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Two weeks, one car, three friends and a tent. Let the adventure begin. Stunning, unique wonders of nature scattered across two islands surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Welcome to our trip through the vast plains of the Green Island. Welcome to New Zealand. More than twenty percent of the New Zealand land mass consists of national parks, forests and nature reserves. Add to that 34 marine protected areas. On average, only sixteen persons live on each of the country’s 270,000 square kilometres. The low population density, the isolated location, the many hours of sun and high precipitation rate make for an extraordinary, diverse and almost untouched vegetation with picturesque landscapes that attract hosts of nature lovers. The varied views of boundless expanses evoke a sense of freedom that photos and words are unable to reproduce.
New Zealand also serves as the backdrop for the enchanted world of J.R.R. Tolkien that Peter Jackson brought to life on the big screen as the inspiring land of the Lord of the Rings. This is where Frodo, Bilbo Baggins and the other characters found their fictive home. In all of New Zealand you can follow their tracks. One of the most popular sights is the village of Hobbiton close to Matamata. Every day it attracts roughly 2,000 tourists from around the world. And on a regular basis couples get married under the 80 metre tall tree where Elijah Wood once danced. The most famous film location is on a secret site and not accessible to the public unless you pay. But the visit is worth every New Zealand cent. A bus takes you past hilly and dried out meadows sprinkled with sheep and cows before you arrive in a lush, brightly coloured and meticulously maintained oasis.
Along with 20 to 30 other fans of Middle-earth, an enthusiastic guide will lead you through the 500 acres of the fabulous parallel world. You will hear lots of entertaining anecdotes and learn exciting background information. The tour is long enough for you to admire and photograph all of the 39 meticulously detailed hobbit caves, and it certainly might cross your mind that this is a place that you will never want to leave.
It took one year to build the hobbit village. The artful caves were surrounded by seas of flowers; vegetable gardens, ponds and lakes were created along with a stone bridge accompanied by a water mill and a rustic style guest house. All flowers are real, but two special features will be revealed here: in order to fit the literary source, a couple of apple trees were dressed up with plums and the gnarled oak at the top of the village was “made in Korea”. The original was destroyed during the shooting of the Lord of the Rings, but since it was essential for the following series of Hobbit films, it had to be replaced. A “tree double” was created and decorated with thousands of plastic leaves. As a special treat at the end of the tour, every visitor gets a free drink in the quaint Green Dragon Inn where homebrewed hobbit beer and cider is produced.
If you prefer to experience the world of Frodo and his buddies in a more sporty and adventurous fashion, the alpine crossing of the national park of Tongariro might be just your thing. Many of the fight scenes from Middle-earth were shot here, and the gloomy atmosphere of the black-reddish earth created the profoundly frightening effect of Mordor. The 19.4 kilometre trail can be traversed in one day, but there are also shorter and simpler routes to take on. However, this is one of the most popular trails in New Zealand that takes you through impressive mountain formations, turquoise lakes and warning signs that inform you about the activity of the volcano. The view is definitely worth the effort.
After having been immersed in the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien, we’re now bound for Rotorua. The spa town has around 50,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by 18 enchanting lakes. And this place is hot! Rotorua is located in one of the most active geothermal areas in the world, which is why the locals use geothermal heating and an unmistakable smell of sulphur lingers in the air. During the first stroll around town, its mythical attraction becomes obvious to us. This town is virtually steaming. From the sewer and the many little pools in the park a smelly hot smoke is rising, hissing and fizzing. Considering that you quickly get accustomed to the odour, it shouldn’t stop anyone from experiencing Rotorua and the unique feeling of an unpredictably simmering underground.
We gave ourselves a task: to test all of the surrounding lakes in one day in order to find our personal favourites. However, we didn’t manage to see all 18 lakes since the scenery is simply too impressive to be rushed through. Another feature of the town is the integrated Maori village, which is far less touristy than others in the region. But be advised that restrained and respectful behaviour should have a high priority during a visit.
One of the definite highlights of our stay in Rotorua was the visit to the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (Maori for “sacred waters”), which beat everything we had experienced so far. Every morning at exactly 10.15 am, the Lady Knox geyser is artificially induced to erupt through the addition of soap flakes. This is the only way to predict this natural phenomenon and to create a 10 to 20 metre high water fountain that amazes visitors every day. Afterwards, we recommend a quiet walk through the volcanic and thermally active landscape. The trip takes you by bubbling pools of mud, the Devil’s Home and Devil’s Bath, neon marshes and the big and colourful Champagne Pool. We have never experienced nature’s chemistry as close as this, and never have we seen anything like these wonderful splashes of colour in the middle of nowhere.
Another recommendation after a long and eventful day is a visit to one of the many hot springs. It pays to ask one of the friendly and helpful residents for a good tip. If you are lucky, you might find yourself in a natural whirlpool surrounded by waterfalls deep in the light-flooded rainforest. Towards the end another must is a walk through the wonderful forest area Whakarewarewa, with its 5,600 acres, also known by the locals as the Redwoods. Here, the beautiful gigantic trees and impressive plants will leave you breathless.
We recommend a visit to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Here, visitors can take a boat ride through dark caves strewn with glow worms. The overwhelming experience will make everyone go quiet. It’s pure magic!