2013 Australia & the Pacific Date Geography

On Sheep and Hobbits – A Bike Ride in New Zealand


In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”.

These words – the first sentence of the book The Hobbit – were written in the summer of 1928 by one John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, on the back of an exam paper he was marking.

At the time J.R.R. was teaching language and literature at Oxford University, specialising in Middle English. Evidently he found this gig no more enthralling than his previous job, where he had edited part of the Oxford English Dictionary, in particular the letter “W”, and even then, not all of the letter “W”, but just those “W” words of Germanic origin. As the author himself later described the moment of inspiration that ultimately led to the writing of his much-loved series of books:

“One of the [exam] candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it, which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner, and I wrote on it: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Names always suggest a story in my mind; eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits are like”. (The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition).

It took almost a decade for those first ten words to evolve into a fully formed novel. The Hobbit was eventually published in September 1937, although it nearly wasn’t. Apparently George Allen, the publisher, was unsure. So he paid his ten-year old son a shilling to read it first. He only gave the go-ahead to publish once junior gave it the thumbs up, and even then the first print run was limited to 1,500 copies. Clearly his son was genetically cut out for the publishing trade though, because within three months the first edition was sold out, the book was reprinted, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although when he scribbled those first words, I doubt that Tolkien could ever have imagined the Hobbit-mania he would be unleashing onto an unsuspecting world, 85 years into the future. Or that his creation would one day claim the entire nation-state of New Zealand, as I learned on a recent visit there.


In last week’s post I mentioned that two of my best friends and I head off together each year for a bit of outdoorsy activity. This normally takes the form of biking, hiking or kayaking (see My Olympic Campaign).

This year we cycled the Rail Trail, a track that runs through Central Otago in New Zealand’s South Island. Over four days of cycling we passed through some truly stunning scenery: crystal-clear rivers rushing through deep mountain gorges; barren plains framed by high jagged mountains and cloudless blue skies; quaint rural villages and sleepy country towns; manicured rolling farmland dotted with fluffy sheep in their millions. (For those who don’t know, there are a lot of sheep in New Zealand. And when I say a lot, I mean a whole lot: about 50 million to be precise, in a country whose human population is only 5 million).

The Rail Trail follows what was once an active railroad that ran from Middlemarch in the east to Clyde in the west. Construction of this remote track began in 1891, fuelled by the gold rush in central Otago that began in the 1860s. Prospectors in their thousands, from all over the world, had poured into the region in search of riches. They filled the local villages, and when that proved inadequate to accommodate them all they set up makeshift tent cities, alongside the fields and riverbeds where they had staked their claims.

The influx of people and economic activity meant a regular transport connection to the coast was needed. Thus the Central Otago railway was born, with the objective of linking the burgeoning inland goldfields to the shipping port of Dunedin. But building it was a slow affair, on account of the harsh terrain and remote locale. Three tunnels and 68 bridges were needed, and the route had to be graded the whole way to avoid steep inclines or declines, so trains could still run in the winter when ice and frost would cover the rails. Overall it took 16 years before the Middlemarch-Clyde section of the line was completed. In other words, construction of this 150 kilometre stretch of rail proceeded at the glacial pace of about 9 kilometres a year.

The irony is that once the line was ready the Otago gold rush had already ended, and thus there was no further use for it. Oops. But having built it, the NZ Government was determined it should be used, and for the next 85 years the line survived thanks to heavy regulatory protection. Its primary purpose was to move bales of wool and live sheep to the coast for export (recall: there are a lot of sheep in NZ). Then in 1983 the regulations were changed, and by 1990 it was clear that the line was not financially viable. It was shut down, and all along its length the towns and villages dependant on the railroad for their livelihood began to wither and die.


So what do you do with 150 kilometres of unwanted rail track that runs through one of the more remote, sheep-infested bits of the planet?

Well in this case, the whole corridor was acquired by the NZ Department of Conservation, in 1993. Over the next six years they set about repurposing it into a cycle track. Rails were lifted, the track gravelled and resurfaced, the bridges and tunnels reconditioned, and cyclist necessities installed along the way (like signposts, and little toilet cubicles that look like Hobbit huts). All this cost quite a bit at the time, and was largely funded by donations and free community labour, as many folks in the Government thought the whole idea a ridiculous waste of public funds.

In 2000 the Rail Trail opened, and has been a smash hit ever since. About 12,000 people now make the trip each year. Rural villages along the trail that were all but abandoned have come back to life, with hotels, pubs, cafes, and cycle-hire stores flourishing. The Rail Trail is today the biggest economic contributor to the area after sheep (as noted, there are a lot in New Zealand). It has been such a success that a few years ago the New Zealand Cycleway Project was launched, with the aim of connecting the whole country – top to bottom – via a series of linked cycle paths.

So much then for the bureaucrat boffins who, if given the choice back in 1990, would have killed the Rail Trail before it ever had a chance. They would instead have handed the land back to local farmers for the noble purpose of yet more sheep husbandry (did I mention there are a lot of these in NZ?).


All of which, in a way, brings us back to the film version of The Hobbit, the second instalment of which has just opened in cinemas worldwide (although unless you are yourself a hobbit living in a hole in the ground, I am sure you did not need me to tell you that, so overwhelming has the film’s media and publicity blitz been). You see, New Zealand is so naturally spectacular and otherworldly that Peter Jackson, Tolkien director-extraordinaire and proud Kiwi chose to film The Hobbit (and its predecessor films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) in his home country. He made use of over forty locations nationwide to bring Middle Earth to life, including many spots in the South Island which we saw on the Rail Trail, or visited later in and around Queenstown.

Rohan, a land inhabited by horsemen in Lord of the Rings, can be found at the Poolburn Reservoir in the Ida Valley. Our bike ride went right past here. The surreal looking moonscape strewn with schist rocks and weird-looking boulders that the Dwarves run across in The Hobbit is the Strath Tieri Valley, not far from Middlemarch, and through which the Rail Trail winds. And the Dale Hills in The Hobbit are actually the stunning Rock and Pillar Ranges which formed the backdrop to our Day Two cycle.

The movie tour continued on our return to Queenstown. We drove past the Ford of Brunien (LOTR) and in less than an hour we could have visited The Misty Mountain Pathway (a.k.a Wanaka’s Treble Cone ski area), or the stunning valley of waterfalls (a.k.a. Earnslaw Burn in Glenorchy). The river that flowed so regally between the Pillars of the King (from The Fellowship of the Rings, second of the LOTR films) is the very real Kawarau River, where I made my dismal debut at white-water sledding (see My Olympic Campaign). And the awe-inspiring peaks of the Remarkables Mountains, background vista to so many scenes in Jackson’s movies, look down on you wherever you may go in Queenstown.

You get the picture. Being in the South Island was, in many respects, like being allowed to wander around unimpeded on a vast film set. Not to mention being allowed to wander around unimpeded inside of Tolkien’s mind. In the words of a hobbit himself (actually the actor Sean Astin who plays one, but close enough): “I recall sitting in Queenstown against the mountain range aptly titled the Remarkables and feeling I was actually living the books. It was like Tolkien had walked across New Zealand.”

In short, on our recent visit we not only got to ride our bikes through the heart of the South Island, but also through the heart of Middle Earth, as well.


So what’s Middle Earth like?

Well first, it isn’t that easy to get there. Filming at the Rock and Pillar Ranges, which we so casually cycled past, required ten helicopters to ferry cast and crew to a mini-city built to host the shoot. Production teams spent months preparing the site (as they did for every other location used). Permission was required from everyone – from local landowners to Maori representatives to the Government. The site required its own electrical and plumbing system, catering and accommodation facilities, and water and sewage disposal. And of course an internet connection, which meant installation of satellite dishes and other hi-tech gizmos. Basically, it is not as simple as you think to get a bunch of dwarves to run across a field.

Second, it is a grand place, where things happen on a larger-than-life scale. For example, The Hobbit props department reported it went through 450 miles of yak hair to make and maintain the wigs used on set. And in the latest Hobbit instalment, Middle Earth’s favourite dragon Smaug skulks around in a fabulous golden lair. Creating that lair on our earth, however, was no simple matter, and required every single pot, tube and stick of gold paint available in the entire country of New Zealand. Even then it was not enough, and more gold paint had to be rushed in, from Germany.

Third, a visit to Middle Earth will inevitably bring out those nut-jobs who’ve lost track of which Earth they really belong to. I read about an American fellow who travelled to NZ, had a gold replica of the ring made, hired a helicopter, and flew over Mount Doom (the Ngauruhoe volcano) just so he could himself throw “the One Ring that rules them all” into the fires, and thereby save humanity from otherwise certain destruction. Or consider the European tourist who arrived at Hobbiton one sunny morning. Nothing unusual in this, as the set where they filmed the hobbit village is now an amusement park of sorts, open to the public for tours and visits. This particular bloke was six-foot-three and dressed like a hobbit, although even this wasn’t a big deal. The real problem came when he squashed himself into a hobbit hole and refused to leave, claiming this was where he belonged. After a twelve hour stand-off he was eventually removed, thanks to Gandalf’s intervention (no, just kidding, it was the police who got him out).

And four, it stokes the passions, in a way that is bound to happen when you mess with something that everyone feels like they know so well. Even within the Tolkien family, it would seem. Christopher Tolkien (the last surviving son of J.R.R.) panned Peter Jackson’s films: “Tolkien has become a monster…. they eviscerated the book by making it an action movie …. commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of this creation to nothing”. On the other hand Royd Tolkien, great-grandson of J.R.R., had a small cameo role in the LOTR films, and declared the more recent Hobbit films to be “brilliant”.

But one thing is not in dispute: here on Real Earth, Middle Earth is big business. The total production cost of The Hobbit movies has apparently approached half a billion dollars. And the three Hobbit films are expected to reap around $3 billion in box-office takings alone. That is a lot of dough for a small imaginary creature with furry feet.


At the conclusion of our cycle tour through Middle Earth, we took a bus from Clyde back to Queenstown. I sat in the front seat next to the driver during the four-hour ride. Along the way we chatted, and he pointed out some sights.

We passed through Ophir, once a bustling gold town, today a near ghost town. We stopped briefly at St Bathans, which at the height of the Otago gold rush had a population of over 3,000. Today maybe 100 people live here, looking out over a big hole dug a century ago by miners, now filled with water that glows iridescent blue from minerals that have seeped in over the years. Nearby we stopped to inspect a school-house, unused for the last sixty years. And a bit further down the road, the driver pointed out an abandoned Chinese mining village, where migrants from China had come, searched for gold, created a mini China-town of their own, and then left.

I learned that our driver was a retired sheep farmer. As we passed mile after mile of sheep-filled farmland, he told me of his forty years on the farm. He said he had led a good life and made a comfortable living, but always at the mercy of meat and wool buyers in faraway places, the weather, and the local banks, to which farmlands are typically mortgaged to the hilt. Of his four children, he said that only one remains “on the land”. The other three, like most of their school mates, had left rural life for the jobs and better prospects of cities in NZ, Australia, the UK and America.

Including one son who worked as a sound engineer, and for the past ten years had lived in Auckland and made his living almost entirely off work connected to the filming of Tolkien’s books. Along with about 3,000 or so other people in New Zealand alone who are estimated to have been employed directly on these films.

sheep face

It occurred to me as we drove along that the sheep and the hobbit, although both cutesy woolly little creatures, occupy opposite ends of a spectrum.

Once upon a time, Central Otago relied on gold, and the region’s mineral wealth motivated the construction of a railway line. But then the gold rush ended, and the whole place had to fall back on sheep. Which provided a comfortable living, to be sure, but not one that’d set the world on fire.

Thanks to a bright spark in the NZ Department of Conservation, the abandoned railway line was re-imagined into the Rail Trail, and new life was breathed into the area. And more recently, it was further reincarnated, this time as a part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, courtesy of Peter Jackson. Where people once came to central Otago for gold and sheep, they now come to ride their bikes, and increasingly to see the places they feel they know from the movies.

This is not just limited to Otago, mind you. Tolkien has become a nationwide phenomenon in New Zealand. The country’s national airline has decorated some of its planes in “hobbit-style”. At most NZ airports these days you are greeted on arrival with images of hobbits and trolls and orcs. You can take any number of Middle Earth tours just about anywhere in NZ; you can visit Hobbiton near Wellington; you can scale Mount Doom; you can hike the valley of the Elves. Or like we did, you can ride your bike across the land of Rohan.


Tourists aside, New Zealand’s young people are now able to move up the food chain, and instead of digging or shearing can aspire to working on blockbuster films, in an industry that traditionally had nothing to with New Zealand. They can create, and not just grow or dig up, something that the whole world wants.

In short, when visiting New Zealand it can seem at times like the whole country has happily become a movie-trailer and giant film-set. As Elijah Wood (who played Frodo in Lord of the Rings) so simply put it: “New Zealand is Middle Earth”.

None of this has come about by accident though. In a globally competitive landscape, New Zealand’s government has fought hard for the rights to be Middle Earth, including extending subsidies worth $67 million to Peter Jackson, and implemented favourable labour laws to entice filming of The Hobbit there. More recently, the same treatment has landed another big fish – only last week James Cameron announced he has agreed to film three Avatar sequels in New Zealand. To qualify for his subsidies he has had to promise to spend at least $500 million in the local economy, host one red carpet premiere in New Zealand, and include a New Zealand promotional clip in every DVD or Blue Ray.

A bargain for New Zealand, if you ask me, yet there are still “those who know better”. Just as there were those who thought more sheep would be a far better idea than the Rail Trail, there are those who would quash the nascent NZ film industry, like the nationalist politicians who have begun demanding that The Hobbit subsidies be repaid, given how successful the films have been.

Or better yet, maybe these pesky film folk should just bugger off back to Hollywood, and leave the Kiwis alone. Who wants to be permanently associated with Middle Earth and hobbits anyway? Life was just fine alone with the sheep, thank you very much.

And that’s my point, really. Wherever I go in the world, I keep bumping into this same tension: between those who have bought into the idea of globalisation, and those who haven’t. Those who want to live in a Global Village, and those who don’t. In a middle-eastern context, author and journalist Tom Friedman has described this as the choice between The Lexus and the Olive Tree. It seems this exact same tension extends all the way to placid, remote New Zealand. Only there it is the choice between the Sheep and the Hobbit.

So for the record, I am a globalist. I love that we live in an international world, where ideas, goods and people can move around the globe, like never before in human history. I love that I can travel to New Zealand in less than a day from just about anywhere, ride a bike along an old rail route in remote Otago, Skype my kids while I am there, and then blog about it all a few weeks later. I love that an English fantasy book started on the back of an Oxford exam paper, fodder of my childhood imaginings in South Africa, can now be brought to life by Hollywood film studios, using as a backdrop New Zealand, of all places.

I enjoyed our visit to New Zealand immensely. It is a stunning country, blessed with natural wonders that are often beautiful beyond imagining. I look forward to going there again, soon. Only if James Cameron’s track record is anything to go by, I suspect that next time I won’t be visiting Middle Earth any longer, but Pandora instead.


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