Boiling Beaches, Hairy Hobbits, Sulfur Stink & a Side of German
COROMANDEL PENINSULA/HOBBITON (MATAMATA)/ROTORUA, NEW ZEALAND: February 17-21, 2013
Steve: Nerd alert. Consider yourself adequately forewarned that this blog entry enters extreme nerd territory. Enjoy!
Leah: After bidding farewell to John and his pups, we hitched a ride into Thames with Marilyn, a nurse for over 30 years who was heading to town on her day off to buy a new computer. The ride to this adorable former gold mining town set right next to the water was short and sweet and she plunked us at the entrance to the supermarket so we could stock up before looking a ride north into the peninsula. Laden with food we threw out our thumbs for the second time that day in an attempt to flag the traffic heading north, but after close to 2 hours and with the sun sinking, we realized it might not happen. A quick call to the car rental agency revealed that there were no available cars to rent and without public buses, we were out of options.
Defeated, we made our way to the Sunkist Backpackers, where we had the joy of being welcomed by Cheryl, the most cantankerous curmudgeon we’ve met on the trip—we didn’t know such grumpy, hostile Kiwis existed! She was rude, unwelcoming, told us we were keeping Kiwis out of jobs because of our Workaway experiences and was generally a total troll. We tried to ignore this particular louse since the hostel itself was adorable—super clean, right near the water, gorgeous outdoor area and in an aging but exquisite old building. Besides, that night we were even able to gather a hostel group in the lounge for a viewing of Lord of the Rings #1: The Fellowship of the Rings. We’d been aching to see it since hitting NZ and despite the movie being on VHS (do those still exist besides in my parent’s basement?) we were deliriously happy for the next 3 hours as all our old Middle Earth friends filled the screen. Nerds, maybe, but happy nerds at that and we went to bed content, even with Cheryl the killjoy lurking behind corners and yelling at guests and shutting off the lights on everyone.
No sooner had we enjoyed a pee and chocolate break (both very critical) and picked a good hitch spot under the soggy grey sky when a bright green and purple Jucy sleeper van pulled to the side and we met Katinka (27) and Janeke (21), smiling German sisters from Frankfurt. They were heading across the peninsula to the Hot Water Beach—exactly where we wanted to go—and after introductions and a swift reorganization of the van interior, we were buckled in and chatting up a storm. As it turns out, this was only their third day in the country of a whirlwind 3 week stay and we all swapped stories about what we were hoping to see during our time here, life in our countries and general travel tales.
After spending an additional several hours hiking and taking in the breathtaking marine reserve, we were back at the Hot Water Beach holiday park. The girls drove us in and although they didn’t plan on staying the night, they offered to cook dinner for all of us prior to heading out to the beach. It was just easier to use the park’s well-stocked and spotless kitchen (or was it our magnetic personalities that kept them by our sides?). In reality, we were all enjoying each others’ company—dinner was delish and hearty and we had a great evening joining tourists and locals at the famous Hot Water Beach, a curious geothermal amalgamation where hot water lies just below the sand; all you have to do is dig several feet down during low tide and you find yourself immersed in warm to boiling water, all while the cool ocean laps several feet away.
We wake up, have breakfast, brush teeth…all that good stuff. Drive several hours through beautiful countryside. Right, right, let’s get to the important stuff. The Jucy-mobile and its multinational occupants pull past a “Welcome to Hobbiton” sign in the town of Matamata and park near the information center which is built to look like a house out of none other than…you guessed it, Lord of the Rings. We go in to inquire about the Hobbiton tour since we had read that it is only reachable via a paid tour. After choking at the price ($75 NZD or about $62 USD) we wander around looking at maps and flyers, disappointed that we weren’t going to see Hobbiton. Five minutes later the sisters come up to us and say “we’re going to do it.” Without hesitation we said we would too. Looking back on it we were appalled at ourselves since we were so close to passing on something as epic as a visit to the actual Bag End and Hobbiton seen in all the LOTR movies.
So there you have the background. Now the fun stuff…the four of us boarded our bus from the i-Site (New Zealand tourism’s information centers) and venture fifteen minutes out of town through rolling farmlands. That’s right, Hobbiton itself actually lies in the middle of a working sheep farm. Back in 1998, an unsuspecting farmer was approached by Hollywood location scouts (Leah: they actually knocked on his door during rugby playoffs and asked him to show them around—he more or less told them to show themselves around and quit bugging him while the game was on), pushed to sign a confidentiality agreement and then offered $$$ to have the Shire built on a portion of his property. For those of you familiar with the movies or the books, the farmer’s land happened to have rolling green hills (reminiscent of Tolkien’s English countryside) replete with a large pond and a picture-perfect pine tree—in fact it was this pine tree that sold Peter Jackson and the crew because it was the Party Tree exactly as described in the novels. Four movies later (eventually six since the last two installments of The Hobbit still have yet to be released) and now this lucky farmer will retire on the revenue generated by his lucrative and busy tours.
Even though this didn’t actually happen we were thrilled to wander through the Shire and to finally see Bag End for ourselves…that’s the home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins for those not in the know. (Leah: We even learned that the tree right above it on the hill is a fake and that the leaves had to be manufactured and individually attached for painstaking detail) However the highlight for me came as a surprise—after a visit to the Party Tree we were informed that our tour would be ending with a pint at the Green Dragon, the actual pub that the Hobbits frequent in the LOTR movies. To be true it was really an exact replica of the movie set but for all intents and purposes we were at the Shire and in the Green Dragon, enjoying a draught and a cider at Frodo and Samwise’s favorite drinking hole. I should add that the beer was actually pretty good which made my visit to Nerd Heaven more than complete.
Our Hobbit appetites appeased, Janeke and Katinka drove us to central Rotorua, since they’d be continuing farther outside of town to a cheaper DOC campsite. We were able to smell the city before we could see it, as the sulfur fumes of geothermal activity assailed our noses from miles away. Upon arrival we tried to offer the girls some gas money, well aware that our hitchhiking had blurred into ride sharing, but they refused our attempts and instead offered hearty hugs and open invitations to Couchsurf with them in Frankfurt if we make it to Germany. Even though we’d only shared a night and few days with these generous, personable sisters it felt like much longer; we once again found ourselves standing on the side of the road feeling a bit forlorn as our new friends drove away into the dusk.
As I mentioned, Rotorua is a literal hotbed of geothermal activity and serves as the canary in the mineshaft for the entire country in terms of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, seeing as how the entire length of NZ sits directly on tectonic plates. Eschewing pricey tours to surrounding thermal parks (and because we had seen some pretty similar sights in South America) we decided to take in a free stroll around Lake Rotorua and moseyed past long-necked black swans and bobbing ducks, poofs of steam shooting up from fissures in the craggy, mineral-colored earth and bubbling sulfuric mud pools where people came to treat arthritis and alcoholism over a century ago.