TechEd New Zealand is at the Sky City Convention Center – part of Sky City Auckland which includes casinos, shops, restaurants and a hotel where we are staying. Feels sort of like a Vegas hotel, as if they don’t expect you to spend much time in the rooms. For example, there is very little dresser space – I’m guessing the typical guest comes for just a weekend. But it’s very nice. Sky City Tower is the highest tower in the southern hemisphere. There’s a restaurant at the top where we went last night for the speaker’s dinner. You can also jump off the tower in a rig similar to what stuntmen use. It’s the tallest basejump in the world – 192 meters straight down. I have no interest in that whatsoever, but Jules wants to do it. I think the only thing keeping her from trying it is the fact that I don’t think I could watch, which means I couldn’t videotape it.
Yesterday, we rented a car and drove across the New Zealand countryside, even though they drive on the left side of the road here. It took me a while to get used to it, but I think I did OK – no accidents, no near misses and only caught myself on the wrong side of the road once. I’m glad we upgraded to an automatic – I can’t imagine shifting with my left hand! Hardest thing was staying in the lane, since everything was backwards. I kept wanting to have a car width between me and the right edge of the lane, which meant I kept ending up half in the next lane over (or on the shoulder). Jules almost yanked the door handle off – she said it was very unnerving to sit in what back home is the drivers seat and yet have no control. By the end of the day, however, Jules and I had both adjusted quite well to driving on the “wrong” side of the road, thank you very much.
We drove two hours to Matamata, which is where the Hobbiton sequences of LOTR were filmed. Matamata itself is pretty small – 6,000 city residents with another 7,000 in the surrounding “suburbs”. I’m fairly sure that more people work on MSFT’s main campus. Sort of gives you a different perspective of scale – Matamata doesn’t even have a stoplight – just a series of traffic circles along their main drag. In fact, in five hours of driving around NZ, we saw exactly one stoplight outside of Auckland – controlling traffic across a one lane bridge! Many of the shops in Matamata were closed, seemingly for the winter. I’m guessing there are a lot more tourists in the summer – Matamata has it’s own KFC and Subway is “opening soon”. We ate at a local bakery where you can get a wide variety of fried food – fish, chicken and crab. They sure like fried food here – at dinner last night, we were served fried mashed potatoes.
While most of LOTR was filmed on the southern island of New Zealand, Hobbiton was filmed on a 500 hectare sheep farm just outside of Matamata. The owners of said sheep farm run official tours where you get to spend around an hour and a half wandering around the remains of the set. “Remains” is the operative word here as over half of Hobbiton was destroyed after filming was completed. All of it was scheduled to be destroyed, but the production company only got half done before the weather forced them to stop. They were going to come back and finish the job, but the farm owners petitioned New Line Cinema for permission to keep the rest up and run tours. In fact, of the 150+ locations used in LOTR, only Hobbiton was not completely returned to its natural state. Most of the locations used were national parks and the like, so keeping the sets up wasn’t really an option. New Line also seems to be very concerned that no one “leverage” the sets. For example, as you can see from the pictures, the hobbit holes are pretty much holes in the side of a hill now – all of the set dressing has been removed. The tour guide indicated that they would like to return the set to as it appeared in the movie, but New Line won’t let them. The legal aspect of the set is interesting – the land belongs to the farm owners, but the sets on that land belong to New Line. Their control of the sets seems a bit draconian to me – it is absolutely forbidden to record any sort of story reenactment in the remaining set pieces – but hey, it’s their IP. Regardless, it was awesome. We stood under the Party Tree, “danced” on the Party Field and stood inside Bag End.