Pretty much Number 1 on my list of places to visit in New Zealand was the Hobbiton Movie Set and Air New Zealand conveniently had The Hobbit as their inflight movie on the way over from Perth. First stop was the local town of Matamata with its hobbit hole inspired tourist information centre and "Welcome to Hobbiton" sign in the Main Street. We then drove up to the movie set itself which occupies a few acres on a large 1250 acre sheep farm originally identified by the film producers when they flew over it in a helicopter.
The tourist information centre in the local town Matamata is built like a hobbit hole
Me sat in a Gandalf shaped seat on the main street in Matamata, the nearest town to the movie set
The tour began with a walk down Gandalf's Cutting to the first of 37 hobbit holes on the set. At the start of the Lord of the Rings they made Frodo look smaller riding beside Gandalf in the cart down this cutting by using a 12 year old boy as his double. We then passed the Scarecrow that Bilbo runs past when he announces that he is "going to have an adventure" at the start of The Hobbit.
Gandalf's Cutting on the way down into Hobbiton
Hobbit Hole by Gandalf's Cutting
A scarecrow guarding a field in Hobbiton
We then began our climb upto Bag End where Bilbo and Frodo lived, stopping on the way to have our photo taken in a hobbit hole. All of the hobbit holes on the set are actually only a few feet deep as all the internal shots are taken at movie stages elsewhere.
Me in the doorway of a Hobbit Hole
Classic view up to Bag End from the Party Field
The exception is Bag End itself which is the largest and highest of all the hobbit holes but even Bag End is only a room deep. The views everywhere were amazing, so much so it didn't feel like a movie set at all. Indeed when the Lord of the Rings was completed in 1997 they began demolishing the set almost immediately to return the land to the farmer as promised only to get a call from him asking them to stop urgently as he was already getting inundated with calls from tourists asking to be shown around.
Bag End where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins live
Me stood by the front gate of Bag End
The view across to the Green Dragon and Mill from Bag End
The road sign at the bottom of the hill up to Bag End
The set was partly rebuilt and made more permanent for the Hobbit so it should now last 50 years as a tourist attraction. We carried on down the hill past Frodo's friend Samwise Gamgee's hobbit hole and passed over the bridge to the Green Dragon Pub.
Samwise Gamgee's Hobbit Hole
The bridge into Hobbiton between the Mill and the Green Dragon
The Green Dragon
Inside the Green Dragon is a full functional pub serving free beer specially brewed for it in Auckland and I quite liked the dark ale. There was a carving of a Green Dragon above the bar as well as a hobbit inspired food menu although I didn't see anyone order anything!
Inside the Green Dragon Pub
Anyone fancy a Beer?
Bar Menu and Carved Dragon above the Bar in the Green Dragon
Me at the road sign leaving Hobbiton
Pretty awesome but the day was by no means over, we then drove on for another hour to Rotorua - New Zealand's most famous tourist destination. Rotorua itself with its pervasive eggy sulphur smell sits beside a volcano's crater lake with the cone forming Mokola Island. Like Taupo a bit further south that I was drive through a couple times later in the week, it has vents of steam that seem to appear randomly out of the ground all over the town.
Lake Rotorua and Mokola Island (note the steam venting from the water in the foreground)
Black Swans, Paddle Boat and Float Planes on Lake Rotorua
Rotorua Museum and Government Gardens
Rotorua's Rachel Spring
However what we had really come to Rotorua to see was the famous Pohutu Geyser at Te Puia, a Maori Cultural Centre close to the town. After a chicken and kumara sweet potato hangi lunch (hangi is an underground pit used for traditional Maori cooking) and unexpectedly seeing a live pair of Kiwi's strutting around in the darkness of a Kiwi House (they are nocturnal, the ones I saw were larger than I expected coming up to my thigh in height and surprisingly fast if ungainly on their feet) we walked down to the geothermal valley. Our first stop was the Ngamokaiakoko Mud Pool, plopping and bubbling away beside the path on the way to the geysers.
The Ngamokaiakoko Mud Pool at Te Puia
Close up of the plopping mud
Danger! Active steam vents, be careful where you sit!
The geysers themselves are only a short distance away with a large purpose built viewing bridge close by. The largest and most famous of them is the Pohutu Geyser that erupts 2 to 3 times an hour and can reach heights of up to 90 feet (30 metres). I managed to catch it erupting several times while I was there and at one point got quite wet from the spray when the wind unexpectedly changed direction! Just below Puhutu is the slightly less active and predictable Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser but even it obliged by erupting a couple of times while I was there.
The Pohutu Geyser erupting
The Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser just below Pohutu is thinking of erupting to
Me in front of the erupting Pohutu Geyser
I also took the opportunity to see another Maori Cultural Performance at the Rotowhio Marae that forms part of Te Puia. This time the dance troupe was larger but we were also subjected to Wero (Challenge) as a precursor to the Pohiri (Greeting Ceremony). One of our group was selected as our " Chief" and then one of the Maori warriors approached him and lay down a stick as a gift to see whether we came in war or peace. On picking up and accepting the gift we then all moved slowly towards the Marae's meeting house being careful not to overtake our chief while the rest of the Pohiri Welcoming Ceremony was performed on the steps of their meeting house in front of us. When then went inside and watched the cultural performance including the famous Poi and Haka but for me the highlight was definitely the Pohiri we were subjected to outside!
Before entering the Marae we were subjected to a welcoming ceremony
The Pohiri (Welcoming Ceremony) in full swing, be careful not to cross the line!
The Ladies of the Maori Dance Troupe do the Poi
Male Maori Dancer performing the Haka (War Dance) - you wouldn't want to upset him...
It wasn't my original plan but having revised my itinerary to fit in Easter in Hawke's Bay I ended up with back-to-back trips on all three of Kiwi Rail's Scenic Train Routes, the nearest thing New Zealand has got to an intercity passenger network. My journey began with the now familiar trip into Auckland's Britomart Station from Onehunga where I caught the thrice weekly 7.50am 11 hour Northern Explorer Kiwi Scenic Rail Train south to Wellington.
Auckland suburban train about to leave Onehunga Railway Station for the Britomart
Britomart Railway Station
The Northern Explorer about to leave the Britomart in Auckland for Wellington
All three trains - the Northern Explorer (Auckland to Wellington), Coastal Pacific (Picton to Christchurch) and TranzAlpine (Christchurch to Greymouth) - have identical newish rolling stock with plush seats, panoramic windows, airline style overhead screens of the route and earplugs for a commentary. However what makes these trains stand out are their open air viewing carriages for taking pictures of the pretty spectacular scenery often passing outside.
Inside the passenger carriage of a Kiwi Rail Scenic Train
The open air viewing carriage
Inside the open air viewing carriage
Me in the open air viewing carriage
The journey began with atrocious weather through the lowlands south of Auckland, past the Waikato River (the longest in New Zealand) and into the King Country. During the 1850-1860s this was the last stronghold of the independent Maori who hoped by electing themselves a King this would better help them defend their land and culture. For a long time this area was out of bounds to Europeans, a bit like the American West with the Red Indians about the same time.
The King's Marae is at Ngaruawahia and has been visited by many world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II. We passed the royal Maori cemetery on the sacred mountain of Taupiri where the higher up the hill you are buried the more senior you were with the Maori Kings being buried right at the top.
The Waikato River bending away towards the coast
The gate to the King's Marae at Ngaruawahia
Maori cemetery on the sacred mountain of Taupiri
The train then began to climb up towards the volcanic plateau, initially passing rugged farmland but this changed to native broad-leaved podocarp forest as we reached the Tongariro National Park. We had a short photo stop at the National Park Railway Station where the top of Mount Ruapehu (aka "Mount Doom" from the Lord of the Rings) briefly made an appearance above the clouds.
Crossing the river on the way up to National Park Station
Crop spraying helicopter on the way up to National Park Station
Native Podocarp broad-leaved Forest seen from the train
Mount Ruapehu (aka Mount Doom) appears above the clouds
Close up of the top of Mount Ruapehu
From the National Park the train headed south towards Wellington using tunnels, viaducts and the Raurimu Spiral (built in 1898) where the track spirals 4.2 miles (6.8 kilometres) to cover a distance of 1.2 miles (2 kilometres) in order to beat the gradient.
Crossing a large viaduct on the way down to Wellington
Our train leaves a tunnel on the way down to Wellington
We arrived in Wellington (christened "The Coolest Little Capital in the World" by Lonely Planet) where I made my way across the road to my backpackers hostel where I was staying overnight before getting the ferry in the morning. There was an ominous sign on the back of my door giving instructions of what to do in case of an earthquake!
Coolest Little Capital in the World sign rotating around a harbour building in Wellington
What to do in an Earthquake notice on the back of my room door in Wellington
I went exploring the city in the evening and discovered it was late night opening at Te Papa, the excellent Museum of New Zealand. Inside I passed some Orcs, was subjected to shaking room simulating an earthquake and saw a giant squid as well as the feathered cloak Captain Cook was given in Hawaii shortly before his death in 1779. On the history floor there was a wall high copy of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the Maori and the British, something New Zealanders are immensely proud of and treat with a reverance akin to how Americans treat their constitution.
Three Orcs by the Information Desk in the Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand)
Giant Squid at Te Papa, the largest and most complete specimen ever found
Hawaiian Feathered Cloak and Helmet given to British explorer Captain James Cook in 1779
The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi wall high in the Te Papa Museum
In the morning I got the shuttle bus from the railway station and climbed aboard the Kaitaki Interislander Ferry for the 3 hour 10 minute sailing to Picton on the South Island. For the first time since Switzerland I actually wore my coat as it was starting to feel a bit chilly. The Kaitaki started life as the Isle of Innisfree for Irish Ferries on their UK to Dublin/Rosslare routes so I've probably sailed on her before in a former life!
Our ferry Kaitaki gets ready to leave Wellington
Our Ferry leaves North Island in its wake as we cross the Cook Strait
After crossing the Cook Strait (unfortunately I didn't see any albatrosses) we entered Tory Sound and then sailed down Queen Charlotte Sound (both are better described as a 'fjords') to Picton. Everybody on the boat appeared to be on the deck as sailing down the Marlborough Sounds is pretty awesome as the land closes in behind you after sailing across the open sea.
We enter Tory Sound on South Island on our way to Picton
The Kaitaki sails down Queen Charlotte Sound on South Island - awesome!
Passing other ships in Queen Charlotte Sound on our way to Picton
The Kaitaki docked the far side of the harbour in Picton ready to return to Wellington
Having disembarked from the Kaitaki it was only a short walk to the railway station to catch the 5 hour 30 minute Coastal Pacific Kiwi Rail Scenic Train to Christchurch. No commentary this time unless you had your own earphones as the Chinese supplier had let Kiwi Rail down and the ear phones they were meant to give us were still enroute!
For the first hour and a half of the trip we passed endless rows of vines, not surprising as the Marlborough Region we were passing through is by far the largest in New Zealand producing about 75% of the country's output and is particularly well known for its white wine.
The endless vineyards of Marlborough
and more vineyards...
...and yet more vineyards
At Lake Grassmere we passed the shallow lagoon sheltered from the open sea which with its high salinity along with warm prevailing winds make it particularly well suited to salt extraction producing about half of New Zealand's domestic salt. Beyond Seddon the railway ran along the coast and we reached where the Kaikoura Mountains (the highest mountains north of Mount Cook) reach the sea and the scenery changed dramatically with headlands rising out of the sea and lots of tunnels.
The Lake Grassmere Salt Lagoon
The Salt Works at Lake Grassmere
The Kaikoura Mountains reach the sea with dramatic headlands
There were numerous tunnels where the mountains reached the sea
This stretch of coastline is particularly well known for its marine life and we saw many seals from the train lazing on the rocks. The train stopped at Kaikoura with its Whale Watch Centre, a place I plan to return to a bit later on my trip. The last part of our journey was across the very flat North Canterbury Plans crossing the occasional river until we reached Christchurch.
The rocks where the Kaikoura Mountains reach the sea are ideal for seals
Seal coming ashore near Kaikoura
The train stops at Kaikoura famous for whale watching
The Coastal Pacific at Kaikoura Station
I overnighted in Christchurch, a city very much still recovering from the earthquakes that devastated it in 2010 and 2011 and which I will be returning to in 10 days time. Suffice here to say it was a shock to see especially after hearing how beautiful the city had once been.
In the morning I got the free shuttle back to the railway station and boarded the TranzAlpine for the 5 hour journey across the Southern Alps to Greymouth on the west coast, the final stage of my end to end journey on Kiwi Rail's Scenic Train Network. Initially our route took us across the Canterbury Plain, New Zealand's largest flat area but after about an hour and a half we had our first real view of the mountains and had a photo stop.
The TranzAlpine about to leave Christchurch Station for Greymouth
The Canterbury Plains - New Zealand's largest area of flat land
Our first view of the mountains
The next couple of hours were the most spectacular of my entire train journey from Auckland as we went through 16 tunnels and crossed 5 high viaducts making our way across the Southern Alps. It was difficult to decide which side of the train to look with the highest of the viaducts - the Staircase Viaduct - standing at 240 feet (73 metres).
The railway ran alongside increasingly deep river gorges as we climbed up into the mountains
One of many spectacular viaducts we had to cross as we made our way across the mountains
The train passed and crossed many mountains, lakes and deep gorges as we crossed the Southern Alps
Crossing the Staircase Viaduct as we make our way through the Southern Alps
Having crossed the Otira Viaduct and then gone through the Otira Tunnel (at 5.3 miles - 8.5 kilometres, the longest railway tunnel in the British Empire when it was built in 1923) we stopped at Arthur's Pass, the highest of only three roads crossing the Southern Alps and the highest settlement in NZ.
From here we descended South Island's wetter West Coast, initially through cattle country but then as we descended past Lake Brunner (a large lake popular for trout fishing) and into 1860 Gold Rush country we had natural New Zealand Bush and Forest until we arrived at our final destination of Greymouth.
Me at Arthur's Pass, the highest settlement in NZ
Crossing the Grey River on the way to Greymouth
The TranzAlpine makes its way down to the west coast
A lot of the wilder locations used for The Lord of the Rings were near Glenorchy on the north shore of Lake Wakatipu, about a 45 minute drive from Queenstown and the thought of combining a trip to see them with a jetboat ride up the Dart River certainly appealed so I booked myself on the tour for one of the days I was in Queenstown. On the way we stopped for a terrific view of the mountains and islands at the north end of Lake Watatipu before arriving at Glenorchy where they kitted us out in heavy duty waterproofs for our powerboat trip on the Dart River.
The southern end of Lake Watatipu looking towards Glenorchy
Me at Glenorchy about to set off for Paradise
We then began our trip north to Paradise in a vehicle specially adapted for crossing rivers. Our first stop was at the Paradise Homestead below Mount Alfred; the story goes it took a chap a couple of years to build it as a home in the paradise he had found for his new bride but when he sent a message for her to join him she declined and instead settled down with his father! From the homstead we continued north and stopped at a film location heavily used for The Lord of the Rings (e.g. "Isengard" ,"the Misty Mountains" and the edge of the "Lothlorien Forest") and lot of other films besides - such as The Chronicles of Narnia and X-Men: Wolverine.
The view south from Paradise near Glenorchy
Another view looking south from Paradise near Glenorchy
We were then taking for a "bush walk" through the forest, told amongst other things that the evergreen Beech Tree that was everywhere had very shallow roots and no relation to the tree of the same name back in the UK (it had been mis-named!). Again the forest we were in had been heavily used for Lord of the Rings and we passed a large wooden chair known as "Gandalf's Chair" that had been used in the films.
Bush walk through the forest south of Paradise used for a lot of film scenes in The Lord of the Rings
Then began the exciting part of the trip as our jetboat arrived and powered us up the incredibly beautiful Dart River. With recent rain we got a lot further up the river than trips during the previous days but then our boat broke down and we were stranded for half an hour on a sand bank in the middle of the river while a relief boat was sent out to rescue us! Stranded in Paradise like we were has a certain ring to it and I can certainly think of a lot worse places to be stuck.
Our Jet Boat arrives to pick us up
Guess who's jet boat broke down and they had to send a relief boat?
Our relief boat arrives
Our relief boat then arrived and we resumed our trip down the Dart River travelling at incredible speed around the ever changing bends in the river. Although I don't think the relief boat was quite as powerful as the boat we were originally on it was still quite a thrilling trip and as I sat behind our driver/pilot watching him read and negotiate the river reminded of my own whitewater kayaking.
I managed to get the seat directly behind the driver/pilot as we sped down the Dart River from Paradise to Glenorchy
Me on a jet boat racing down the Dart River from somewhere north of Paradise to Glenorchy
The spray behind our jet boat as we speed down the Dart River to Glenorchy on Lake Watatipu
About 23 mile (37 kilometres) later we arrived on Lake Wakatipu and circled round the top of the lake to our berth at Glenorchy. We landed close to the Wharf Shed that once used by steamers on the lake to supply Glenorchy. As the steamers were owned by the NZ Railway Company and there was a short bit of track along the wharf, the shed was actually classified as a railway station with the shortest piece of track in New Zealand!
Our relief jet boat arrives back at Glenorchy (l'm sat behind the driver in my warm hat and sun glasses)