Sometimes the only sensible response to a boring election – one with an all-but-inevitable outcome and an utter deficiency in meaningful debate – is to flee the country. I’ve done so before – most notably in response to the wonderful ‘War on Terror’ Australian election of 2001 – and it has saved me no end of mental trauma.
I didn’t actually plan to escape the 2013 election, but a happy conjunction of circumstances gave me the opportunity to do so: a sale on air fares, some like-minded friends and an accommodating boss meant I could escape the last of the campaigning, election day itself and the tedious triumphalism of the winners by heading east for a change, to New Zealand.
I’ve only been to New Zealand twice before, both times for meetings which didn’t give me much chance to see the country. It’s probably long past time that I went for a look around; most of New Zealand is both closer and cheaper to get to than the other side of Australia and every other country I might care to visit. My habitual travelling companions have never been – and even greater oversight. When we started talking about the possibility – little more than a week before we actually went – one possible destination immediately sprang to mind, and the rest of the trip fell into place from there.
And so it was that we flew into Auckland, picked up a car, and headed off to Hobbiton. New Zealand has collectively decided that it should milk the whole Lord of the Rings thing for as much and as long as it can, and more power to them because the tour was immense fun. The town of Matamata, nearby, served as a base for much of the filming, and it has embraced the whole package: welcome to Hobbiton signs, a tourist office that looks like an (above-ground) hobbit building, and more decent eateries than one would normally expect from a wee town like that.
The set itself is in the middle of a working sheep farm (and surrounded by a working electric fence) which in many ways provided the first surprise of the trip: fat grass, fat sheep, many lambs and a greater density of livestock that seems natural to Australian eyes, and all on grass so green that it might be taken for the result of image manipulation in a picture. But no, it’s really like that: greener even than England; wetter and richer and gorgeous enough to evoke in me a strong feeling that a government would be well justified in legislating and regulating in whatever manner is necessary to protect that countryside.
The tour of Hobbiton is a joy. The guides and drivers are good-humoured and well-informed, and the little ‘town’ has a carefully and lovingly executed lived-in feel. The hobbit houses may just be facades – no, you can’t go in to Bag End – but every one has gardens, clotheslines, carved lintels, pot plants, and little touches like a hobbit’s favourite pipe on a bench outside the door. There is a wealth of detail that would flash past in an eyeblink on screen, if it registers at all, but it’s all a testament to the dedication (if not fanaticism) of the people involved. Some of whom taught themselves how to thatch a roof by watching instructional videos on YouTube.
The tour finishes in a fully-rendered, full size version of the Green Dragon Inn, which offers good locally-made food and drink – and if I have a complaint about the whole experience it’s that the arrangements don’t leave you with enough time to sit in the Inn, relax and have a more leisurely lunch. The option of taking a later bus back to the staging point would be a bonus.
From Hobbiton it was off to Rotorua, because there was no way a bunch of n00bs like us could go to the Shaky Isles and not take in a geyser or two. We were lucky enough to get accommodation at a lodge on Lake Rotorua, just outside of town – and a beautiful spot it was, too: good food, excellent facilities, a friendly menagerie and extremely welcoming and helpful staff. I liked Hamurana Lodge enough to post a recommendation on Facebook – something I have never done before.
Before we soaked ourselves in the sulphur scent of Rotorua, though, we took off across country to the famous glowworm caves at Waitomo – which I’ve been hearing about, and have wanted to go to, since I was in primary school. Spoiler alert: the worms are actually maggots, but not one would come to see caves full of phosphorescent carrion-eaters. Not intentionally …
Nonetheless, totally worth it. The caves are spectacular, easily-accessible and well looked after. There are several caves in the area: Ruakuri, with a nine-storey spiral entrance; Aranui (which we didn’t see); and the glowworm cave itself. The worms are in all of the caves, but the last is saturated in them, and the tour involves boarding a boat and getting pulled slowly through an eventually pitch-dark cave, lit only by thousands and thousands of tiny blue dots …
The caves are also prime adventure territory: potholing, black water rafting and various other kinds of wet and messy options are available. All for braver souls than me.
Bad timing and a function in the tourism centre restaurant meant we missed lunch that day, so we went north to Hamilton for dinner. And a bloody nice dinner it was too. I’ve been told Hamilton is the most boring city in New Zealand, but on a Saturday night when the All Blacks were playing Argentina it was … lively.
Driving back to Rotorua in the dark and not having to worry about kangaroos was a novelty. As was tramping through the forest the following day, and not having to look out for snakes …
New Zealand has other hazards to offer. Never before have I seen road safety signs which said, simply, ‘Steam’. Or tourist advice warning you to be careful where you sit.
The Te Puia centre is one of many in the volcanically active region around Rotorua, and it offers the full range of bubbling mud, boiling-hot pools (used for cooking), geysers and crusts of sulphur everywhere. All things outside the experience of natives of the tectonically pretty much dead country next door. It even has a kiwi habitat, managed by mischievous gods: they make sure that when you go into a dimly-lit building with a child eager to see kiwis, said birds will be right in front of you – busily making more kiwis. Ten points for taking the whole ‘endangered species’ thing seriously, but minus three for timing.
The Pohutu Geyser also performed on cue. Loudly.
And after that you just have to go off for a nice quiet non-stinky walk in the forest. Whakarewarewa Forest, actually. I don’t know that I ever said the name right …
The forest was very popular on a sunny Sunday spring afternoon, with plenty of families, dogs, and combinations thereof. There are mountain biking and horse-riding trails through the forest, too, fortunately separate to the walking trails. Whimsy is a strong theme: Whakarewarewa offers tracks with names like Frontal Lobotomy, Roller-Coaster and B Rude Not 2. We stuck to a nice, not-too-gentle walking trail.
Which was a nice relaxing end to the trip – well, that, a nice dinner at the lodge and an increasingly silly game of snooker – before the drive back to Auckland monday morning, and the flight home to a new regime.
About which I will say nothing. That’s not why I’m here.