Postcard from the Edge of Fun

Recently I have the opportunity to experience typical fun on 3 continents. This is a summary of the diversity that makes this world so interesting:

New Zealand

Regardless of where you are travelling from, the flight to New Zealand is very, very long, After reading The Economist, listening to an audiobook and watching all 3 Hobbit movies (honestly, I think I read the book faster), I picked up the inflight magazine and read about the Hobbit film set. As I had an afternoon to spare in Auckland, I thought I would match imagination with reality and check out the film set – it seemed to be major tourist attraction (well, major for New Zealand).

The set is located in the middle of a huge sheep farm and access is tightly controlled. Along with security, there are gardeners, guides and actors all over the place, although they seem to have stopped short of employing orcs and trolls, but some of the sheep looked a bit peculiar. The security is understandable, apparently a large number of nutters visit the site every year, such as the 2 meter tall German “hobbit” who turned up (in full costume) claimed he was finally home and tried to move in.

To accommodate the masses, you have to book a time slot and are herded round the set in a group like, well, sheep. Apparently, a large tree was the deciding factor for this location, that and huge (non-financial) support from the New Zealand government. They provided army engineers and grunts to dig out the hobbit-holes and drain a swamp to create a pond – which is beautiful, but was subsequently cut from the movie. Peter Jackson (the director) wanted additional trees on the set, so these were built and each leaf individually wired on. However, the Korean-imported leaves were “the wrong shade of green” and so had to be individually spray painted to meet his rather anal requirements.

The 40 minute walking tour takes you past the pond, the original tree and up through the tiers of hobbit-holes to the spray painted tree (where you can see the wires holding the leaves). Each hobbit hole had the original props (firewood, sausages and fish) setup outside. The holes themselves are, unsurprisingly, facades, concealing cavities big enough to hold a couple of actors, but no more. We were allowed in a single hole for photographic purposes.

The penultimate part of the tour was a visit and drink in the Green Dragon pub – this is not a set, but a money-making locale to get people in the mood before visiting the gift shoppe. The pub is available for weddings, which are apparently quite common. The gift shoppe finale was home to extortionate film merchandise including ridiculously overpriced felt Gandalf hats, non-working rings, posters and other trash that was being snapped up by enthusiastic fans. I would have bought a ring if it worked.

This tour was interesting, but not as orgasmic as some of the die-hard fans in our group seemed to find it. Would I recommend it? On balance, if you are in the area or are a fan, it is worth the trip, but not on its own.

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North America

After crafting Hogwarts in the Islands of Adventure theme park, Universal have now fashioned a 2nd Harry Potter attraction (Diagon Alley) in the neighboring Universal Studios theme park. This is stroke of genius as to visit both Harry Potter sites you now have to buy a (much more) expensive 2-park ticket, but I bit the bullet and coughed up.

I got to the park early and reacquainted myself with Hogwarts as it opened early, but had to walk to Diagon Ally in the other park as the Hogwarts Express train was “late” (ie had broken down). A few trips of the triple decker night-bus would have got us there in comfort, but it was anchored in front of the Diagon Ally façade.

Entering the Alley, the attention detail and the adherence to the word of the books was just phenomenal. Gringotts, complete with escaping dragon, dominates the street, with Flourish and Blotts and Olivanders beautifully reconstructed. This perfectionism carried on in to the ride. The main hall of the bank was gorgeously recreated, the lift down to the vaults realistically simulates a long ride, making you believe you have travelled miles underground. Once there, the walls, floors and ceilings seem to be hewn from solid bedrock. The ride itself was enjoyable, but a teeny bit disappointing – not quite the rollercoaster the book describes and lacking the real-life dragon excitement at the end.

By the time I got out, the Hogwarts Express had “arrived” (ie was fixed) and it was great fun. The carriages were perfect replicas of the crap trains I remember from my youth, complete with rusty patches in the corners and well-worn seats. The train has huge external “windows”, which are actually screens so rather than seeing theme-park backlots, you get to experience the outskirts of London, English countryside (heavily raining), and finally Hogwarts. The internal train “windows”, looking out to the corridor were also clever screens and the shadows of dementors and cast members were shown as a little adventure story unfolds on the train.

Was this worth the horrendous cost of double theme park ticket for Orlando? This time a whole hearted yes, but then Harry has been a bigger part of my life than Bilbo.

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Asia

So much in Singapore revolves around food and so some of the best fun you can have in here is culinary. The food choice is incredible but it takes on an extra dimension in July as it is durian season. Prior to moving here, I had never come in to contact with this fruit, but was intrigued by the “No Durian” signs on most public transport.

The reason for this is that the large prickly buds exude a pungent scent that is difficult to describe – some call it sweaty cheese, some charitably call it moldy onions, garnished with a gym sock – however you describe it, it is certainly pervasive, intense and memorable.

We arrived at the durian stall and foregoing the prepackaged cheaper fruit, went for a whole “premium” fresh one, which was sliced before our eyes – it was a “cat mountain king” durian, the crème de la crème of this “king of fruits”. After accepting it, it was weighed and the 4.8 kilo fruit cost us €65 (US$75), a high price for single fruit, and we sat on a street table. This caused a crowd to gather, as an angmoh (slang for us foreigners) are seldom seen tucking in to such a delicacy and my reaction was carefully scrutinized.

The fruit has large seeds that are covered in a custard-like goo, which has a strange consistency when bitten in to, it was kind of like biting in to a large block of lard. The taste? Well hardly the sublime experience my Singaporean pals had led me to believe, but not unpleasant – creamy, nutty, fruity are all adjectives I would use, certainly unique.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience that I would rate highly. I ate as much as I could and then went for a McDonalds. Would I do it again? McDonalds certainly, durians, probably if they were cheaper.. I am a Kimbell after all.

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