On a journey to visit “The Shire” in New Zealand, this writer drove two BMWs and formed a fellowship with three journos, the shortest of whom turned out to be a Singaporean hobbit.
HOBBITS are small human- like characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The have hairy legs, are about half as tall as the average human, and have little to no magic in them.
If hobbits were real, they would reside in Matamata, which is about two hours’ drive from Auckland, New Zealand. You see, Matamata is home to Hobbiton, the movie set for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The aim of this adventure was to visit Hobbiton. Our fellowship consisted of four journalists who were paired up to drive two BMWs – the X2 and the 6 Series Gran Turismo (GT).
I hopped into the X2 with my co-driver, the vertically challenged editor of Sgcarmart, for the start of our drive from the Heritage Hotel in Auckland.
The X2 is a handsome hatchback with raised suspension. Because it isn’t as tall as an SUV, it should handle better and have less body roll.
IF HOBBITS WERE REAL, THEY WOULD RESIDE IN HOBBITON, MATAMATA, WHICH IS ABOUT TWO HOURS’ DRIVE FROM AUCKLAND.
The X2 felt like a hot hatch, while the 640i Gran Turismo (far right) performed like a luxurious and very rapid land barge.
Our test unit was the sDrive20i variant with 192hp and 280Nm, enough to propel it to 100km/h in 7.7 seconds. Okay, perhaps it’s a nanosecond slower with my muscular (the wife calls it fat) 78kg physique at the helm and my buddy’s 50-something kilogram mass (or lack of) in the passenger seat.
Our first stop after an hour of driving was Kawakawa Bay, which has an amazing shore made of shellfish shells. A sign told us that each person could only gather fifty cockles daily.
As I divided the one gazillion shells on the shore by 50 to find out how many humans had consumed cockles there, my iPhone hung.
We stopped further down the coastal road at Whakatiwai for more photo opportunities. I took a few shots of the landscape behind the Firth of Thames because it reminded me of the Windows XP default wallpaper.
Hobbiton was closed by the time they arrived, but the writer (far left) was less disappointed than his co-driving hobbit.
At this point, I needed to pee and made my way to the beach to explore sites where I could increase the volume of the bay. Just then, a family of five arrived and I had to abandon my noble plans.
So, off we went with my full bladder. The route through Miranda and Kopu had no rest-stops or establishments for me to relieve my suffering organ. Kopu offered some scenic winding roads and the X2 displayed its hot hatch-like character by delivering composed handling and a racy engine note.
My “water bag” was about to burst when we arrived at Coromandel Forest Park. I dashed into the forest to water the flora. I was not afraid of snakes because there are no snakes in New Zealand.
For lunch, we stopped at Blackies Café in Whangamata. The temperature was 20 degrees Celsius, perfect for alfresco dining.
My buddy and I decided to share a delicious pizza with ham, pepperoni, onions, gluten-free bacon and BBQ sauce. We were too shy to order another as everyone else had almost finished their food.
The beautiful landscape behind the Firth of Thames reminded the writer of the Windows XP wallpaper “Bliss”.
After lunch, we swopped cars. Compared to the X2, the 640i GT is a luxury barge, albeit a damn fast one!
With a turbocharged 3-litre 6-cylinder producing 340hp and 450Nm, it does zero to 100km/h in 5.3 seconds.
The 640i’s mile-chomping ability and supreme on-board comfort were just at home on the snaking country roads of New Zealand as they would be on German autobahns.
To drive it enthusiastically through the bends, “Sport+” mode is recommended where, inter alia, the suspension firms up to combat body roll.
We drove around the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park en route to Matamata. But when we arrived at 4:45pm, Hobbiton Movie Set was closed!
I was disappointed to be unable to experience the little hobbit homes. Unlike my driving buddy, I probably had to dance the limbo to enter them.
At this point, I realised that my co-driver has hairy legs and couldn’t even do simple magic tricks…
We spent about an hour taking photos against the Hobbiton signage to pretend we had visited the movie set. We then headed for our rest stop at the Novotel Rotorua Lakeside Hotel.
Our dinner was at Stratosfare Restaurant, nestled in Mount Ngongotoha. We had to take a ride up in a cable car, colloquially referred to as a gondola. The establishment, which serves a variety of international fare, offers a panoramic view of Lake Rotorua and the town below. I would never have guessed that I would experience the best Indian butter chicken with basmati rice there.
The writer claimed that his bodily ballast caused him to finish last in the friendly go-kart race.
The following day, our journey included a bit of off-roading at Adventure Playground Rotorua. The highlight of the hour-long 4x4 CanAm experience was stopping at the halfway point to soak in the majestic view of Lake Rotorua in all its glory.
I think our host also wanted to find out who amongst us is the fastest driver, for she organised a karting race at Off Road NZ, too.
I crossed the chequered flag in a respectable fourth place, which was also last. They should have added ballast to the karts of my fellow scribes, especially the hobbit’s. I lodged an official complaint with the race organisers, but it fell on deaf ears.
Afterwards, we drove 90km to Hamilton for lunch. The Palate restaurant in this city is known for serving excellent food paired with great NZ wines. As it was lunchtime, we restrained ourselves and did not put the kitchen to the test.
My entrée was most memorable – I had the Organic Chicken Liver Parfait with buttermilk crumpet and Chioggia beetroot. It was exquisite and had a surprising durian-like aftertaste.
For the main course, I tried the Braised Lamb Shank with soft polenta and Porcini sausage. I finished off the meal with Salted Caramel Ice Cream Affogato with Frangelico liqueur. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found the serving too small.
Our route back to Auckland from Hamilton was punctuated with traffic jams, which was not surprising given that it was a late Friday afternoon. The trip, which was supposed to take less than two hours, took three.
In the jam, I was grateful to luxuriate in the drawing room-like cabin of the 640i GT. The hobbit in the front passenger seat even caught more than forty winks.
The X2 and 6 Series Gran Turismo each offered a different driving experience. Sporty drivers will appreciate the X2, while comfort-seekers with a larger entourage should opt for the 6 Series GT.
The two-day NZ driving adventure was topped off with more wining and dining at Sugar Club, on the 53rd floor of Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower. With a height of 328m, Sky Tower is the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere.
After dinner, my driving buddy and I treated our host to a few drinks at a pub. According to him, it was just around the corner from our hotel. Nevertheless, it took him 20 minutes to find it.
Hobbits also have no sense of direction.