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Chasing Hobbits in New Zealand

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As a child, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books transported me to a magical land or wondrous and terrifying characters. J.R.R.Tolkien's Middle Earth was so richly drawn that I tumbled through every glen in my imagination alongside the diminutive hobbits. Each hairy-toed step of Bilbo Baggins' trek from his darling home in the Shire to the desolate Lonely Mountains, and Frodo Baggins' subsequent journey to the treacherous Mordor, felt as real to me as though I accompanied them.

With trepidation I did go see Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Rings on the big screen when it was realised. I worried the celluloid version of Middle-earth would pale in comparison to my virtual setting. My fears were quickly dispelled. Jackson's decision to film in his native New Zealand was brilliant, as it contains varied landscapes perfectly suited to represent the barren wastelands, soaring mountain ranges and sun-dappled forests of Tolkien's work.

A decade after the first of the blockbuster trilogy was released, companies such as Red Carpet Tours still do bustling business offering "Ringers" 12 day tours with nationwide itineraries.

In my quest to follow in the footsteps of hobbits and see as many filming locations as possible in two weeks, I travelled with just the official Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook as my co-pilot. I naïvely believed I'd be able to literally follow some of the hobbit's route, quickly discovering that their route is no more than film trickery, with hundreds of locales used to create the seamless journey as depicted in the books.

My first stop was the hobbit hole at Woodlyn Park in Waitomo, New Zealand. This little home built into the ground was the perfect beginning to my quest to discover Tolkien's fantastic Middle-earth. The next day I visited the Hobbiton Movie Set, near the Waikato town of Matamata.

Concealed in the middle of a working 1,200-acre private sheep ranch is the 10-acre Shire Bilbo and Frodo Baggins called home. The film sets were temporary and were meant to be destroyed at the end of filming. Instead, the family that owned the property arranged to keep the Shire, but the deal came too late to save half of the facades, which had already been removed. Only The Party Tree, the Shire's lake and The Mill and Bilbo's house at Bag End remained, and have drawn hundreds of thousands of tourists over the years. Over the past two years, crews have been busy rebuilding Hobbiton for filming of The Hobbit, returning the Shire to its original lustre.

A few days later, more than 1,400 kilometres away, I held on for dear life in a four-wheel drive Jeep careening around a historic gold mining road. On a Nomad Safaris tour joined by an American family of LOTR fans, our driver was navigating boulders up the Arrow River, the location where Frodo made his last flight to cross the waters of the Bruinen to reach the safety of Elrond's home in Rivendell.

We had departed from picturesque Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island. Nestled around an inlet on Lake Wakatipu, the popular adventure tourism destination is overshadowed by the Remarkables mountain range on the lake's south-eastern shore, which featured prominently in the trilogy as the Misty Mountains, among others. We disembarked frequently to compare the stunning scenery with the still set photos in the location guidebook.

Though I didn't make it as far south as Wellington, fans say it's the perfect final leg of a Middle-earth journey. There I could have toured Peter Jackson's physical effects company Weta Workshop, and headed just north of the capital city to picnic by the river at Rivendell, temporary home of the elves in Middle-earth, located in Kaitoke Regional Park.

I wait patiently for my daughters to grow old enough to begin reading The Hobbit. I can't wait to tell them how their mother trekked The Hobbit's route, and even knocked on Bilbo Baggins' door, hoping for a second breakfast.

THE HOBBIT TRAIL
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