Of winery bars and a million living stars: The mini kiwi road trip Part 1
If you haven’t seen Mad Max Fury road, drop what you’re doing and check out one of the most glorious pieces of CG action you’ve ever seen. If you have – you’ll know what we mean when we say we had just been handed the keys to the war rig.
Cast your mind back, dear reader, to 2014. We had just arrived in Northern Australian cowboy city Darwin, after an eventful 9 months at sea, on trains, busses, rickshaws, tuktuks and dog sleds filming our Epic Journey from London to Sydney overland. For the first time in a year, we were put in charge of our own mode of transport, as THL sent us on the Mighty Aussie Road Trip. Our camper Rhino was wonderful. We finally could just drop our bags and leave them there for a month. And as we were driving around, we had everything we needed with us at all time – our stuff, two beds, a kitchen and an editing suite. It was glorious.
So imagine our excitement when THL gave us another camper to film around New Zealand’s North Island. Arriving at Auckland airport on a rainy Thursday morning, we stood astounded, face to face with the war rig. Getting used to driving Rhino had been surprisingly simple in Darwin’s wide outer-city roads, despite his initial bulky appearance and penthouse height (that 2nd bed needed to fit somewhere!). But the war rig was big, square and heavy. “We’re driving a shower around!” we thought as we manoeuvred it out of the parking lot and through winding roads to the highway south.
We have always wanted to come to New Zealand, ever since listening to Toto’s stories on the Mekong during our Stray Asia project and seeing various friends’ facebook profiles light up with lush green countryside, incredible snowy cliff faces and of course Hobbiton. The road to Hamilton gave us a great appetizer of the joys to come. Slowly, the busy city highways fell behind us, replaced by rolling green hills and quaint towns. Stopping off in Hamilton’s botanical gardens for lunch was surprisingly fun even for us high-octane digital kids – who would have thought you could express Japan or India or the Tudors just with arranging flowers differently.
When speaking to fellow travellers over the last few months about New Zealand, Hobbiton had always been in the top 3. We’re not going to lie, we were SUPER excited about Hobbiton. But one place we’d never heard of before kept on popping up, and this is where we were heading. The Waitomo region is green and hilly, with cows, sheep, llamas and the occasional ostrich neatly arranged amongst the foliage. There are picturesque hikes, the roaring Marokopa waterfalls, and plenty of cute places to camp, eat, drink and relax. But deep underneath the serenity lies something so spectacular, National Geographic can’t get enough of it.
Waitomo has glow-worms. Thousands upon thousands of brightly shining glow worms that inhabit the karst caves that stretch for kilometres under every hoof, boot and blade of grass on the calm earth above. The caves are uniquely accessible, so that even your granny can go check out their rich blue glow. And if your granny’s adventurous, we can’t recommend the most popular activity of the region enough: Black water rafting. Don a thick overall wetsuit, sturdy rubber boots and a cool helmet with a lamp on it. See how many of you can squeeze into your mate Olivia’s Fiat Panda. Or take the shuttle bus to the cave entrance you’re your awesome guide and everyone else and abseil into what looks like a water well, only to discover the cave below opening up to spectacular rock formations, roaring rivers and of course our little blue-glowing friends. Jump down underground waterfalls, tube through calm streams or take a leap of faith and zipwire into utter darkness. It is as amazing as it sounds.
We could happily have stayed in Waitomo for a week, working our way through all the underground adventures, eating awesome food and making the best of our after hours access to the caves with incredibly helpful guide Logan, but time was of the essence so we headed off to Raglan, a sleepy town set in stunning scenery alongside a natural harbour on the North Island’s west coast. Despite being set away from the beach on the top of a hill, Solscape was a lovely place to stay, hang out and enjoy the stunning views, and after 4 drives up and down the rather steep winding private road to the top, we realized we hadn’t even notices getting used to driving the war rig. What had at first been daunting was actually relatively straightforward and even manoeuvring around a tight camp ground was totally doable with minimal help from a friend. Surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing, surfing – this is our account of the next 24 hours. It was cold, but the straight conveyor-belt waves that rolled in from the Tasman Sea were just wonderful. And with a kitchen at our fingertips, a well-earned dinner of local gigantic mussels at sunset perched on a cliff was pure bliss.
Dear reader. We know what you’re feeling. You’re at a gig and you just can’t wait to hear the band’s biggest hit. You’ve been dancing around all evening but every song that starts is cool, but you just want to hear your favourite one, just once. Well, dear reader, you have been patient. And this patience is about to be rewarded, for now, we run through a narrow grass-lined, gravel-floored corridor and proclaim proudly “I’m going on an adventure!”
Hobbiton is a phenomenon. Movie sets are usually built to last a week of filming. Set designers put incredible detail into structures that need to be built to LOOK fantastic, but by no means be durable. Fibreglass is painted to look like marble, foam to look like weathered beams, flowers are planted fresh and then left to die, everything’s on a budget, so if it doesn’t HAVE to be real, it WON’T be real. Hobbinton however is different. After building a stunning but façade-only set for The Lord Of The Rings, the film crew were so busy on the next job they never came to clean up the set. The farmer who owns the land decided to run local tours which became popular, so when Peter Jackson and the crew returned to film The Hobbit on the same land, a deal was agreed to create a permanent structure for visitors to enjoy.
Our guide Andy was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, explaining how holes came in different sizes, so Gandalf would look huge in front of a hole built at 60% size, whereas Frodo would look like he lived in an identical hole at 100% size. Each garden represented what the resident Hobbit did for a living, including the village drunk, who’s garden is kept in a permanent state of being let go slightly. The Green Dragon pub has its own beers and ales as well as amazing atmosphere and beautiful gardens by the lake. A huge amount of effort goes into the maintenance of the gardens, buildings and grounds, so even if you’re not into the movies, it’s an amazing place to visit.
Talking of Green Dragons though, make sure to stay hydrated and grab yourself a beer. Or a wine. Or bourbon. Or tea. For we’ll be back shortly with part 2 of the Mini Kiwi Road Trip.