Breakfast at the B&B was very good. We got to try Vegemite for the first time and were luckily guided by an expert, Colin, one of our hosts. He explained, “Look at the size of the bottle. It’s small. That means you only use a little or it will be gross.” That was the trick. Just a tiny amount, equal to 1/4 – 1/2 of a pat of butter, was perfect. Melanie thought it was fine and I thought it added a really nice flavor to the toast. Once Colin saw that I liked it, he went on to say that there were three types of Vegemite, all with different flavors – English Marmite, Marmite, and Vegemite – and that the best way to apply it was to put some butter on the bread first so that the Vegemite would spread easily.
After checking out, it was off to Pio Pio for our Hairy Feet Tour. As we approached the farm, our surroundings became more and more familiar. I love the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and have seen those movies a couple of times, but I certainly don’t have them memorized. Even so, it is interesting just how easily my brain plugs in to these locations when I see them. There is a lot said about the CG work done to perfect a given background but, clearly for locations like this, it is mostly just tweaking because it works pretty well as is. More than almost any place else we visited, you really feel like you are in a natural setting that is a part of Middle-Earth.
I couldn’t believe that this tourist site had only been open to the public for a tiny bit more than a year (It is located on a working sheep farm). How lucky for us to be able to visit! Since I did all of our planning well in advance of the trip, I must have found the website very shortly after it went live and didn’t realize how new it was.
The limestone cliffs are instantly recognizable from the Hobbit movies even before you get on the property. The views from the parking lot were spectacular and I stood taking pictures in literally every direction for several minutes. A short walk deposited us at the welcome center where all kinds of Tolkien paraphernalia was available. For those keeping score, the toilets here were the nicest of any place on our trip so far. A cool touch was a world map where guests were invited to stick a pin in their home city. There were a lot of pins so apparently people are finding this place even though the farm is so rural that they lack the internet connectivity needed for responsive advertising and social media. I was surprised at all the pins around the Atlanta area and the complete lack of any in Alabama. No one had tagged Jacksonville so we placed one. Look for the green pin when you visit.
We watched a short video that talked through all the preproduction and construction that went on at the farm. The aerial pictures really contrasted the huge amount of support necessary to create anything on location when you are dealing with a movie series of this size. For the limited small scenes filmed here, there were 500 support staff! In the areas just off camera it looked like a small town cut into the side of a hill.
Next our guide and property owner, Suzie, got us loaded into a minivan and off we went. She was bright, cheery, and full of knowledge about the movies, the property, the production, and New Zealand in general. I’ve heard some complaints from hardcore fans that she doesn’t know every detail of the books and mythology, but I’m happy to say she is an expert on anything to do with filming on her property. I honestly don’t know what anyone could complain about. She is an avid fan and had an answer for every question we had. We both really enjoyed our time with her and she greatly enhanced the time we spent on site.
The day started out dark and overcast then it ended up raining a few times on our tour. On the bad side, I had less interesting skies for my pictures but the plus was a personal tour because everyone else was scared away – it was just Melanie, me, and our guide. We walked around and saw the remains of the home the trio of trolls destroyed, the troll cave/rock overhang, the spot that clearly inspires the trolls turning to stone with Gandalf on the hill, the exact spot where Bilbo gets Sting, the woods used for various shots, and the open areas with the spectacular limestone cliffs. Before the tour, I didn’t realize that the warg vs. Radagast chase starts on this property. Because of all the filming locations in such a compact area, it feels like a cultivated movie set similar to Hobbiton . As a matter of fact, this farm has more screen time in the films than any other real world location. It makes sense. This place is beautiful and the scenery changes around every corner. It is no wonder why it was used so extensively. What adds to the coolness factor is that it is all natural. For the most part, the film crew just picked neat locations, plunked down a camera and filmed.
As we would get to each site Suzie presented screenshots so that we could recreate those images as exactly as we wanted. She even had props. We had fun doing this and I’m sure for many people this would be the highlight of the tour. For me, it was being with someone who put me with 100% accuracy on the spot that all of these cool things happened. To be able to look around and imagine what was going on just out of the frame during filming. To see what the actors saw when they delivered their lines. To know what it really smells like near a troll cave. To be able to explore for myself what was behind the tree, around the rock, etc.
In addition to an avalanche of movie info, we learned how the area got its shape, some of the local plants and animals, about the life of a NZ shepherd (meat more than wool), and got to pet some sheep. Melanie really enjoyed herself and she couldn’t have cared less about the movie stuff going in to the tour. You should make time for this place and remember to bring raingear.
When Suzie heard that we liked waterfalls she mentioned that there was a little one just down the road from her farm so we shot over there before leaving the area.
Waitanguru falls is an easy couple of minute hike from the road. You are so close to it at Hairy Feet, why not visit it?
We had looked at the tide charts in the newspaper the previous day and sadly realized that there was no way we were safely going to be able to visit Tongaporutu. This is an ocean side area with cliffs striped in colors reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The sand is black volcanic rock and there are these huge grey naturally occurring stone balls in the sand. It would have been spectacular to see and photograph but our B&B hosts not so subtly gave us a copy of an article about the area saying that there is no fast way off the beach when the tide comes in and, if you are down there when it does, you will die. If you have time and the tides are in your favor, I highly recommend visiting this site. You can find more details in the NZ Frenzy North Island book. As a matter of fact, it is the cover of this book so take a look at the Amazon link for a picture.
Because Tongaporutu was out of the question, we had more time for lunch and everyone we talked to said the Fat Pigeon was the place to go. It was delicious, quick, and packed with people. It’s a sort of gourmet soup and sandwich place in the tiny town of Pio Pio. We found this to be the case everywhere in NZ. Even in the middle of nowhere, there seems to be good food available if you know where to look. “Even the smallest village can make a mighty meal.” Didn’t Galadriel say something like that? 🙂
On the way to our hotel we stopped off at Omaru Falls. It drizzled or rained pretty hard the entire time but was a really pleasant experience anyway – no heat, no bugs, no slippery rocks or mud. You start off crossing a paddock (natch) and then dip into a tree line that shoulders the creek which becomes the fall. At some point you get to cross the creek on a cool little suspension bridge and finally end up at an observation platform across from this beautiful and tall fall. I happily snapped a few pictures in the downpour thankful that my camera is weather sealed and then we headed back.
The hike was about an hour roundtrip and easy to do. I would wear hiking boots if available but they aren’t critical. This side trip is well worth your time if you are in the area, and you probably will be as it is just off a major north-south road.
TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK
For the next two nights (Hooray! We didn’t have to repack immediately.) we would be at The Adventure Lodge & Motel. It was a nice clean little B&B-ish place. Think of it like a ski chalet. It’s one step up from a camping cabin. I have to admit we did see one roach in our room, but again, we were located on the edge of a national park. I think bugs are inevitable. It had a little fridge, kitchen sink, and microwave making meals easy. It is the closest place to the Tongariro Crossing that I could find with decent TripAdvisor ratings. Just like Waitomo, this village where this lodging is located is tiny – maybe three streets – so you probably shouldn’t expect a hotel to have every luxury, but it served our purposes well. Each morning we were given a full breakfast with some of the fluffiest scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten. Of course, you could opt for a continental cereal, fruit, and yogurt breakfast too and that is what Melanie did one morning and she said it was all tasty.
Melanie and I liked this place and we would consider staying here again. My biggest gripe was getting help at the main desk. On two occasions we had to wait several minutes for someone to come to the front desk. On one of those occasions we had agreed with the host that we would return at a certain time and they were not there. That was a little off putting.
This motel provides transport to and from the Tongariro Crossing, a 7-9 hour hike billed as the best day hike in all of NZ. You hike up the side of a mountain (one of the Mt. Dooms for all of you LOTR fans) and then cross between two mountains over a barren volcanic area as you pass pools of various shades of impossible blue.
Hear more about our Tongariro hikes in the next post…