Mount Doomed, Hobbiton hurried, but happy in Hamilton
16.06.2006 15 °C
Thursday 15 - Sunday 18 June
The 'Lord of the Rings' exhibition we saw at Te Papa (see Wellington entry) prompted us to seek out some more of the locations used in the films during our final week on North Island. Where better to go then - unless you're a Hobbit - than Mount Doom itself? Better known as the volcano Ngauruhoe, this landmark sits with two other active volcanoes - Tongariro itself, and Ruapehu - in the Tongariro National Park. Awarded 'World Heritage Site' status in the 1980s, the park presents a number of great walking opporunities including the 'Tongariro Crossing'; a full day's hike which takes in crater lakes, lava flows and more thermal pools.
On the way, we broke the drive from Rotorua with a visit to another volcanic reserve; Thermal Wonderland at Wai-O-Tapu. Here, we witnessed the spectacle of an erupting geyser!
In addition to another fine collection of colourful thermal pools and lakes,
we also found everyone's favourite... the bubbling mud pools.
We'd enjoyed sunshine whilst exploring Wai-O-Tapu, but as we progressed toward the national park the sky darkened and a heavy mist descended rendering the impressive scenery, including Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom), all but invisible as we arrived.
Friday 16 June
Any thoughts of exploring National Park today quickly expired as soon as we opened the curtains; it was as though a dark grey blanket had been throw over the entire landscape, with the threat of torrential rain never far away. We'd looked forward to attempting the 'Tongariro Crossing' but alas our hopes were dashed and we were faced with the possibility that our last few days in New Zealand might be washed out.
Fortunately, our accommodation (Howard's Lodge) was modern, comfortable and warm - not so bad if we were forced to stay indoors. First though, we headed out with the notion of taking some photos of Tongariro's magnificent scenery. Not a chance! The surrounding mountain range was shrouded in impenetrable gloom. Almost inevitably, as we wandered around the tiny village, the heavens opened. Naturally we headed for the local pub, 'Schnapps'.
The rain showed no sign of stopping, and so we fled back to the lodge, grabbed two huge mugs of steaming coffee and perched ourselves in front of a roaring log fire. (Do log fires really 'roar')? We spent the rest of the day struggling with a fiendish 1500 piece jigsaw...
Saturday 17 June
Frustrated by our failure to follow in Frodo's footsteps up Mount Doom we set off for what we hoped would be the next best thing; the tiny town of Matamata which has been thrust into the tourism limelight by its proximity to the location chosen by Peter Jackson to represent 'Hobbiton'.
A diversion from this morning's journey was a visit to the caves at Waitomo. The huge cave systems here offer opportunities for 'black-water' rafting and caving, but we were interested in seeing glow worms! Deep underground, we were led through chambers containing stalactites and stalacmites of varying lengths and ages until we reached an unlit underground river. Here, we climbed into a boat and were paddled a short way into the darkness... and, as our eyes adjusted we saw thousands of tiny lights - the roof and walls were covered with glow worms. The overall effect was magical; like looking into the galaxy on a perfectly dark night. For obvious reasons, flash photography wasn't allowed.
Arriving at Matamata a sign proudly proclaims 'Welcome to Hobbiton'!, but beyond the gift shops there is little to inspire Tolkien fans. The film-set itself (you can take the inevitable tour) now bears little resemblance to the detailed and picturesque village seen on screen. The standard of our accommodation - normally commendably high in New Zealand - was disappointing and so...
Sunday 18 June
... on a whim, we chose to spend our last full day in New Zealand in Hamilton. This seemed sensible as Sharon had no desire to navigate her way into and out of Auckland for the sake of one night's accommodation and Hamilton, a largeish city, is a manageable distance from the airport.
It was a good choice. Our hostel, the Eagle's Nest Backpackers, is modern, friendly and clean and situated a short walk from the city centre. After the disappointments of the national park and Matamata, we were happy to spend a day in (hooray!) sunshine just shopping and browsing and preparing ourselves for the following day's eleven-hour flight to Chile.
We enjoyed hospitable Hamilton and, as we rounded off our last evening with a couple of pints and a good Thai meal, we knew we would take with us happy memories of our time in New Zealand, and a desire to return.