Just a short distance from Matamata, the stand-in for Hobbiton, is a place depicted to be even nearer than that: Waitomo, or the site of several scenes from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies. In The Hobbit, this is the site of a dangerous show-down at the entrance to a troll cave – the Waitomo Caves, renowned among cave-divers. Later in the series, local farmhouses and private properties become the homesteads of the residents of rural Hobbiton.

Long dirt roads that hosted tense chase scenes are exactly as they appeared in the films – despite the influx of movie-fuelled tourism, the area is still the traditional hamlet it always was. Waitomo is a step backward in time, to a period when farmers collaborated to produce everything a community needed; look hard enough, and you might even see a field of mushrooms.

The Waitomo Caves go much, much deeper than the movies hint, and are more wondrous than even the fantasy epic could have depicted. The legendary glow worms of the Waitomo caves do a better job of illuminating their home than most industrial caving lights, and they’re incalculably more beautiful. People come from all over the world to see the spectacle of New Zealand’s remarkable, cave-dwelling glow worms. Combo tours are available for single-day whirlwind tours of the area’s most essential cave destinations.

Black-water rafting is another option, which sees travellers floating down subterranean rivers, bobbing along waterways that are often millions of year old. Tours are led by expert guides who support and encourage the group through the whole breathtaking event. The Waitomo caves spread out beneath the landscape of the area, letting travellers navigate a spider-web of winding underground waterways. Light and supplies are always available, and the group is never out of communication with professionals on the surface.

The ultimate caving adventure in Waitomo is the Lost World tour, however, which sees travellers rappel (with supervision) down a 100 metre drop, through a collapsed cave roof. From here, either a four- or a seven-hour trip is possible, though each makes sure to include glow-worms, underground waterways, and more.

Not everything takes place underground, of course; Waitomo is home to some of New Zealand’s most famously idyllic scenery. The rolling hills that came to represent the fantastical paradise of JRR Tolkein’s Shire are also one of the island’s most pleasing vacation backdrops.

For more on Lord of the Rings destinations, see this story.

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