with the global premiere of Desolation of Smaug, the second installment in the Peter Jackson-directed The Hobbit trilogy (Tolkien’s prequel book to LOTR got an expanded and epic movie treatment).

 The film follows Bilbo (portrayed by Martin Freeman) — in the company of the wizard Gandalf (McKellen) and the motley crew of 13 dwarves — on a dangerous adventure that transforms the home-loving fellow into an unlikely hero.

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