The day I arrived in Matamata was glorious: blue sky, warm air, and just a few big white clouds to add depth in the pictures. I checked in at the Matamata Backpackers hostel, a recent venue with a relaxed atmosphere, where I would stay two nights.
Reasons to visit this small, otherwise boring town are twofold: Wairere Falls, and Hobbiton.
The former is the highest waterfall on the North Island, an impressive 153-meter drop with a path leading up to the top. The second is the world-famous movie set, featuring the hobbit holes from the beginning of both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies by Peter Jackson.
I left my stuff at the hostel, booked a tour to Hobbiton for the morning after, then rented a bike from the hostel: 15$ (9€) for the whole day, with no time limit on when to bring it back, that was a lovely deal I intended to take advantage of.
I packed all my photo gear, including the tripod, and started the ride to Wairere Falls. 15 km, that’s not big a deal… is it? I quickly realized that, with such a heavy backpack and a mountain bike, it would actually be quite a painful trip. But I endured, and arrived at the bottom of the falls three hours before sunset.
There started the ascent, in the forest. The beginning was simple, with easy gradients. A short detour offered a nice view over the Waikato plains’ rolling hills, that looked pretty under the deep blue sky. Then it started to get steeper, with stairs. I had to make a couple of breaks on the way; the bike ride had taken its toll.
I saw more people coming down than climbing up, which made me happy I didn’t have to rely on hitch-riding to go back to town. It was very windy at the top, and other visitors did not linger longer than the time needed for a few pictures.
I had other plans of course, and started thinking of the pictures I could take at sunset. The water level was low enough to allow the crossing, so I ventured around the top, looking for nice angles. The reason I had the tripod with me was that I wanted to play with filters and long exposures – so I did.
The sun set quickly, and soon I had to go down. I had taken my head torch with me – a life saver here, for it helps me move around dormitories at night without waking my roommates up, chase kiwis and climb down waterfalls. I was cautious, and the descent was eventless – except for two encounters.
At the first viewing platform, I met a Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), the plague of New Zealand. It eats everything, from bird eggs to seeds, and people here say a good possum is a dead possum. It looked at me from its tree, certainly not used to seeing people there after the advent of night, but definitely not frightened. Just… curious. It was also very cute.
I took more pictures of the waterfall, then continued on.
A bit later, I started to hear Moreporks (Ninox novaeseelandiae), the local owls, singing in the trees. A pair seemed very close, so I wandered off the path, climbing from rock to rock along the river, staring up with my torch, until I found two shiny spots looking down from the canopy. Sure thing, an owl was looking at me from there! Soon after, I found a second one. What a delight!
When I emerged on the car park, I could see stars in the sky. The long ride home began, but in the dark, it felt different, and not as annoying as the afternoon trip. I was exhausted anyway when I arrived at the hostel, and it didn’t take me long before going to bed.
In the morning, I went to Hobbiton. This place seems to be divisive, and many think it’s an expensive tourist trap. On the other hand, all those I met and had been there told me it was a magical place, so I wanted to see for myself.
Spoiler alert: it was magical indeed.
Sure, you’re a bit herded along the path, for many groups follow each other, but you still have time to enjoy the place, the cute hobbit holes, the round colorful doors, the gardens (“only” 98% of it is real, kudos to the gardeners). It’s very photogenic, so for the photographer in me, it was a wonderful place.
At the end, I was pissed off by the people’s propensity to pose in front of each house – get out of my pics – but it didn’t spoil the overall pleasure.
The guide told us many anecdotes about when the movies were filmed there. In the end, we were moving towards the Green Dragon’s Inn when I noticed birds on the pond. Casually, I took my binoculars out of my backpack, and made two lifers: New Zealand scaup (Aythya novaeseelandiaea) and New Zealand grebe (Poliocephalus rufopectus). I was the only one with binoculars there 😀
Conclusion: Hobbiton is awesome.
At the hostel, I met many youngsters who worked there as guides. I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon and evening before moving on to Rotorua, where steamy adventures awaited. Stay tuned…
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