*I let a massive photo gallery upload to Flickr overnight only to wake up and discover that Flickr failed me. I will embed the photo gallery later on, but in the meantime you can see most of the photos in my Flickr photostream. Keep in mind that Flickr also has them out of order.
We got up nice and early on Monday, our second day in New Zealand, to grab breakfast before heading out for our first adventure: Skyline. The weather was rainy and miserable, but being that we are in New Zealand, we didn’t let that put a damper on our day. We rode a gondola car up to Skyline and enjoyed the soggy views we got from that perspective. In the midst of a downpour, I talked Nan and our new friend, Rori (who is from Barbados) into going on the Skyswing. Once we were strapped in and the cable began pulling us up, up, up, and dear lord, UP for our ascent, I asked Nan and Rori how the hell they let me talk them into this. That ascent is probably the most frightened I’ve ever been on any thrill ride in my entire life because you end up basically vertical with only a harness holding you in, no floor on which to brace your feet. Factor in how high up we were — not just on the ride, but over Rotorua in general — and it’s a miracle I didn’t pass out. Nan was smart and sat in the middle so she could at least brace her feet on the two poles extending from the bottom of the swing to the top. I braced my right foot on the pole nearest me and started trembling so badly that in the rain my foot kept slipping off. Rori and I voted before we got on that Nan would be the one who, when given the signal from the ground by the ride operator, would pull the cord that would release the swing. It took Nan a couple of tries to pull the cord, and then we swung out over Rotorua from the top of a cliff. I’m not gonna lie here — I’m pretty sure my eyes were closed for some of it. They were definitely closed for most of the ascent. So it’s a good thing I managed to hold on to my point-and-shoot and record the whole swing. But once that swing cut loose … it was indescribably fun and so freeing to be flying through the air like that. By the time it was slowing down, we couldn’t stop laughing. The ride operator stops the swing by using a large hook to brace you and reel you in, and we’d seen other people flip upside down when he hooked them. No sooner had we been hooked than Rori said, “At least we didn’t go upside down!” when — you guessed it — we flipped upside down. Nan suspects the operator got such a kick out of us screaming and laughing when we flipped that he flipped us again. If you watch the video of our ride and it looks like my feet are against the sky, now you know why.
When I got off the ride, I told some of the film crew that they should try it if they had time; they’ve been filming everything we’ve been doing on this trip. EVERYTHING. They asked me if I’d like to talk about day 2 of this trip, I said yes despite what the rain and the Skyswing’s G-force had done to my hair, and you can see some of what I said in the #RealMiddle Earth Diary 2 on New Zealand 100% Pure’s Facebook page.
After that it was time for the huge buffet lunch awaiting us in the restaurant downstairs. Someone might have had two plates plus a dessert, but it’s OK because I walked it off after. The rain finally eased up so Nan and I made our way to the Luge, which was also a blast. I only wish I’d worn gloves for my ride because the handlebar grips started to hurt after a while. We then headed back to the main building to hit the winery, Volcanic Hills, for a wine tasting. By this point, though, it was 10 minutes from the time we had to leave, so it was a very speedy wine tasting. I tried five wines in those precious minutes, which had our host calling me the pacesetter for the group. It was basically wine, cracker, water, repeat for me. The wines were all delicious, and I finally found a red wine I love. I only had to come all the way to New Zealand to find it.
Nan and I then hopped a gondola car back down to the bus with another new friend, Kris, who hails from Austin, and we made our way to the bus for our next stop: Hobbiton. The drive took about an hour and by the time we reached Matamata, the rain had stopped and the skies were clearing. We were let loose in the gift shop first, where most of us (cough) went crazy deciding what to get, what not to get, and either way ended up spending too much money. I asked the store employees about certain items to make sure they were exclusive only to the store/New Zealand to help with my buying decisions.
Broke (I know I was) but excited, we all then got back on our buses and drove over to Hobbiton. When we first got to the grounds, we spotted sheep everywhere. Then three horse-riding warriors flanked our bus, shouting battle cries as we got closer to Hobbiton proper. Once we got off our buses and started walking into Hobbiton, it was just so surreal to finally be there and see everything for ourselves. I can’t describe how amazing it is, and I don’t think my photos can do it justice. It really is such a magical, spectacular movie set. Some of our Fan Fellowship people started crying when they were interviewed during the champagne meet-and-greet we got, they were so overcome. I’m a fan, but they are fans. Fans like Nan is a fan. My group, the hobbits, were led by a guide named Sam. And yes, a lot of us started calling him Samwise. Mostly because he told us to. We heard all about how the Alexander family, who owns the farm on which Hobbiton is located, insisted the set be made permanent and left there forever for fans to visit. We heard all about forced perspective; how Martin Freeman sat right there on that bench in front of us; how a scene that started on a given spot ended in a location 40KM away; how we were standing on the very spot where Gandalf promised fireworks; how the tree on top of Bilbo’s house was restructured to look 60 years younger and is made of foam and cost about $750K. I was given a silk leaf from that tree, which I will hide away from Coraline lest it become part of some of her artwork.
The tour through Hobbiton took two hours, at the end of which beers and hard cider awaited us at The Green Dragon. After a bit of drinking and socializing, we were led inside for our first surprise. No sooner had the curtains to the main room parted than people began screaming (myself included), because Jed Brophy, Stephen Hunter, Mark Hadlow, and John Callen were seated at the long dining room table waiting for us. You might know them better by their dwarf names: Nori, Bombur, Dori, and Oin. I got Nan in a photo with John right away, while I got hugs from and a photo with Mark. After a lot of excitement, we were ushered through and out The Green Dragon to wait for our other groups to join us. In short order we heard cries of surprise from the dwarves, elves, and wizards. Once all four groups were outside, we socialized and nibbled on the many foods being offered on trays. (This trip has kept us all very well-fed.) During this time Nan and I managed to get more photos with the other actors. All of them were very gracious and charismatic and funny: Mark Hadlow would yell, “Nori is a dick,” to get everyone riled up. Nori defenders would immediately pipe up and defend their beloved dwarf.
Nan and I and a bunch of our new friends eventually moved over to a picnic table near a large yellow tent (called a marquee here) to be ready to get in line for our next surprise. We were warned repeatedly that there was to be absolutely no filming or recording allowed and to put away our cameras before we were let in the tent. Once inside we made a run for it and managed to get second-row seats in the middle. Two blank screens were in front of us, and we all got a pretty strong feeling about what our next surprise might be, particularly after the no-cameras-allowed warning. Sure enough, one of the producers for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies came out and confirmed that yes, we would be watching the brand-new trailer for the movie. Everyone went wild at the news and then quickly everyone started making shushing noises so we could watch it, including Mark Hadlow, who was sitting in the row in front of us and enjoying hamming up the “shhhh!” sounds he was making. Once we quieted down a DVD started playing with an introduction by Sir Peter Jackson. We are forbidden from giving details of what we saw in the trailer, but trust me when I say IT IS AWESOME. While watching it, people gasped, yelled, and cheered. When it ended, the roar was deafening. Some of us (including yours truly) started chanting, “One more time!” The producer teased us asking if we would like to watch it again, which was unsurprisingly met with loud cheering. During the second viewing, everyone was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. And when it ended, we again erupted with cheers. Did I mention that IT IS AWESOME? Because it is. We then got a third viewing because, well, you know why. Turns out the trailer was STILL AWESOME.
The actors then presented another surprise. They took center stage and let us know that three people among us had birthdays during this trip, called them up there by name, presented them with a gorgeous hobbit-inspired cake (like it’d be anything else), then led us in singing “Happy Birthday.” After much cheering (yes, again), Jed, Stephen, Mark, and John — I can call them by their first names now, you know — gave us all a heartfelt thank you, then serenaded us with “Song of the Misty Mountains.” (I uploaded video of that to my Instagram.) It became more of a sing-along when several of us joined in, including Nan. The actors bid us goodnight, then the Fellowship was led back out to start our nighttime tour through Hobbiton. As we waited in our assorted groups to start our tours, fireworks burst over the party field across the way. You know, the one with the Party Tree. People cheered and ran to the shore to watch. When the display ended, we set off to see what Hobbiton looked like in the dark. It was a whole different kind of magical feel than it had in the daytime. The hobbit houses were all lit up, the party lanterns in the party field (where some of us might have danced a little bit) were aglow, and everything was so beautiful. This is where I have to gripe that I should have brought my tripod with me. Most of us without tripods did not get good photos. Still, we were in Hobbiton.
Six hours after we arrived, it was finally time to go home. Which most of us didn’t want to. As you can imagine, we would all be quite happy living in Hobbiton.
And that, my friends, is what we did on day 2 of our New Zealand trip.
*You can see a lot of my photos here for now.