I chose the quietest table in the shadows at the back of the Shires Rest Cafe and beckoned my companion to take a seat.
Checking that we were alone, with no other covetous eyes watching, I held out my hand to reveal the precious items nestling in my palm...four green and glossy oak leaves from a Hobbit’s tree.
‘I didn’t steal them,’ I promised. ‘They were just lying on the ground, honestly. Do you think I should sell them on eBay?’ My companion laughed. Assessing my ‘find’ was Ian Brodie, one of a handful of people in the world best able to judge its value.
Ian is the author of what is reputedly New Zealand’s best-selling book – and it’s not the Bible, Fifty Shades Of Grey or even Rugby: The All Blacks’ Way. It is The Lord Of The Rings Location Guidebook.
It’s 11 years since the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s trio of movies based on J R R Tolkien’s book. The films were shot in New Zealand and since then the country has become Middle Earth for millions of fans worldwide, obsessives known as ‘Ring-ons’.
The phenomenon is again about to burn as hot as the fires of Mount Doom with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a new trilogy based on the prequel to Lord Of The Rings.
The premiere is on November 28 at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, the country’s capital and Jackson’s home city. The film is then due for worldwide release in cinemas in December.
Fans will have to wait until December 2013 for the release of the next one – The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, with the final instalment – The Hobbit: There And Back Again – scheduled to come out in July 2014.
In the films, Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf the Grey, with Martin Freeman (famous for The Office) in the central role of Bilbo Baggins. There will be much rejoicing among Ring-ons the world over, and especially within New Zealand’s tourism industry.
The government has been collaborating wholeheartedly with the filmmakers, hoping to benefit from a surge in visitors, particularly those based in faraway destinations such as the UK, whose numbers have dropped due to the recession.
Everyone is gearing up for total Hobbitmania. Of course, you don’t have to be a full-time Tolkien-ite to want to travel the 11,500 miles to New Zealand, but even non-Ring-ons will want to include some film locations in their holiday.
After all, they do showcase many of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. But therein lies a problem. Trying to get official information about the filming locations proved nigh-on impossible.
The filmmakers are seemingly keen to keep it all a surprise and confidentiality contracts have been signed by those involved.
But thanks to some friendly Kiwis, I did pick up plenty of clues. And anyway, many of the locations used to represent Middle Earth in Lord Of The Rings have been revisited for The Hobbit.
I started my Hobbit journey in Queenstown, South Island. Queenstown sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by the stunning Southern Alps.
It’s been called the adventure capital of the world and adrenaline junkies by the truckload come here to bungee-jump from bridges or try white-water rafting, jet-boating, skiing and hang-gliding.
I didn’t do any of those, but I did clamber aboard a helicopter for The Grand Circle tour, a breathtaking whizz around the mountain-tops and various Lord Of The Rings locations, landing 4,500ft up on The Remarkables, which became Dimrill Dale in the films.