Michael McLaughlin at Hobbiton Movie Set
Credit: Courtesy of Michael McLaughlin

Editor’s Note: During this period of social distancing, Youth Travel Planner will continue to provide ideas for planning educational travel. Many attractions and destinations are closed at this time; please contact them directly for updated information. Michael McLaughlin traveled with students to New Zealand and Australia in 2019. We hope his story can provide travel inspiration until you can explore New Zealand in person.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the wizard Gandalf says, “the world is not in your books and maps, it’s out there.” I am the Head of Middle School at Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts, and oversee the school’s travel programs. New Zealand’s North Island was the first leg of our two-week journey for high school students to New Zealand and Australia. Immersion in authentic experiences led to conversations and cultural exchange, making my students’ greatest adventure the perspectives they gained about the world and themselves.

Geothermal discoveries

Situated on the edge of two tectonic plates, the Rotorua region of New Zealand boasts the highest concentration of hot springs and geysers on the planet. A visit to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland provided a glimpse into how millennia of geothermal activity sculpted the landscape.

We began our visit at the Lady Knox Geyser. First discovered by prisoners washing their clothing at a hot spring in 1901, the geyser now erupts daily. The induced jet of water can reach heights up to 20 meters — and the signage at the observation deck wasn’t kidding with its warning that spectators will get wet!

Lady Knox Geyser, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Credit: Courtesy of Michael McLaughlin

A park guide led us on an informative walk of the geothermal area. As we traversed the misty landscape, we were treated to mesmerizing vistas. Each water pool was tinted a dazzling color, its hue drawn from the unique mineral deposits released from the earth’s core.

The most vivid one was the lime green Devil’s Bath. A dip in this acidic mud would dissolve human skin. Thankfully, the heat (and guardrails) deter visitors from diving in. Sulfuric fumes — think lots of rotten eggs — also wafted up from the depths and kept us from lingering too long! We had to balance pinching our noses with snapping photos of this otherworldly terrain.

Māori cultural exchange

The Māori settled Aotearoa — the land of the long white cloud — seven centuries ago. One of the most enriching days on our tour was the afternoon spent with the Kohutapu Lodge in Galatea, New Zealand. Our Māori guide named Enah greeted each of us with the hongi, the traditional Māori greeting of touching our noses to each other.

New Zealand
Māori greeting
Credit: Courtesy of Austin Prep School

Enah brought us to the town of Murupara. We visited a school where students taught us the world-famous “Ka Mate,” the Haka also performed by the All Blacks Rugby Team. The students taught us the story and importance of the Haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge. They helped us pronounce Māori words and shared the meaning behind the different gestures. We concluded the lesson by performing the Haka alongside our hosts. This immersive experience provided students with an appreciation for the Māori culture that no textbook could hope to replicate.

We then drove to the Kohutapu Lodge where we met Nadine Toe Toe. She gathered us around the hangi pit where her husband Karl was about to uncover a feast. Hangi is a traditional way of cooking by digging a pit in the ground and using hot stones to cook. What a banquet we had! Chicken, pork, pumpkin and stuffing emerged — along with sides like pineapple coleslaw and fried sweet bread.

Nadine spoke about the lodge’s community mission. Kohutapu invests the proceeds from groups (like ours) back into Murupara. For example, extra food is brought to local schools and the elderly. Over the past five years, the couple has delivered over 20,000 meals. The students were eager to help Nadine package the remaining food and were proud that she considered them part of her whānau (family).

Adventure awaits in New Zealand

New Zealand is considered the adventure capital of the world. While my students didn’t participate in a gravity-defying bungy jump, there were plenty of other offerings for them to enjoy.

Austin Prep students at Rotorua Adventure Park
Credit: Courtesy of Austin Prep School

Rotorua’s Velocity Valley Adventure Park provided students with a menu of thrills. I watched their activities from the spacious clubhouse deck where I cooked up a barbeque lunch.

My students’ favorite thrill was the Shweeb Racer. This is the only pedal-powered monorail in the world. Students paired up to race three laps around the 200-meter course. With an extra dessert on the line for the winner, students were eager to power through this unique experience.

Skyline Rotorua offered a different menu of attractions the following day. We ascended into the foothills of Mount Ngongotaha Scenic Reserve by gondola. On our ride, we experienced spectacular views of Lake Rotorua, the city and steaming geothermal springs.

Once atop, my students opted for the fast-paced fun of the luge track. Part go-cart, part toboggan, this adventure was one they all felt comfortable enjoying. They learned the ins and outs of the cart with a ride on the 2-kilometer scenic course through the Redwood Forest. After a speedy chairlift ride back to the summit, advanced tracks with twists and turns were an adrenaline-filled cap to the afternoon.

There and Back Again: Hobbiton Movie Set

A quick bus ride from Rotorua transported us to the fictional world of Middle Earth and a guided tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set in Hinuera, New Zealand. The tour was steeped in Lord of the Rings trivia, making this a bucket-list quest for fans of Tolkien and director Peter Jackson.

New Zealand
Austin Prep students at Hobbiton Movie Set
Credit: Courtesy of Austin Prep School

As we walked through the 12-acre site, our guide pointed out where various moments in the film occurred like the village green, the venue for Bilbo’s eleventy-first (111th) birthday party.

It was incredible to see the level of detail that designers and decorators added to the film set. Each Hobbit hole communicated a mini-biography of its inhabitants — intricacies I missed when watching the movies. One had fishing poles, a fish-themed mailbox and a sign proclaiming “gone fishing.” Another was decorated with honey pots, flowers and bees.

Between the scale and realism of the entire set, we half-expected to see Hobbits tilling their gardens and going about their day. The students assumed this role instead. Several posed in the doorway of one Hobbit hole to welcome the rest of our group to the Shire.

Most iconic of all is Bag End, Bilbo and Frodo’s home. A sign tacked on the front gate read “No admittance — except on party business.” I was glad when my students indulged me in re-creating a couple of my favorite scenes from the films, including the moment where Bilbo runs down a path exclaiming “I’m going on an adventure!” The tour finished with refreshment at the Green Dragon. Students enjoyed a fresh-baked scone by the fireplace before it was time to, like the Hobbit, be off on our next journey.

Article by Michael McLaughlin, Head of Middle School at Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts.