Life as a Hobbit

Hobbiton is a movie set made for the filming of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit franchises. Constructed in the hills of a working 1250 acre sheep farm, the movie set has 44 “hobbit holes” and has a team of gardeners and maintenance crew for the set to keep it looking “lived in” by hobbits.

The hobbit holes themselves are merely the front portion of the house, although most of the holes have a 1-2m depth that you can walk into or that a cameraman could be in. The homes are constructed at different scales to allow for camerawork to make the hobbits look small, and the humans look big.

Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings is very particular about details. Workers were employed to walk between clotheslines and wells to make worn tracks to make it look like they’ve been used for years. Fences were painted with vinegar and yogurt to create mold and moss to grow on them. Fake Plums were attached to trees and this huge tree above Bilbo Baggins’ house was artificially made, with each leaf being attached by hand. Then, once it was up, Peter Jackson decided it wasn’t quite the right shade of green, and each leave had to be repainted by hand.

It obviously was a very time consuming project and there was not great infrastructure to get all of the equipment needed to the area. The New Zealand army was employed to help create roads and help with building. They were also used in fight scenes as Orcs. New Zealand firefighters were used as Orcs during the scenes with fire.

During the party scene, crew members and their families were invited to dress up and have an actual party! Alcohol was served (1%) during the filming and it now it is served to guests as the pub on set!

Now, the movie set is jointly owned by Peter Jackson’s production company and the family who’s farm it is. It welcomes over 300,000 visitors each year.

Tide and Prejudice

As we’ve made our way north towards Auckland, there have been many interesting stops along the way. One of these stops was at Hot Water Beach, roughly an hour from Auckland. The beach gets its name from the heat that seeps upwards from volcanic activity below. In certain areas the sand is nearly boiling while just a few feet away it can be cold to the touch. It has become a major tourist attraction and rightfully so as it’s a very rare experience. The locals have been making their own sand hot tubs for decades now and this has caught on with the tourists. The basic premise is to show up with a bucket and shovel and start digging. What you’ll quickly find, however, is that certain tubs remain cold while others get far too hot. This is where the bucket comes in to play; pour cold ocean water into your newly formed home if it’s uncomfortably warm. There are a few other techniques that you can utilize as well; I’ll touch on those later. This post isn’t about the wonders of geothermal heat nor exotic New Zealand. No, this post is about human psychology. Let us begin.

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A small sign notifies you that the turn off for Hot Water Beach is in 500m. Half awake you drive down a long gravel road to the entry way of the beach. You’ve rose at an early hour to ensure the tide is at its lowest, otherwise the beach will be covered by ocean water. The cold, crisp, morning air follows you as you walk down the shoreline in search of the “hot spot”. The phenomenon only occurs in specific places and patterns. This means a shortage of prime real estate. In the distance, you see two tightly packed groups of human lobsters. Steam is curling upwards from the 50m diameter circle that houses all the possible hot spots. It’s a perfect little ecosystem. Your money won’t help down here. All anyone’s got is their brain, bucket and shovel; many are missing one or more of those things.DSC05642

The air is warm and humid. Half clothed bodies fill almost all the existing hot tubs. The occupants resemble seals sunbathing, with a distinct defensive look on their faces. As more tourists arrive, the seals that have the best bathing spot begin feeling the pressure. Suddenly, you notice a spot that hasn’t been taken! Right beside a mega pool occupied by a semi-submerged German in a Speedo. The water level is low but you’re convinced it’s a fixer-upper and some TLC can make it work. Your comrade begins getting buckets of cold ocean water while you try to dig the tub deeper. It’s a humble hole, with an exhibitionist neighbour and poor road access but sweat can make the difference.

 

At first, it’s too hot to stand in. Alayna pours more and more water. Somehow this stupid thing won’t cool down. After 10 minutes of almost scalding your feet, dumping water in and seeing no change, you give up. There’s a reason this one is unoccupied, you think as sweat drips from your brow. Your next thought is to start from scratch; get a plot of land, preferably with a view, and build your foundation on the proverbial rock. High sand walls for privacy would be nice but not necessary. After a bit of surveying, you get to it. A friendly stranger suggests a plot of untouched sand where you’re at the edge of a discovered hot streak. You suspiciously accept his tip and begin furiously digging. The wool sweater you wore down to the beach has been long taken off and your dark shirt is absorbing morning sunlight. After 15 minutes of digging, your hands are tender from the wet sand and friction, back is bent, and shirt is soaked with sweat. This is when your wonderful girlfriend asks if you even want to sit in a hot tub anymore. Standing in your lukewarm puddle you think you’d rather die than give up on this stupid sand tub.

 

Meanwhile, three solid, older men showed up beside you. They have three full sized spades and are working in unison in creating what is no less than a hot tub mansion. After another 5 minutes of digging with your hopelessly small sand shovel, two of the your tub’s walls collapse inwards. DAMN YOU SAND! The older men next to you have completed their Jacuzzi-open-concept-mansion complete with sand seats. They begin attracting curious females now. They offer a mother-daughter duo two spots in their Jacuzzi and the duo breaks free from their male family member. You desperately try to keep your puddle from completely falling in on itself by manically digging. All the while, the Jacuzzi group is laughing and the German speedo man floats with a smug smile. You look at your partner in frustration and tell her that crime is the only option. We must steal a better tub. She begins scouting for a new tub but they are seldom. Sometimes the really hot tubs will send people running into the ocean for a cool down. This is the perfect moment for blatant theft. A half hour spent in this ecosystem has made you hardened criminals. You tried to follow the rules; pay your taxes, live outside the core and live with the long commute but the game is rigged. DSC05656

The tide is coming in at this point. Slowly all the tubs will be reclaimed by the ocean. You’ve thought of everything to salvage this hopeless hole, including tunneling into the Jacuzzi and draining some of their hot water. Your partner can’t find another hole and returns defeated. She could just leave you for a better hole looking for female company but she’s loyal for some reason. You both plop down into the lukewarm, collapsing, sand puddle of a hole and enjoy the moment. At least your bum is warm and you’re in good company. DSC05651

Oar the River and Through the Woods

It’s been a week of wetsuits.

If you’ve never worn a full body wet suit before, picture this: You first struggle with a rubbery material to get the suit the right way out. Next, your feet squeeze through the tiny foot openings and you use all of your upper body strength to fanangle the thing up your thighs. You somehow manage to get it over the hump of your rump and then comes the arms… You squat down and with a little jump, you hoof the arm and shoulder section into the air and with a speedy ninja move you shove your arms into the tight sleeves. Sucking in all of your air you make your stomach as small as possible as you zip you the final portion of the wetsuit. Now you are ready to raft.

 

 

We decided to try some of the many New Zealand adventure sports, starting with white water rafting. We chose the Tongariro river, which has 60 rapids to go through on a 13 km stretch. The Grade 3 rapids of this river are fairly tame. A grade one is like a little stream, and grade six is the highest, meaning essentially death because no one has ever managed to navigate it. With a few drops, collisions, and soakers in the 10 degree water, it was enough excitement to give us a bit of a thrill. When not going over the rapids it was very nice to float down the crystal clear waters, seeing trout swimming below us. The volcanic cliffs towered on each side of water, covered in beautiful, lush vegetation. We even saw the rare and endangered Whio, which are called Blue Ducks, and two ducklings!

 

 

Now many people have heard of white water rafting, but we also did black water rafting. With this you strap a light onto your helmet and climb deep within an underground cave. The underground spring creates a rushing river that you climb and wave yourself through to sit serenely in an inner tube in complete darkness in freezing cold water. Yes, that sounds terrible, but it’s actually magical. Why? Because the roof of this underground cave system is covered in glow worms. In complete darkness, they look like stars in the night sky, though much, much closer.

 

Glow worms are little larvae that use bio luminescence to attract their prey. As they produce waste, it reacts with oxygen to produce a glow. This attracts their prey (small insects) to fly towards them. The insects then get caught in a spiderweb like net that the larvae has produced. So if you can put it out of your mind that you are trapped in a very cold, underground cave with thousands (if not millions) of carnivorous, web making, maggots, then it’s quite enjoyable!  It’s actually much easier to do then you would imagine. You can’t really see the webs, or the insects, all that is there is the calm, blue, glow of sparkling stars. It’s completely quiet, with only the sound of flowing water to your ears. It’s a very surreal experience as you float there, you have to remember where you are and why your butt is a foot deep in freezing water. Surprisingly, the only fear filled part of it was having to jump off a waterfall backward into the dark pool with our inner tube.

 

*caveat: some of these photos were not taken by us and are used as promo photos for the tours that we did. We’re too cheap to pay for photos.

South Kiwi Living

Camping in New Zealand has been…. an experience. Neither of us had much camping experience before this, though we’ve been around enough campfires to know how to cook ourselves a decent meal. What we didn’t account for is that campfires are pretty much banned everywhere in New Zealand. The Canadians in us were highly disappointed. Our little gas burner stove gets the job done, but it takes about 5 times DSC05388longer than a campfire. We have gotten better in terms of setting things up, cooking and packing, but we definitely underestimated how exhausted we would be from it all. The lack of good sleep, being consistently dirty, attacked by sand flies and the extra effort to cook, clean and pack makes for a tiresome day in itself. Add in a couple hours of hiking, some driving, trip planning, and you get two zombies meandering around the mountains. Needless to say, I am now writing this from a cozy AirBnB that we booked to rejuvenate and clean the layers of grime off our bodies. We’re not completely done with camping, but it’s served its purpose in the most remote areas of the South Island, and if we don’t need to camp again, then we are perfectly okay with that.

 

Now onto the beautiful sights of the South Island that we got to enjoy BECAUSE we were camping. After leaving Fjordland and Milford Sound, we headed inland to explore the dairy and sheep farms. There we found the Brown Trout capital of the world! Never heard of it? Nothing to be ashamed of. Not much to see there besides a giant statue of a brown trout.

After we got talking to a friendly fisherman, he suggested we head to Twizel to try our hand at fishing. This is an absolutely gorgeous area just south of Mount Cook. It has stunningly bright turquoise lakes and canals that are perfect for salmon and trout fishing. We headed to the local outfitters to get a day license and rod for Mark to achieve his dream of “catching the big one”. After getting a map we set out to some of the main spots, which happen to be absolutely gorgeous, and Alayna wondered around taking photos while Mark fished.

Most of the area has been dammed and canals carry the water to power generating stations. Salmon fisheries use the canals as well. What makes it so special is the magnificent colour of the water. The turquoise waters are caused by glacier runoff into the lakes. The glaciers grind down the rock into a fine dust (like flour) and it gets suspended in the lake. This creates to bright turquoise effect.

 

Mount Cook lays at the base of Lake Pukaki, one of these glacier lakes. The highest mountain in New Zealand is a towering figure in the Southern Alps. On a clear day its snow covered peak glistens, creating a picture perfect backdrop. In the mountains, however, the weather can be fiercely volatile. Our beautiful, sunny day that we arrived on was glorious, indeed. The following day the wind whipped at our faces, blowing over our tent, sending people careening off the hiking path and coating us in so much dust that we felt like we were back in Myanmar.

Wanaka is Queenstown’s little sister. The bustling town is full of tourists hiking one of the region’s many trails, or doing some adventure sport like helicopter mountain biking. We opted for the cheaper (free) option of hiking to see some of the beautiful lakes and mountains.

 

We must say that the Kiwi’s we have met along the way are exceptionally friendly. We have now stayed at two AirBnBs and have been blown away by their hospitality. They are very proud of their country and what it has to offer. Our AirBnb20190215_082727 here, in Hinds, a very small farming village outside of Christchurch, made us a delicious breakfast of their own fresh bacon, eggs, toast and local honey and jam and hashbrowns which probably would have cost us more than our whole AirBnB, had we gotten it at a restaurant. They let us check in early, check out late, laze around, use their laundry, walk their dogs and provide us with great information on the area. A beautiful country filled with beautiful people.

Lord of the Sand Flies

New Zealand is known for it rugged, natural beauty. It’s also known for its high prices. We arrived here with a plan: we’re going to camp our way across the country. We hit the ground running in Queenstown and head to the Salvation army, stocking up on pots, pans, blankets, etc. We look online for used tents and sleeping bags, and go to the cheap stores around to get the stuff we can’t find used. We head back to our pre-booked hotel and set to work, washing the dishes, laundering the fabrics, packing, sorting and planning.

After an 11 hour rest at our last nice hotel for a while, we pack our little budget car to the brim with all of our supplies and make our way down to Fjordland National Park. With ice carved Fjords, this national park is home to many unique and endangered animals (like the Kiwi bird), and the world famous Milford Sound.

 

 

With little to no plan, we stop at the closest town to try and figure out where we are allowed to camp and to buy food. Along the roads there are many signs that say “NO FREEDOM CAMPING”, and have signs with tents and camper vans with X’s through them. We stop at the “camping info” pull-off and read the signs.  “You may only camp in designated areas, no fires are permitted unless in designated area, must have fire permit.” The signs essentially dash our dreams of a beautiful, solitary campsite. Our hopes are dashed even further as the town is overrun with camper vans, smelly backpackers, and dreadlocks with hiking boots.

 

 

We decide to just hit the road and see what we find at these designated camping spots. We stop at the first one, along a nice lake. A little windy, but we are pleasantly surprised by the lack of campers. There are only one or two along the whole strip for about 20 cars. It’s a little windy, but not too bad. Why is there no one here? Then, it bit us… Sandflies. These pesky, little, fruit-fly-like biters are terrors on wings. They swarm you like an old banana, so thick you take one swat and kill 5 of them. We run into the car and speed away, a cloud of dust hiding the swarm that follows us.

 

We go to the next site, and the next, finally settling on one close to the river. There doesn’t seem to be too many flies here, there’s a fire pit, a picnic table; we can abide by the rules and still be in nature. We set up our camp in the grass. It goes surprisingly smoothly. Everything fits in the tent, it looks in good condition. We set up our chairs to relax looking at the mountains. Then, like a slow leak in the roof that eventually collapses and pours, the flies come. We dig out our bug spray and coat ourselves in the smelly stuff, mixing dirt and spray until we are as grimy as those smelly backpackers back in town. We give up and admit defeat to the lord of the flies and decide to take a walk in the beautiful area we’re in. Heading through the grass we get closer to the river. The sun peaks over the mountains, illuminating the wildflowers and grass. The water sparkles as it ripples over the rocks. As we stand there in the light breeze we notice that something is missing… The flies! We shriek in happiness and decide to heck with the rules, we’re moving our camp down to the river away from the blasted pesks. It’s worth it even if we do get a fine! So we pick up our tent and our gear and haul it through the grass, climbing rocks, and crossing creeks until we get to our little piece of paradise.

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We re-set up our camp, and finally sit back in our chairs to relax…Then a bite, and another. Not to worry, a couple must have just followed us over. We’ll just kill these and then we can be in peace. Nope. The sandflies apparently just love to come when you get comfortable. We layer up more and give in, this is a more beautiful spot anyways. We attempt to start our gas fire cooker. It doesn’t light. Then we try the lighter we bought. It’s a dud. We are now in the middle of the park, with all of our food, and no way to cook it. After some fan-angling, some swearing, and some damning the flies, we got both things working. Then we decided that the cooker was too slow and we wanted a fire anyways. We’re right by a creek. No forest fire risk. We can plead ignorance if someone comes. We have our campfire and cook our nice warm meal; the heat of the fire warming us.

 

 

With our tummies full we crawl into the tent, ready for a nice night’s sleep. Perhaps this is a thing we should have done first, as Mark is unable to lay flat in it without his head and feet pressing into both sides. There is nothing to be done about it now, and we cozy up for the night in 3 layers of clothing, two sleeping bags, two blankets and one hot water bottle. Within an hour we are sweating; within 4 hours we are freezing, and we awake at dawn with frost covering the tent and our noses frozen.

 

 

We leave our stuff and head to Milford Sound to cruise through the fjords, hoping that it will still be there when we return. It thankfully was, with no issues at all. We heat up some water and give ourselves a quick sponge bath, with the cold whipping our bare wet skin like frigid arctic air. We dodge and duck from the occasional Chinese tour bus that might be able to see us from the road. Now slightly cleaner, we cook dinner and prepare for bed. We learn from the lessons of the night before: tarp more securely fastened, windblockers with bags, hot water bottle swaddled to slowly release heat. Miraculously due to the ferocious, unrelenting wind, there are no flies! We’ll take the cold over the flies any day.

 

 

We sleep much better the second night. We sit drinking our morning coffee by the fire when we hear a helicopter. Searching we find it low, coming towards us through the valley. Ooohh crap. Yep. Fire is definitely not allowed. There is no way they don’t see us in our bright blue tent and smoke signal. It comes closer and lands near the road. Odd, but quick! Put the fire out!  The helicopter takes off again and flies toward us zooming past us 100 ft away. Yep. We’re going to get a fine. He’s definitely radioing to someone right now. We accept defeat and slowly start to pack up our camp.

 

 

But then no one comes. We’re almost finished, and still no one! Hurray! We speed out of there high on adrenaline; swatting at flies as we go.