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Not all those who wander are lost

I’ve always liked kiwi fruit. A slice here and there on a salad gives it a pop that says, “Hey, look what I took time to pick up just for this dish.” But now that Son No. 3’s grand tour has him in New Zealand, “kiwi” has taken on new meaning. Beyond the flightless little bird from that country, kiwi is also slang for New Zealand natives of the human variety. After a week in the isolated and eye-popping New Zealand countryside, our traveler thinks a lot of Kiwis and their home turf.

Since it operates on a different tilt of the earth’s axis, two-island New Zealand is just coming out of its winter. That means jackets and blankets for Son No. 3. Some snow-capped mountains. A trip to see Franz Josef Glacier, one of only two glacial formations in the world that coexist with tropical plant life. Yeah, New Zealand is a land of contrasts, he says.

“It has towering mountains like Alaska and rolling green hills like Ireland. Reminds me of Norway,” he says, referring to a month he spent there in a tent, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Through a window, he shows me a mountain cliff rising up beside the highway he’s cruising in a rented Corolla. Two waterfalls course down its side.

To get to that spot on South Island, the traveler and his Corolla had to cross Cook Strait. That happened by ferry, a rather large one he compared to the USS New York, his ship home during a six-month deployment. “The Strait was really rough,” he acknowledges. Rough enough to require a motion sickness pill for the first time in his life.   

But it was the North Island that really captured his imagination, starting with a walk around Cathedral Cove, where the opening scenes of Narnia’s Prince Caspian were filmed. The boat ride through Waitomo Glowworm Caves was pretty cool, too. There, the Arachnocampa luminosa, a glowworm species found exclusively in New Zealand, lights up the dark in a dazzling display.

“Stinks that you can’t take pictures, though,” the traveler points out. But who needs pictures of glowworms when you can take as many as you want of The Shire? He sent plenty, the kind that you Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans would probably get excited about. That’s because he went to Hobbiton, the movie set for those films.

The story goes that in 1998, director Peter Jackson’s team of scouts went searching for the perfect location for the Lord of the Rings films, one with rolling hills and lush green pastures. They spotted it during a flyover of New Zealand — a stunning 1,250-acre sheep farm with no power lines or roads in sight. That was important since Middle-earth fantasy required the 20th century be left behind. After the films wrapped up, the movie set was turned into a fan destination featuring Hobbit Holes and The Green Dragon Inn.

The tour proved quite a morning for Son No. 3, who says The Lord of the Rings movies meant a lot to him as a young boy: “They gave me an illustration of good fighting against evil. It brought my siblings and me closer as we watched it together, made weapons and acted out war scenes.”

The Shire, he points out, was the heart of the Rings trilogy: “It symbolized home — a place to protect, a place they talked of often during their travels, and a place they dreamed of returning to.”

At Hobbiton, a bus brings visitors up to the set while movie clips and music play. The experience brought back memories for the traveler.

“The guides try to keep it funny with quirky little facts about the set, but I couldn’t seem to laugh. It’s one of those places you see in a movie and just write off as 21st century digital technology. But this was real. I was literally in the middle of a childhood fairytale land.”

There’s real tobacco growing in the gardens and miniature steps for Hobbits. Animals in pens. Fires stirring. Cider and tea for visitors at The Green Dragon Inn.

He says he’s had many unforgettable experiences during his globe trot, but Hobbiton had a childhood tie that made it special: “I only wish I could’ve seen it with my siblings and the biggest LOTR fan I know.”

The biggest LOTR fan he knows? Well, that’s a guy from Brookhaven — Cory Alderman.

“I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring”)

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.