Entirely unexpectedly I was headed for New Zealand. That’s the idea behind surprise presents. I did know about it before having to get on the plane – a current passport being a requisite – but it was still a surprise. Shelley decided we were off to the land of the long white cloud while we still were both on Christmas leave.

I’ve been remiss in posting the conclusion of The Shire Armies on Parade build, so the synopsis is that I came first in my category and now I’ve got a big Hobbit diorama and nowhere to put it. The point of mentioning that should be fairly self evident. A trip to the actual Hobbiton, Shelley reasoned, would be entirely appropriate. She was right.

With four days to spend, we had two in Auckland and two in Wellington. From Auckland to Matta Matta we visited Hobbiton. It’s a combination of impressive and eerie. It’s bigger than I expected, the overall scene benefitting from the expansions created for the later Hobbit trilogy. It’s very well kept and the set dressers have the major challenge of making things look like they’re old, worn, but still used, except they’re not at all. Everything is outside all the time it is worn and old, but not used. But that’s not the look they’re going for. It’s a pretty specific design brief that, now that I’ve thought about it, may provide some alien species with a window into the world that we’ve managed to manufacture for ourselves. And its appeal isn’t just to the Western sensibilities, our group had people from every continent (except Antarctica). These days I don’t often get to use the term metaphysical topography, but I can today. There was a weird overlay of familiarity, awareness of what had taken place on the space, and the absence of Frodo and Ian McKellan that all combined to make Matta Matta a very odd but enjoyable unexpected journey.

I got to the same spot and was able to take a photo of the same thing that many, many of my forebears had. I’m fairly happy with the comparison, given that my intention wasn’t one-for-one recreation:


From Matta Matta to Waitomo we went, observing the dramatic difference between Australian roadside landscape and New Zealander. New Zealand is very green (apparently they have no native plant that has inflorescence other than green) and there are a lot more cows than you’d expect. “This is Tatianui. Yet another town in the middle of nowhere…” our bus driver informed us. “…they like whipped cream here.”. It was valuable information. The caves were populated with equal numbers of glowworms and tourists. We embarked on a short, silent boat ride, the roof of the cave looking startlingly like the night sky but with a eerie blue-green tinge. A remarkable experience, and high on my list of  places to live. We made it back to Auckland in the evening and headed to Wellington the next morning.

I don’t know what the background story of our bus driver was, but there’s no doubt she was mad. An apparent encyclopedic knowledge of the film and entertainment industry of New Zealand combined with an indifference to road rules made for an interesting excursion to Weta Workshop. Peter Jackson owns a lot of real estate in the area. We watched a swordmaster smithing blades for an undisclosed upcoming production.  We tried on impressively light heavy dwarven armour, got some insights into fake chainmail and lightweight casting materials. At around this time I started to feel rather faint. I’ve never had an instance where adverse environments or extended periods of physical strain have lead to anything more than a headache, but for some reason the floor wasn’t feeling stable, my mouth had gone dry and there were waves of nausea. It was surprising and alarming at the same time. I put it down to very little sleep, very little water and a lot of wine over the preceding 48 hour period. But nothing came of it in the end, except that I have trouble remembering specifics from those few hours. Weird how the brain works!

Wellington is a very nice place. They kept talking about the high winds, which I have no doubt are a thing, but while we there we didn’t  experience anything of it. We were either very lucky or Wellingtonians have never been to Tilba Tilba. The botanic gardens are of good quality and the cable cars up the mountain are a novelty for tourists but a functional form of transport for students at the same time. Also, The Tooting Tunnel is cool. From there we headed off from Wellington back to Sydney.

I like airports. But I don’t like being stuck in them for half a day which is unfortunately what happened. It was hard to tell what exactly the problem was but at the end of the day (and it was, at around midnight) we were told the replacement replacement flight wasn’t going to fly so we’d have to stay overnight. Shelley threatened to get a hire car and drive. It certainly would have been faster but the rental car place was closed and the roads were closed because of the bushfires. So our hand was forced – a brief taxi ride to the hotel and a few hours of sleep later we were back, ready to board the first flight. This flight was delayed, too. Heavy smoke from the bushfires which had been plaguing the eastern edge of the country was so dense that aircraft were arriving in Canberra airspace and then having to turn around because the smoke was so thick that landing was impossible. Eventually we did board and headed into the apocalyptic air. We weren’t turned around, but the intensity of the smoke as we descended was remarkable. I’ve come in to land in pretty severe weather before but nothing like this.. it wa a brown orange blanket that immediately filled the cabin with the smell of burning. Modern avionics prevailed and we landed without incident. Glad to be back but sad it was over, our lighting visit to the land of the long white cloud was indeed an unexpected journey. I’d certainly do it again!