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NEW ZEALAND

A day out with Bilbo

Gandalf in Hobbiton in a scene from

Gandalf in Hobbiton in a scene from

Horseback trekking in the woods surrounding Beorn

Horseback trekking in the woods surrounding Beorn

Gazing over the shire in Hobbiton.

Gazing over the shire in Hobbiton.

The newest 'Hobbit' locations bring action and adventure to travellers

With Bilbo and company back on the silver screen late last year in the second of director Sir Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of the adventure fantasy tome "The Hobbit", New Zealand's tourism machine has been quick to pump out new location tours the way only Kiwis do - with a dash of down-home and a heaping full of adrenaline. From trekking boulder-strewn meadows in Trollshaw Forest, kayaking the Pelorus River in the wake of barrel-bobbing dwarves to horseback riding Beorn's house and woods, the pickings just got a lot brighter in the country whose identity is now inextricably linked with Middle-earth.

But do movie locations as a basis for travel make sense? If you're looking for some thrills and a lot of scenery, it just may. According to Jared Connon, supervising locations manager for the film company 3 Foot 7 Ltd. and all three "Hobbit" films, "What's amazing about filming on location in New Zealand is how diverse the landscape is and how quickly it changes. You can travel from snow-topped mountains, through lush tropical forests, across gently rolling countryside and down to the ocean all within the space of three hours."

I started my own journey through Middle-earth with a list of the latest tour operators, winding my way south from Auckland via rental cars loaded with GPS and a few quick commuter flights.

RUAKURI CAVE

I headed south to Ruakuri Cave in the North Island's Waitomo region. One of 300 known limestone caves in the area, Ruakuri played a sound-only role in the first "Hobbit" movie. Here, ancient limestone formations and spectacular crystal tapestries are not only a stunning geologic wonder but also give a chilling bounce to sound that made them ideal for recording the background noises in the "Hobbit's" goblin cave scenes.

If the eerie sound effects aren't compelling enough, it's also the place for an epic adventure. While guided walking tours are the best way to get an overview of cave science, it's the spelunking, tubing and black water rafting excursions run by fifth generation farmer Angus Stubbs' that provide the real action. For a treat at the lowest point of the elevated metal walkway, look down and you'll see a naturally occurring, still pool of water that might easily double as Gollum's pool.

As a destination by itself, Ruakuri Caves is somewhat off the beaten track. But as a stepping-off point for one of the newest locations operators, Hairy Feet Waitomo, it's well worth the trip.

HAIRY FEET WAITOMO

From Waitomo it's a roughly 45-minute, very winding drive to the Mangaotaki Valley just beyond the small farming community of PioPio, widely recognised as the shearing capital of the world. It's also home to one of the newest tour operators, Hairy Feet Waitomo, managed by Suzie and Warrick Denize on their 280-acre sheep spread. While the oddly rugged country isn't top-notch farmland, it turns out to be a stellar filming site. Undulating hills stippled with huge boulders left akimbo from aeons of erosion rest below massive limestone bluffs.

A rock path through gnarled, ancient-looking trees leads to the massive, slightly tilting boulder marking the entrance of the Trolls' cave. The only reminder filming took place here is a small blue X still taped to the ground, a place marker for the character Bilbo as he examines his new sword, Sting. A few snaps with a replica sword and it's off to stand where Radagast the Brown and his Rhosgobel Rabbit sleigh led Orcs and Wargs away from the company of dwarves.

HOBBITON: THE SHIRE

Hobbiton, the most commercially successful filming site appearing in both "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogies, is a must see on any travel itinerary. Better known as The Shire, the site is maintained exactly as it appeared in the films. Devotees can walk along the Shire's winding paths past 37 hobbit holes, a community garden and the famous party tree. While the hobbit holes are still just facades - you can dip into one and see how they were constructed into mounds of earth - tours end with a mug of ale at the very real Green Dragon Inn, now a working pub.

However, the sheer effort to maintain its authenticity make it obvious that maintaining the Shire's standards requires immense focus, a substantial labour force and a sizeable budget. The result is a spectacular look at the realism props people bring to modern film, and is well worth a visit.

ARATIATIA RAPIDS

Some of the most memorable scenes from the second "Hobbit" movie are the dwarves bobbing in barrels. Filming was done at two locations, the Aratiatia Rapids on the Waikato River just off the North Island's Volcanic Highway, and the South Island's beech tree-lined Pelorus River in the Marloborough region.

I hopped on a jetboat at Rapids Jet, just off State Highway 5, below the Aratiatia Rapids, 10 minutes outside the town of Taupo. The ride started with a quick zip up to the steep rapids before the water was released. The magic came after half an hour careening up and down the river, jumping rapids and doing speed-spins when the driver cranked the boat back up to the bottom of the falls for an "after" look at the torrent of water spilling over the rocks post-release.

A snappy commuter flight to the South Island's Marlborough region followed, and then it was a short drive to the coastal town of Havelock for a visit to Pelorus Eco Adventures. Here it's all about nature and a slower pace as I donned a vest and inflatable kayak for a half-day paddle down the Pelorus River's placid waters to see the rocky outcrop where barrel-riding dwarves exit their barrels and negotiated a ride into Dale.














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