After our long Gizzy weekend, we switched into Roadtrip Mode for the second half of our visit with the Doyles. First, a plug for the travel company who put together our road trip, the very informed and helpful Victoria at First Light Travel. I had several conversations with her and from that, she put together an itinerary that was perfect for our group given what we hoped to accomplish, as well as booked all our accommodations and activities for our 3 and 1/2 days on the road. I would HIGHLY recommend them and will definitely use them in the future.
Alright, back to it. On Monday morning, we divided up into our two sedans and headed northwest for Matamata, home of Hobbiton. This, of course, is the working farm/movie location where the hobbit scenes of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were filmed.
This greeted us in Matamata.
Also, this is good point to say that SOOO many of the photos in this post belong to the Doyles. In the last post, I did a good job of giving them their photo credits. In this post, I did a terrible job. I’m sorry. The above photo is theirs, for sure, because I can’t remember seeing that statue. Where was that? How did I miss that thing?!?
Anyway, we got to the headquarters for the Hobbiton tour just in time to board our tour bus that took us onto the farm and to the Hobbit village where the movies were filmed. Here we are eagerly anticipating the magic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, as imagined by Peter Jackson.
We all were excited, but Summer couldn’t contain herself.
It may have been a long time since you’ve last thought of the Shire scenes in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. Here’s a 5-minute clip from The Lord of the Rings which contains many of the landmarks you’ll see again in the photos below.
If this sort of tour is up your alley, I won’t give away all the wonderful secrets you learn, like how Peter Jackson and crew achieve the effect of small hobbits and a large wizard, all while using average-size human actors. Or how they achieve the remarkable details of the homes. I’ll just tell you, generally, what it’s like to be there. In a word: awesome.
The hobbit homes are unbelievably real, in part because they are legitimate structures and not merely fronts. They are built with incredible care and obvious attention to detail. The company that runs Hobbiton employs a large staff that attend to the grounds and the structures. In case Peter Jackson needs to shoot more footage for the remainder of The Hobbit movies, it’s constantly ready to go. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it makes money as a tourist attraction in the meantime. The flowers and plants are lush and tidy, the trees and hillsides are without blemish, the fences and walkways are sound and safe for tourists and yet look perfectly lived-in. Basically, you get the feeling that all the hobbits are off somewhere together, at a wedding or a big meeting of serious Hobbit concern and at any moment, they’ll all come back and get back to their lives, back to the laundry they were in the middle of hanging out, or that bit of harvesting from the garden they hadn’t finished.
The most exciting part of the tour was arriving at Bilbo Baggins’ house, Bag End.
How could we pass up having our family photos taken in front of Bag End?
Thora and River are perfectly sized hobbits. The tour guide repeatedly referred to the kids so that the rest of the tour could more clearly imagine how the hobbits would look in their environment.
What I appreciated was that the illusion is so complete. You scan the horizon and there’s almost no evidence of our real lives, nothing to break the spell. The tour groups are nicely spaced out so that you never really see the group ahead of, or behind, you. (Maybe that was the product of hobbiting on a dreary day.) As far as you can see, you look out over the hills that just hobbit on and on until they meet the sky and you begin to imagine that you’re a hobbit. That the shire is your home and that these are the sights and sounds of your life. I’m not even that devoted of a follower of Tolkien’s work and was completely absorbed in the moment.
After our hobbit up to the top of the hill and Bag End, we followed the walkway down to the “Party Tree” where they filmed the scene for Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party in The Lord of the Rings. The tree itself is roped off, otherwise the kids would’ve been hobbiting all over that thing! But they’ve put in a replica see-saw and we got some very photogenic pictures of the kids nonetheless.
Here’s another clip from The Lord of the Rings, showing the party scene.
Below, I’m standing near the Party Tree, with the Green Dragon pub behind me on the other side of the lake. Again, adding to the illusion that Hobbiton was secretly humming with hobbit-life: the quaint column of smoke lifting up out of the Green Dragon’s chimney, where inside a fire was roaring away.
And we’re off to the Green Dragon.
Here’s a shot, looking back up at the Party Tree, and the now-empty see-saw. I loved that little house tucked into the hillside at the water’s edge.
And finally, one last clip from the movie, which takes place at the Green Dragon.
Here we are at the Green Dragon. As you can probably guess, once I got in there, the mood of the place turned raucous, much like in the clip above, and within minutes our tour group was hobbiting all over the tables singing drinking songs.
Kidding. But they do encourage you to get into the spirit of the place; they give you a complimentary drink (they have beer, cider, or the kid-friendly ginger beer) and you get 20 minutes or so to sit in the pub, have a scone or sandwich, and warm up by the fire, petting the resident cat, Mrs. Pickles.
We were lucky that the real rain fell during the 20 minutes that we were warm and cozy in the pub.
After our time was up, they gently ushered us out (i.e. pulled me down off of the bar) so that the tour behind us could have their time in the pub.
Here’s the view of Bag End (under the tree on the left) as we reached the end of the tour.
After the tour, we hobbitted back to the car and drove to nearby Cambridge where we holed up at the very nice Cambridge Mews Hotel. We got some takeaway and mellowed out before the next day’s adventure: The Waitomo Glowworm Caves!
On Tuesday morning, we drove southwest, almost all the way to the western coast, through the heart of the beautiful, rolling hills and relatively straight highways (they DO exist!) of Waikato. We drove to the tiny village of Waitomo and to the general store that operates the headquarters of Spellbound Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tours. There are multiple options and outfits that can provide all sorts of different glowworm experiences, like the black water rafting (rafting in the dark of a cave), which I personally look forward to doing when the kids are older. But given our kids’ ages, we opted for one of the easier options.
Our tour guide, Pete (he co-owns the company and is EXCEPTIONAL), took us to the first of our two caves, containing beautiful, “decorative” elements, namely stalactites, stalagmites, and crystallized mineral deposits. The cave is lined with electric lights run on a generator. Occasionally, he would turn the lights off all the way so that we could experience the complete darkness and begin to see the tiny lights of the glowworms. But most of the time, the caves were dimly lit and we could easily follow the paths and enjoy the strange beauty of the formations.
It’s strange seeing the natural light after such intense darkness. This is the magical view as we left the first cave.
The rain wasn’t falling right then and we all opted to walk the few minutes to the second cave. Here is the small river that flows down into the cave. We would later sit on a raft on that water and take in perhaps the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen.
Sean asked me to pose with Thora. Auric immediately wanted in on that photo.
Before we kitted up for the caving, Pete put some raw meat that they keep on hand (as you do) on the end of a stick and the kids got a chance to feed some eels that live in the creek.
Now we’re ready to go!
Walking into the cave.
That was the last picture I took inside the cave. Because at this point, Pete asked us to turn off our head lamps so that our eyes could begin adjusting to the darkness. And during the 20 or so minutes that we adjusted, Pete served us tea In. The. Blackness! He poured hot chocolate for the non-tea drinkers; of the tea drinkers, he asked who wanted milk and sugar; he passed out cookies, twice, all in complete darkness with just the light from his flip phone. Pete was remarkable in so many ways.
Thus begins one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in my life. In terms of the wonder at what exists on our planet, this might very well be my most awe-struck experience. Not to over-hype this or anything.
The following two photos are from Spellbound. I did not take these nor do I claim ownership. They belong to Spellbound. They kindly email their visitors these photos since they discourage you from taking photos during this part of the tour. (These photos are also on their website.) They know that our tourist-friendly cameras just aren’t powerful enough to capture the beauty of the glowworm caves in such extreme low light, so they discourage you from spending your brief time down there snapping away when you can just take it in. And that’s what we did.
Here is a view of what the glowworms look like close up. The glowworms are flies in their larval stage. In order to eat, they drop down silky threads. Then when an insect gets trapped in the thread, they climb down and eat it. The glow is actually from the butt-end of the worm. Close up, the threads and the glowworms themselves with their tiny, glowing butts are delicate and beautiful.
And when you are in complete darkness and you take in thousands at once, the ceiling looks like this, a constellation of glowing butts. All joking aside, it was breathtaking.
Our eyes were completely adjusted by now and we climbed into a large inflated raft. By using guidelines overhead, Pete pulled us along the calm water. You could hear in the distance a waterfall (and poor Auric had flashbacks of the time he went down the water ride with Aunt Natalie at Rainbow Springs in Rotorua) but we would go nowhere near that waterfall. In fact there is a partition that makes it impossible for our boat to go passed a certain point. For the next 20 minutes or so, and in complete safety (although poor Auric would not be convinced), Pete very slowly pulled us back and forth underneath the ceiling of glowworms, which were remarkably reflected in the still, black water below us. Like I said, it was one of the most remarkable and unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had and I would heartily recommend it to everyone!
Outside of the cave, we were happy to have fresh air and a short trek up to the van, which was waiting to take us back to the general store. Even though the land was brown from the drought we suffered this past summer, the terrain was rugged and beautiful to me, with its sudden chasms that fall down into the earth and the black, volcanic rock that protrude up and out of the earth.
Here’s Summer and Lila bringing up the rear.
On the way back to Cambridge, where we would stay one more night, we stopped at The Kiwi House in Otorohanga. We’d seen all these big signs advertising THE KIWI HOUSE! on the way to Waitomo, so we decided to check it out on our way back. And it was great! (We didn’t know that we’d have a pretty good kiwi bird experience the following day, but oh well.) They had tons of native creatures, a great aviary (I love a good aviary), including some very active kiwi birds in a kiwi enclosure. Kiwis are flightless, nocturnal birds. There were no mammals in New Zealand to prey on birds, before their introduction by Europeans, hence the native New Zealand birds’ lack of flight. And so to see kiwis, they need to be in dark enclosures lit with very low light. Compared to the other kiwi enclosure we’d been to, these little guys (actually, they’re the size of big raccoons) were really active, hopping around, play-fighting (I think?), foraging for food, etc.
We spent our second and last night in Cambridge. The following morning, we drove to Rotorua, our last stop on our North Island Tour.
On Wednesday morning, we drove straight to Te Puia,( tay pu-ya) the Maori Cultural Center at Te Whakarewarewa (fock-ah-RAY-wa-RAY-wa) Thermal Valley in Rotorua. Here, we experienced the strange and beautiful sights of the thermal activity of the Rotorua region, as well as an introduction to Maori culture and traditional arts. We arrived just in time for a wonderful tour that gave us a sense for the Maori’s arrival in this region, the geology, a brief walk through a kiwi house (more active kiwis), lots of steaming earth and bubbling mud…
… and the impressive Pohutu Geyser, the largest geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. There it is in the distance. We get closer a little later in the day.
It was not long before it was time for our introduction to Maori culture. It began with a tour guide who told us about the history of their use of flax for weaving and making rope, among other uses. Here he is, having just demonstrated how the flesh of the flax leaf is scraped off, revealing the fibers within that can be rolled to form rope or when partially stripped, allowed to dry, and then woven onto a belt, are the ceremonial skirts worn by the men and the women.
After this demonstration, we gathered outside the marae (Maori place of worship) where we awaited the Powhiri, the welcoming ceremony. First, a female caller, announced our presence. Our tour group elected a Canadian man to be our “leader” and so he, his family, and the caller, stood at the front of our group. An exchange through song, commenced between our caller and the home iwi (tribe) stating who were were and that we come as respectful and peaceful visitors. At this point, a warrior from the home iwi, approached us as part of the Wero, or “the challenge.” It is during this part that he displays his strength and skill with a weapon as he slowly makes his way towards us while calling out his part of the ceremonial conversation. This part is a warning, in no uncertain terms. He then presented an offering, a leaf, to show that we, the visitors, were welcome. Our leader, the Canadian guy, then accepted the welcome and we followed him into the marae.
Inside, we were entertained by and educated about traditional Maori songs, dances, along with demonstrations of the facets and uses of their weapons.
The men ended the experience by performing the Haka, a pre-battle war dance meant to intimidate their opponents as well as prepare their bodies for the rigors of battle.
Of course, the Haka is probably most famous worldwide because the All Blacks perform one before all of their international matches. Here is the very famous recent Haka performed by the All Blacks, prior to the final game of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. This Haka is notable because the French did what few teams ever do; they challenged the Haka by walking up to it.
But, back to our cultural experience in Rotorua. It was just as nerve-tingling to watch the men perform the Haka in the marae. Afterwards, they encouraged people to get their pictures taken.
After the Cultural Performance, we started our walking tour again, taking in the views of the bubbling mud, the steaming pools, the other-worldly rock colors (shocks of gold among the greys), and of course, the geyser.
At one point, this happened. Sometimes my kids are the absolute best and I’m so lucky I caught it on film.
After our walk around the park, we took a quick peak inside the wood carving school where stunning pieces of art were being carved.
On our last morning of the road trip the weather cooperated and we attacked the Skyline Luge with gusto! Here’s the view from the top of the hill looking down on Lake Rotorua.
Here we are racing down the track.
Here, Daddy Thom is giving chase to River.
We made our way down the hill for the last time, climbed into our cars and hit the road. Once back in Gizzy, we had a final dinner with our dear friends, they packed, and we all had a reasonably early night since they had an early flight to catch in the morning. Their visit was a wonderful gift. Our time together was full of laughs and reconnection. And on top of that, we got to explore some unforgettable sights with them, amazing “New Zealand Firsts.” Thank you, Doyles, for braving major international, inter-hemispherian travel with two small kids, to explore the world with us. You’re the best!
This was not the end of the excitement. I know! The morning that the Doyles were in Auckland, living it up before catching their plane, we were hopping in the car to drive down to Wellington, another first for us! So stay tuned for my next post, “Wellington…In two out of three weekends.”