A visit to Middle Earth

I have spent less than two weeks in Middle Earth, looking at the world around me as I would England in springtime – green and rolling hills, neat parcels of farmland, friendly polite people, and “four seasons in one day” –

– that rural existence so familiar to a girl who grew up in a Shire of sorts, the Shire that gifted to the world cheese-rolling and Holst and Brian May, wool-sack racing and Gloucester Cathedral, the oldest literary festival and the second highest tidal range in the world. The Shire she returns to each Christmas now is still the same, all country bustle and bored teenagers and a town life that centres around the many pubs that provide a warm hearth in winter, tucked in the elbows of those five damp valleys…

It is not damp in this Shire, but lush. This earth I found in another hemisphere, though almost 12,000 miles away, is not so far in the imagination from the isle of my birth. I was able to taste hobbit life at Matamata, otherwise known as Hobbiton, the still-intact film set where the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit franchises were filmed between 1998 and the 2010s.

Found halfway down the North Island, it was cheesy and quaint but nothing short of delightful. The sun shone on all the hobbit-holes and made every plastic vegetable shine too, and the whole place came to life as does a West Country village on a market day morning. It was all pop art colours and childlike clouds which cruised above the lake in the blue, blue sky.

Bag End, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ residence

My second outing into Middle Earth territory actually took place before the first, on a promising sunny day several hours’ drive south of Auckland. Having slept in the car in a truckers’ drive-in near a petrol station, my friend and I were not on top form, but Mount Doom – or the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, widely considered New Zealand’s best day hike – loomed in the near distance, beckoning.

Mount Doom! You don’t actually climb to its summit, but up the side.
It all began so well… standing in the sun at the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The decision to add the word “Alpine” was made in order to warn people about the turbulent and changeable weather, which we experienced that day. It went from 30 degrees to 13 within half an hour.

We hiked its blackened flank as the sun climbed higher but were outpaced by clouds about halfway up, obscuring the treasures of the summit – the emerald lakes, the red crater, the views.

Caught in a rainstorm on the descent, we squelched through forested terrain and mud and thought of Frodo. Seven hours after we began, we reached the car again, elated to be back on dry ground.  

The amazing landscape right before the summit
The mars-like landscape that you trek across before the summit
John presents… the emerald lake! (Not looking its best on that cold wet day.)
This part of the hike was tricky – loose scree covers the mountain-top, and we both fell on our bums multiple times.
Bedraggled is an understatement. Still two hours from the end…
Drying off a bit under the forest canopies during the last leg of the hike. We jogged the last half-mile or so! The scenery and terrain is amazingly varied.

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