A light for when all others go out…

Today I added to what I like to call my ‘accumulation of experience’ (i.e. I did something really cool, that I will always remember and be glad that I did). I reluctantly left the chilled out Raglan at some ungodly hour this morning, and headed to Waitamo Caves in order to see the Arachnocampa luminosa, or glow-worms, which can only be seen in NZ and Australia. They aren’t actually worms – actually they’re the larvae of flies (i.e. maggots), but perhaps that was harder to market to the tourists.

The tour was split between two caves. The first tour took us through Cathedral Cave, which is a huge underground cavern, and famous for its amazing acoustics (Dame Kiri Ta Kawana has famously performed here in the past). The guide asked if anyone wanted to sing, which generally prompted uncomfortable shuffling and shoe-gazing amongst the group. However, as you may or may not know (you will know if you’ve ever shared a house with me), I love to sing, and I couldn’t miss this opportunity. Clearly another girl felt the same, and we offered to give it a go. She was German, and in the end, the only song we both seemed to know and could think of on the spot (my mind went completely blank) was kum-by-yah. But I added the harmonies in and I think we did a decent enough rendition, although it hardly felt grand enough for such a special auditorium. Glad I was brave enough though – a special memory to take away with me.

Talking of special memories, the last part of the first tour was a boat ride down an underground river in the pitch black, with myriad twinkling, greenish lights shining down on us from the roof above. I can’t explain how spine-shiveringly magical this was. The Maori word for glow worms is titiwai, which means stars over water, and is the perfect description. Distance becomes meaningless in the thick darkness and, as the boat performed a slow pivot, I lay back and felt drawn in by the lure of the glow, feeling both tiny and massive at the same time. The glow-worms use the combination of the light to lure aquatic invertebrates from the river below, and dangling, beaded threads of saliva, which the hypnotised invertebrates become ensnared in and the worms then reel in. Death by allure – I never cease to be enthralled by nature’s deadly beauty and ingenuity. I tried to imagine how the first explorers felt when they first saw a sky of green stars inside the caves – possibly that they’d died and this was heaven. How else would you explain it back then?

It felt very Indiana Jones as we re-entered the light in thick jungle-like forest, through a stalactite-studded cave entrance. A huge eel loitered in the muddy water just outside, like a guardian of the magic world inside.

The second tour was just as wonderful. We explored the magnificent cave system of Ruakuri, which means ‘two dogs’ in Maori. The caves were discovered by a Maori warrior who was attacked by two dogs, which he then followed and killed, and in the process found this beautiful subterranean world sculpted by water. One of the caves was then used as a Maori burial site, and the area is therefore very sacred to the Maori, and we couldn’t enter certain areas.

I’ve never been properly underground before, and I was staggered by the variety of formations from the calcification of the slow drip of water. There was delicate cave coral, glistening flowstones, translucent veils of carbonate in frozen ripples, and all kinds of wonky stalactites and stalagmites. The cave terminology was wonderful too – rimples, avens, dolenes… It takes approximately 100 years to form one squared centimetre of calcium carbonate, so the process of creation is mind-bogglingly slow. Of all habitats on earth, the underground is the most lethargic, but never static. We also had the chance to see glow-worms up close, which is rather earth-bumping, as you realise that the ethereal light is actually emitted from the arse-end of dull-coloured, slimy worms that look like smudges of snot across the walls! Still, such knowledge could never detract from the overall effect of them all sparkling together, reflected in the still waters of the river below.

Between the two tours, I took a walk through damp, lush (sorry, Jen!) forest, with all kinds of interesting mosses, liverworts and ferns, and then popped out in a meadow, which climbed up to a look-out point. The field flora was eerily British – red and white clover, selfheal, thistles, knotweed, crested dog’s-tail grass, rye-grass, ribwort plantain – it was like a roll-call for a typical patch of semi-enriched neutral grassland in the UK, even though we’re on the other side of the world – odd. Perhaps I could get an ecology job out here?! I had my lunch and did some yoga at the top of the hill with a 360 degree panorama of green, rolling pasture and forest, to the melodious warblings of unknown birds, watched over by a silently benign dead tree, and with the warm wind blowing across my skin – another special memory.

I know I’ve gone all gushy and poetical today, but it’s just been one of those days and I need to share! To bring things back down to a less effusive level, I am now killing time in the uninspiring city of Hamilton before taking a night bus to Wellington tonight. Not many places seem open, so I am using the free wi-fi in a fairly ropy cafe, having just eaten a stale muffin. Probably won’t be retaining this particular memory…

Cheesy shot of me inside Ruakuri.

I’m quite proud of this photo, as I finally worked out how to zoom in on the foreground on my camera. The unfurling fern is symbolic in Maori of personal growth, positivity and hope for the future. Fitting I thought.

My favourite moss of the day – errr, hello – geek alert…

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6 Responses to A light for when all others go out…

  1. Jen says:

    Your nature-identification brings on a wry smile when I think back to our days bemused by biologists in Bulgaria! Those caves sound wonderful Beck – took me far away from my peanut butter sandwich at my desk!

  2. Pru says:

    Hugh will particularly like the reference to LOTR but am freaking myself out slightly that I recognised it- too long living with him!!! Glad to hear you managed to get to the magical caves- there are so many awe-inspiring experiences in NZ but we really loved this one! Keep up the good work with the blog- you are so talented! (and no, it’s not family bias!) xxx

  3. beckymayhem says:

    Thanks for posting that, Andy – gives people some idea what I’m talking about (although still doesn’t do anywhere near justice to the overall effect in the caves).

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