Day 8 – Queenstown NZ, December 9, 2003

Today is a little more of a relaxed day. We boarded a small plane in Hamilton this morning for the 25 minute flight north to Auckland and now we’re on our way to Queenstown, on the south island. I’m just now catching up on my journal. The last two days have been rather difficult because of this epic battle of microscopic proportions taking place in my lower intestine and the migraine that decided to join in on the fun. Luckily the worst is now past.

Today is the eighth day of our vacation. The time has gone fairly quickly so far, considering we’ve stayed at five different places, flown over 15,000 miles and driven more than 500km. It doesn’t seem like our trip is nearly half over.

We’ll be in Queenstown for four nights. It will be nice to be in one place for a few days again. We need to do laundry and shopping, and I need to finish my postcards. We should have a bit of time to ourselves this week to finish things up.

Tonight we’re heading to a Maori concert and feast, which should be quite interesting. I love experiencing different cultures. It helps to broaden ones view of the world. As many things as I find different here, I find just as many that are similar. We may all be of different races, creeds or cultures but on the grander scale we’re a part of the same family.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

Day 7, Cambridge NZ — December 8, 2003

WeÂ’ve gone to Hobbiton! IÂ’m still recovering from the flu but feeling much more alive today. This was the day I was most looking forward to. We drove to the down of Matamata and boarded a bus that took us to the movie set for Hobbiton. ThereÂ’s quite a story to tell here.
When New Line Cinema sent out their location scouts across the width and breadth of New Zealand one of their aerial scouts spotted the perfect piece of land for Hobbiton, near the town of Matamata. The land was part of the largest sheep farm in the area. Once identified, New Line sent their representative to contact the owners about filming on their property. Their first attempt was not as successful as theyÂ’d have liked because they came during the middle of a rugby match. When they knocked on the door, they were greeted and told to come back after the match and the door was promptly closed again.
Their second attempt was successful. The family agreed to allow the use of their land for Hobbiton and the three-month process of contracts and paperwork began. All of the filming was done in secrecy. Once all of the legal necessities were out of the way, work began to prepare the set. The New Zealand Army was brought in to build roads. Thousands of man-hours spent constructing hobbit-holes, hills, and trees. The tree above Bag End was actually bought from a farmer, carefully cut down, each piece labeled, and then reassembled on the set. Then artificial leaves were imported from Taiwan and wired to the tree. The party tree, which Bilbo stands beneath during his farewell speech, is an original part of the property, and one of the key features that attracted the location scouts. Standing in front of the party tree, you can circle 360 degrees and not see a single man-made structure. It was a perfect location.
What was amazing is that, normally when a set is done being used, it is completely torn down and destroyed. ItÂ’s standard policy to return the set to its original state. In the case of Hobbiton, there was a change in the weather while the set was being torn down, leaving seventeen hobbit-holes remaining. Apparently, the family was so helpful during the filming of the Hobbiton scenes that New Line decided not to tear down the remaining set and allowed the family to host tours. TheyÂ’ve been in operation for just one year as of today. ItÂ’s pretty amazing. As we were gazing around the set and listening to the tour guide narrate a pair of sheep decided to try climbing in one of the hobbit-holes.
There are a few things I found interesting about the set. First, the amount of effort that went into its construction. Some things were obviously built only for a movie set. Most of the structures were built with untreated lumber, which starts to rot away after a year exposed to the elements. We saw this in a few of the hobbit-houses, where the roofs had collapsed. Luckily the farm was just given permission from New Line, who still own the actual structures, to restore the set to itÂ’s original state when they left it. All of the hobbit-holes were about a foot deep, save for Bag End. Any filming done inside one was done in a studio in Wellington. Bag End was a little deeper, with enough room for a few people to climb inside and look out a window.
By and large this was the best stop of the trip so far. ItÂ’s the only set still intact from the trilogy. The party tree was simply amazing and I find it somehow fitting that Hobbiton has become home to grazing sheep.
Interesting fact: Peter Jackson couldnÂ’t use sheep from the farm for the movie because they have white faces and Tolkien specifically mentions the black faces of the sheep.
Interesting fact: So much polystyrene was used to build the set that it was manufactured on-site. Apparently Peter Jackson was none too pleased, when arriving on set one day, a “Pollywood” sign in the spirit of the famous Hollywood sign.
Interesting fact: I saw much discussion of a possible oops in the first movie, especially visible in the extended edition, where dust rising from a car could be seen in the distance. That, in fact, is true. They pointed out the road the car was on when it happened.
Interesting fact: When Sam says “If I take one more step it will be the farthest I’ve ever been from home”, he is actually about 150 meters from the party tree.

Day 6, Rotorua NZ — December 7, 2003

We made the trip up the mountain to the land of Mordor today. The Whakapapa area, where Mordor was filmed, is home to one of the few active volcanoes in New Zealand. The dark, rocky landscape was filled with the constant aroma of sulpher and ash. It was little wonder they chose this area for filming Mordor.
Unfortunately I caught a bit of travelers flu today. I wasnÂ’t able to climb up the mountain with the rest of the group, opting instead for a nap in the car. The rest of the day was a wash for me, too sick to do anything but sleep and moan.
After the mountain we stopped at the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute for a bit of shopping. While most of the group went inside, the rest checked us in to the hotel and dropped me off so I could sleep in something a bit more comfortable than the back seat of a station wagon.

Day 5 – Ohakune NZ, December 6, 2003

We decided to skip the granola breakfast served at the bed and breakfast. Four of us walked downtown and hit the McDonalds. McDonald’s food is pretty much the same wherever you go. The bacon, I was surprised to see, was actually crispy unlike the rest of the bacon I’ve had here. They also had a super Sausage McMuffin, which was double the meat and cheese. Afterwards we headed back and checked out of our rooms. Today was the start of our road trip and we were all excited to leave.

We drove through some of the most beautiful countryside that I’ve ever seen. Fields of green with fluffy white dots of sheep grazing filled the landscape. We even saw several deer farms. We passed a sign pointing to an Emu farm. Apparently we’ll see some when we reach the south island next week.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

Day 4, Wellington NZ — December 5, 2003

The day started off with a quick bite of breakfast, toast and some sort of nut mixture turned into cereal. It was different but in a good way. Apparently Vegemite is a popular spread in New Zealand but neither of us was brave enough to try it, especially after smelling it.
We picked up the second of the groupÂ’s rental cars and headed out. We drove to and walked through several sites: Kaitoke (Rivendell), Upper Hutt (Isengard Gardens, River Anduin), and Dry Creek Quarry (Helm’s Deep). Rivendell was pretty neat. All of the structure was digital but I was able to climb down to the river and take some neat pictures.
For lunch we stopped off at a little bakery for some meat pie. Steak and Cheese. Yummy.
The afternoon trip was much more exhausting. We drove around to various landmarks in the area. We passed Weta DigitalÂ’s headquarters. I saw someone that looked a lot like Liv Tyler getting out of a car and walking into the building. I got that on videotape but I havenÂ’t looked at it close enough to know if it was her or not. It was surprising to see that there were houses right next to Weta. I wouldnÂ’t have thought that it would be set right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. We drove around to the back of Weta and paused to take a picture or two. The back of the building has big floor-to-ceiling windows in the offices and there were several people standing in front of the window when we stopped. We were all giggling quite madly when they returned our waves. IÂ’m sure theyÂ’re used to tourists stopping by to gawk by now.
We played in the ocean for a while and then stopped by the Chocolate Fish Café for some refreshment. Apparently it was a favorite hangout spot for the actors when they were filming. It’s a nice little place on the beachfront. Having your tea and biscuit can be a bit tricky when the wind is blowing but it was still fun to do.
Apparently we were rested enough so we jumped back into the car and drove up Mount Victoria. ItÂ’s breathtaking to stand atop the mountain and look down on the land all around you. We watched planes land and take-off from the Wellington Airport and spotted the Apple store in the downtown centre.
Heading down the mountain we stopped to find the trail that was used to film the “Get off the road” scene from the Fellowship of the Ring. Armed with our location guidebook, we went off down the wrong trail, a very steep incline that ended in an abrupt drop-off. After trudging back up that path we found the right one, took the obligatory pictures and headed back up the car. My legs haven’t stopped hurting yet. I have a feeling that by the time I get home I’m going to be in better shape than I have in ages.
We closed the night with a big dinner at Mollie Malones, an Irish bar and pub in downtown Wellington. The food was a bit pricy but well worth it. WeÂ’re still having a great time and looking forward to heading out of Wellington in the morning. So far our stay has been limited to the big cities of New Zealand and weÂ’re looking forward to seeing more of the countryside.

Day 3, Wellington NZ — December 4, 2003

The second greatest thrill known to man is flying. The greatest is landing. That dandy little saying is brought to you by the IHOP we stopped at on Day 2. The particular truth of it was revealed today after finally arriving in Wellington after thirteen hours of flying. We also lost the entire day of Wednesday in the process, thanks to that pesky International Date Line thing.
Aside for some minor turbulence the trip across the Pacific Ocean was long and uneventful (as opposed to short and eventful). Everything was going great until we missed our connecting flight in Auckland. Tired, hungry, thirsty and very stinky we made our way what felt like several city blocks to the domestic flight building and managed to secure seats on the next flight an hour later.
ItÂ’s a strange feeling to think that we left Los Angeles on Tuesday night and arrived in New Zealand on Thursday morning. The rest of our group met us in the terminal in Wellington and lead us on a short tour of the airport. On display were armor from both sides in the war for middle-earth. Further down the corridor was a fantastic display containing the fireplace from Bag End, pieces of Rivendell and other various sets from the movies. New Zealand is certainly living up to its reputation as the land of middle-earth.
Next we drove to the guest house we are staying at in Wellington. ItÂ’s a nice little place a few blocks from the downtown area. I donÂ’t know if it was the fact that we hadnÂ’t bathed in close to thirty hours or the blasting jets of hot water but I think the shower we took when we arrived is the best IÂ’ve ever had.
After we took a breather and put on fresh clothes, Annie, Melanie, Dena and myself headed downtown and found a nice little English pub to have lunch at. Dena and I split an order of nachos and, without thinking, I said sure when he asked if we wanted bacon on it. I totally forgot that bacon isnÂ’t served crispy like it is back home. It turns out that itÂ’s more like slices of Canadian bacon, more like ham than anything. It turned out to be quite good, with a slightly sweet barbeque sauce and seasoned tortilla chips. WeÂ’ve wanted around the area a bit until we finally wound up in a little shopping center where weÂ’re filling out postcards, updating our journals and saving some energy for tonight. Tonight we get to see The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition in the Embassy Theatre, home of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
WeÂ’re going to be dead tired by the time we get back to the room, but itÂ’s worth it. I havenÂ’t heard all the details for tomorrow but I believe it involves driving around and seeing local sites around the city.

Day 2, Los Angeles — December 2, 2003

We started off the day with a hearty breakfast at IHOP. The waitress laughed at us when we all ordered nearly the same breakfast – a western skillet with sausage (bacon for me) and eggs over easy.
Since we skipped Santa Monica yesterday we decided to make it our first stop of the day. We took a long drive north and west until we finally reached the city. We passed by 3rd street, which someone recommended to me as a good place to stop, but the glimpse of the great blue sea had caught our eyes. We pulled over next to a park that overlooked the pier and took some pictures. There were quite a few homeless people in the park. I suppose if I were to live on the streets I would pick a warm spot, too. The homeless of Los Angeles that we saw were rather subdued compared to other large cities IÂ’ve been in (Chicago and San Francisco come to mind). The only odd moment was when I saw two men sitting on benches around an artillery gun in the park passing a homemade pipe back and forth.
We were getting bored with seeing the ocean from a distance so we jumped back in the truck and drove down to the pier. IÂ’ve seen pictures of Santa Monica Pier before, mostly on TV or in the movies. It was the middle of the day (noon by my watch; ten in the morning local time) on a weekday so there were no crowds to be seen. It was nice to see the pier while things were slow. There were old men standing or sitting around the railing with fishing poles at hand and a few kids hanging around the arcade. The rest of the people there were tourists like us, shooting pictures of things that are no doubt mundane to the locals but fascinating to use visitors.
Back down the pier and on to the beach we went. Groups of children ran around – part of a school group learning about the oceanfront. Dena and Annie were smart and wore sandals and dabbled their toes in the cold Pacific waters. There was a pretty good tide coming in and they both got splashed. It was fun.
Back to the truck and we were off again. After about two hours of driving we decided that it would have been a really good idea to pick up a decent map. We finally got lucky and found our next destination, Mann’s Chinese Theatre. We parked and ran out in front of the theatre and joined the crowd of tourists taking in the sights. Next time we come to LA we know where to get tickets to TV tapings. We were offered seats to three different shows while walking around that block. Unfortunately we were running low on time or we would have grabbed the tickets to the Jimmy Kimbel Show. It was neat seeing the stars on the sidewalk that lined that block and the hand and foot prints in the concrete in front of the theatre. None of that was as cool as what happened next. We were across the street, walking towards the theatre so we could get a good shot from a distance. We noticed a slight commotion ahead in front of a restaurant and a limo pull up in front of it. We walk up to see what’s going on and Alice Cooper walks out of the burger joint. Apparently he only signs one autograph per public sighting so by the time I got my camera ready he was already climbing into the car. I think I managed to capture a frame or two of him, but I’ll need to dig out the video camera to find out (and I’m in the airport now). As I was standing there trying to catch a glimpse a scraggly man who could have easily been mistaken for a homeless guy stepped up to the open door and leaned in to talk to Alice. They talked for a few minutes and it was only as he was walking away down the sidewalk that I caught his name – Rob Zombie. My first thought was, “Jorge isn’t going to believe this!” (Jorge being a fellow brother of all things Metal). I snapped a few photos of him. It was hard to tell if it really was the famed rocker or not. He looked…normal. Wearing old jeans and a ball cap, I would have passed him on the street and never taken a second look. I guess that’s one advantage to costume and makeup when in the public eye. Take it all off and it’s not quite so easy to recognize you.
We spent a good forty minutes or so walking around Hollywood Blvd., but finally it was time to go. We still needed to grab some lunch and drop off the rental.
Now, itÂ’s just after ten at night (eight local) and weÂ’re sitting in the terminal at gate 27, counting the minutes (one hundred and eleven, the same number as Bilbo when he left the Shire) until our plane departs. Our fourth traveling companion, Melanie, has just arrived and is up at the service counter getting her boarding pass printed. We managed to arrange for the four of us to sit together on the twelve-hour flight across the Pacific.
Because of the way the time change works, weÂ’ll leave here on Tuesday evening and arrive just after seven in the morning on Thursday. ItÂ’s going to be a little weird keeping our days straight at first but IÂ’m sure weÂ’ll manage it alright. On the return flight weÂ’ll actually touch down in Los Angeles before we leave New Zealand. Pretty nifty, eh?
IÂ’d been told by a few people that getting wireless internet access in Los Angeles Airport is a piece of cake but apparently theyÂ’ve never been to this international terminal. In order to get online I would need to walk back through security and down two or three terminals. Thanks, but no thanks. I even fired up MacStumbler and walked around the terminal in hopes of finding a signal but again I was denied. Once we reach Wellington IÂ’ll be able to find some way of getting online and posting this.
The first short leg of our journey is complete. WeÂ’ve made it from Chicago to Los Angeles and just like Sam and Frodo as they left the shire, our small fellowship is about to take another step and be farther from home than weÂ’ve ever been before. Onward we go.

Day 1 – Los Angeles, December 1, 2003

The limo showed up precisely at four in the morning. I think this was only my second time riding in a limousine. The trip to the airport was flawless. I think most of the holiday traffic had left on Sunday and we were on the road too early for the Monday morning commute to congest the interstate.

After a short delay due to the cold Chicago weather wreaking havoc on the sanitation systems on the airport (I don’t want to think what froze in those pipes) we were in the air and on our way to the great city of Los Angeles. We flew a bit over four hours and got to watch “Seabiscuit” on the way. Aside from the cramped seats it was a comfortable flight.

The single smartest thing we did in Los Angeles was rent a car. I’d never rented a car before but Dena convinced me it would be a good idea. We had made a reservation with Enterprise and when we got there they offered us an upgrade to an SUV for five bucks. How can you pass that up? Plus, since I drive a Jeep Grand Cherokee now I wanted something I’d be comfortable driving around unfamiliar streets.

Armed with the inadequate freebie map from Enterprise we headed out on to the mean streets of LA. We headed north, originally intending to go to Santa Monica and the beach but we sidetracked a bit and ended up in Beverly Hills. We kept heading north and west, through the sexually diverse streets of West Hollywood and the bright lights of Hollywood. While driving through tinsel town we spotted the landmark “HOLLYWOOD” sign through a brief break in the fog/smog. We veered north to Griffin Park and parked near the Griffin Observatory. From there we trekked on foot up the mountain a bit and took some pictures. By that time we it was about two in the afternoon and we were getting tired after the little sleep the night before. Back to the car we went, but not without a vow that we’d have to come back to Los Angeles again when we had more time and hike all the way up to the top.

Our strategy through the entire stay in LA was to take as many city streets as possible. We wanted to see as much as we could and driving via freeway wasn’t the way to do it. We were making our way south towards the hotel when we ran into the La Brea Tar Pits. Well, not literally run into them. That would have been a sticky situation. Ha-ha. We stopped and took a short walk around one of the tar pits. It was neat to see the bubbling eruptions of methane gas on the surface of the gooey surface.

From there we headed due south until we found the Ramada Plaza Hotel I booked online. After some of the dives we passed in LA I was glad to see that this was a pleasant surprise. We rolled in and registered. When I asked the clerk at the desk if they had internet access in-room, she replied affirmative in a cheerful voice. Apparently to them, internet access means either plunking down twelve bucks for webtv-like access or use a phone line for the low, low price of fifty cents a minute. I could care less. I just wanted to freshen up.

After a bit we decided to grab a bite to eat. None of us felt like going to the bar and grill attached to the hotel so we ventured back out. We managed to hunt down an In-and-Out Burger near the airport and showed Annie what a proper milkshake is supposed to taste like. The only other In-and-Out Burger we’d been to was in Las Vegas and once is enough to hook you.

We dragged our full bellies back to the hotel and at the late hour of eight (six local time) we passed out. Despite the hard mattress we managed a solid eleven hours of blissful sleep.