On The Road in New Zealand: The Gardens of Lord of The Rings

When I was 21 years old I met a girl who loved The Lord of the Rings like a teenager loves a childhood blanket — in a nostalgic way, as if the story was a comfort from her past.

I met Emily when we were both living in New Zealand– two Americans studying abroad at the University of Auckland, living two floors apart in a dorm building full of internationals in the gorgeous coastal region of New Zealand’s North Island. Living in Auckland was a dream, and Emily and I had the same adventure-loving spirit. On the weekends we went exploring: we drove out to hot water beaches and visited isolated coves; we went black-water rafting and marveled at the glow worms in underground caves; we had a picnic atop a volcano; we hiked from coast to coast; we went Zorbing– which is when they put you in a big plastic ball and roll you down a hill– and one weekend, on a beautiful day in spring, we did something even more magical: we went to Middle Earth.

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Emily had discovered that The Lord of the Ring‘s “Hobbiton” was a real sheep farm in Mata Mata, New Zealand, and she couldn’t wait to go. The place that Bilbo Baggins supposedly called home is a lush (if unassuming) village two hours inland from Auckland, with a statue of Gollum in the center of town and a population that boasts more sheep than people. As we drove to Mata Mata I noticed that the landscape was hilly, which is typical of the North Island’s post-volcanic geography– and it grew even more verdant as we drove further into the landscape on a special bus designated to take us into The Hobbit‘s most famous neighborhood. “I feel like we’re in The Lord of the Rings!” Emily squealed as we drove by a sign that read, “This way to Bag End.” We knew we’d arrived when the driver parked us near a sign prohibiting public access to the set (it said “You Shall Not Pass.”)

I remember so many details from our day at the Shire that it fills my brain like a movie montage: Emily and I standing under the majestic “Party Tree;” knocking on the brightly-painted doors of each Hobbit Hole; feeding a baby lamb with a bottle of milk; the floral breeze in the air. The day was grinning with blue sky and fluffy clouds, and Emily had a smile to match– but what I remember most from Hobbiton and a day there with my friend were the gardens.

Everything about Hobbiton was lush– the gardens surrounded every Hobbit Hole and were brimming with New Zealand ferns and willow moss, tiny tulip bulbs, and evergreen grass that sprouted out of every rooftop nook and hillside cranny. There were stone walls covered by creeping ivy, and clover and bluebonnets dotted the pasture. The garden with teeming with life: butterflies and furry little bumblebees danced across the flower tops, with sheep grazing in the tall grass. For a movie set designed to evoke ethereal magic, Peter Jackson couldn’t have picked a better spot: the gardens of Hobbiton are alive and charming– exploding with color and sprouting forth with abundance and new growth.

I didn’t want to leave. The grass was dewy and the air was crisp, and after about an hour of meandering through the meadow, our guide told us something curious:

“Look at the fence,” he told us, gesturing towards a rustic wooden gate. “Hobbiton,” he reminded us, “was a centuries-old place, so we built the moss on this fence to make it look extra old.”

Emily loved that.

“You built the moss?!” she chirped incredulously, gazing at the bucolic fixture. “How do you build moss?”

“With yogurt, sawdust, and a little green food coloring,” he answered, almost simultaneous to her question. “This fence was built two weeks ago for The Hobbit, he told us, which reminded us that  (since it was 2011) The Hobbit would be filming here soon. “Two weeks is not enough time for moss to grow, and we need the set to look old, like the gardens have overgrown and the wood has aged,” he said. We gazed at the stylishly-“old” fence in amazement. It was an alien concept, but it made sense: everything about this garden was true to the story– The Lord of the Rings’ beautiful landscape is full of surprises, even in real life. The thought made me smile– Hobbiton looked so real.

Sawdust, yogurt, and food coloring…” Emily muttered under her breath, touching the faux-moss on the fence.

Then, in one fluid movement, she knelt down to smell a rose that was growing in the grass. It was a big burst of crimson, larger than any rose I’d ever seen in North America.

“Don’t worry,” said our guide, looking at Emily as a butterfly landed on his shoulder. “The flowers on set are definitely real,” he nodded. “They have a magic of their own.”

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