“We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glowworm.” Winston Churchill
I’ve never been one much for Lord of the Rings. I’d give all the money in the world to be Lucy Pevensie and step through that fateful wardrobe, but for whatever reason, I’ve never felt particularly drawn to the world which Tolkien created. In New Zealand, however, Middle Earth is impossible to escape. From the fiords of Southland to the volcanic deserts of the north, Peter Jackson forever changed the way tourists perceive the landscapes of the country. Mount Ngauruhoe, in the Tongariro National Park, is no longer simply an active stratovolcano but Mount Doom from this point on, and the same could be said of the Waitomo Caves region. This area, just over two hours south of Auckland, is now home to the Shire and the humble abode of Bilbo Baggins at Bag End.
It was here, in the land of Frodo and Hobbiton, that I awoke on the third morning of my North Island tour-de-force. Waitomo has become known for the massive system of caves that sprawl out beneath the unassuming farmland of its surface like a subterranean Atlantis. The walls of this hidden universe sparkle like the brightest of night skies, lit by the green-tinted luminescence of the glowworms that have only augmented Waitomo’s appeal. Like the glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef and the marine life of Kaikoura, the caves and glowworms have ushered Waitomo into the ranks of those small towns whose singular natural attraction is now a can’t-miss hotspot on any backpacker’s or tour bus trip around the country.
I had stayed the night in a hostel run by Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock, the company also offering the caving tour I’d be on for the day. In the office next-door, Barbara, our guide for the day, calls role. “Jan. Ollie. Sven. Susan. Julia. Candace.” I am the only American, or rather, the only non-German…even Barbara was born in Germany before moving to New Zealand in high school. She tells us that if it wasn’t for the English and Germans, she wouldn’t have a job: “They’re easily the majority of our business.” “Then you should offer beer instead of soup,” Sven says, his mind obviously on the free bowl of soup the company offers at the end of each trip.
We’re corralled into a small white van and ten minutes later, arrive at the changing station. We don wet suits, harnesses, helmets, and wellies, all still damp and entirely uncomfortable. Five more minutes down an unpaved road, Barbara parks along a fence and we unload. There are long ropes attached to the fence and we practice feeding them through a rack and abseiling, lowering ourselves down via a rope-and-pulley system. Holding the rope to our side, our speed is normal but we can pull it slightly back to slow down and completely behind our back to stop. We then walk, single-file, down a path towards the cave entrance. Barbara tells me each company leases their cave system from farmers who originally thought the caves were a worthless nuisance on their property. Once caving tourism built up, though, they realized how profitable a scheme it could be. From trash to treasure, it seems.
A rope runs along the path towards the platform we’ll be descending from and we’re instructed to clip our carabiners to it while wait for Barbara to set-up. “We’re like dogs,” Ollie says, and the others laugh a hearty German laugh. I’m the first to descend, with a brief wave of panic hitting me at the edge of the platform. But I’ve got nothing to fear, a mere 27-meter drop and I’m secure in my ropes and harness. At the bottom I unhook and am free from the ropes, free to walk down the riverbed and wait for the others. There are holes in my gumboots and the water that slowly seeps its way in is, as Barbara describes it, “fresh.”
Inside the first cave, it all looks fake – the stalactites, the formations, the rock pools – and I think, reconstructions have corrupted reality. So many plaster stalagmites in museums and I’m wary of the real thing as I run my hand along them to steady myself in the uneven riverbed. A short walk and then the glowworms. Arachnocampa Luminosa, a species found nowhere else in the world. Their Maori name, titiwai, means “projected over water.” It’s a slow magnificence, as your eyes adjust to this cave lit only by a chemical reaction between oxygen, enzymes and the biological waste of these worms. I’m not sure what the larger, more commercial caves are like, but ours seems small, with a low ceiling that means the worms are closer, as if you could reach out and touch them. It harkens of old field trips to the planetarium, the night sky within arm’s reach. Barbara takes my intertube, lifts it high above her head and slaps it against the water. The resulting sonic boom reverberates, trapped in the cave with nowhere to go, and thus wriggles the many lines each glowworm has spun to catch prey. Within seconds, it’s as if the entire colony wakes up. Hungry larva glow brighter than their well-fed counterparts and the anticipation of approaching prey makes them shine all the more. Talk about false hope.
The drip-drop trickling of water hits the stream as it runs off moss-laden boulders. Along the cave’s entrance damp leaves cling to its sides like a faulty decoupage. When we reemerge later, sunlight is streaming through the branches above like it does in the movies, heavy rays that look more like spotlights piercing the scene with a beauty that hurts. On either side of me, caves open like a tunnel and light yields to a wall of darkness. Here, the earth has given way and allowed a small piece of herself to be exposed, like a wound in the skin, bleeding water and mystery. The Maori named Waitomo from words meaning water and enter, “a place where water enters the ground.” It’s as if the earth says, enter here, but take care. Finally I have escaped the sound of rushing cars, left behind for the singular sound of water punctuated only by the occasional bird call. They play in trees and I can see nests resting gingerly on their branches.
In the second cave, the reverent air of our initial foray is replaced by the antics of an elementary field day. With a sadistic air about her, Barbara has us attempting through crevasses and going in and out of holes we have no business going anywhere near. We squeeze through impossibly narrow spaces, popping in and out of holes like groundhogs, here a helmet, there a gumboot. Ollie, while not overweight, is certainly the thickest one among us and sadly becomes our benchmark for what is possible. “Come on, Jan, if Ollie can do it, so can you,” Barbara calls out from the darkness. She organizes a tubing race, lining us up with our tires behind us. With a “ready, set, go,” we push off, leaping backwards into our tires and paddling like our lives depended on it. Ollie is not quite as successful and lands somewhat on the side of his tube and resultantly flips himself. Barbara has us follow her up a rocky ledge and balances us backwards on the edge of it. We hold our tires out behind our backs and leap, landing ten feet below with a smack and a splash. We’re all loving it, except for Sven who conscientiously objects from jumping, saying, “I’m too lazy. I’ve done more exciting things.” Fair enough, Sven, but when in Rome…
When in Waitomo, indeed. Like Sven, though, I’m tempted to succomb to self-deprecation on a trip like this, loathing my decision to sign up for a tour that fell so short of my expectations. The website claimed to combine ‘black water rafting, glowworms, abseiling and rock climbing,’ yet we failed to come across a single “rapid,” instead propelling ourselves through still water in the oversized intertubes by good old-fashioned arm power, thrashing and paddling like a toddler in a kiddie pool. And yet the history of tourism in Waitomo runs deep, as deep as the caves it’s known for extend beneath the earth, and I’m grateful for my time underground. The first European explorer to venture into the limestone caves of Waitomo was Arthur S. Thompson and the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand reports that on the 28th of December, 1887, “Tane Tinorau and Fred Mace floated down a stream into the Waitomo glow-worm cave on a raft of flax flower stalks, using burning brands to light their way.” It didn’t take long for the government’s tourist department to catch on and by the early 1900s, land had been purchased and tours had begun, small boats ferrying visitors on a genteel tour of the luminescent limestone. In this way, perhaps I wasn’t so much following the crowd of adventure tourists as I was participating in the local history of cave tourism. Like I said…perhaps.
There’s a lot of talk among the great travel writers of the world on seeking authentic experiences, on shunning the way of the tourist and seeking a higher, purer form of experience – one that isn’t found in the rehearsed lines and sights of guide companies and adventure travel tours. Joe Bennett seems to share this opinion. While visiting the Franz Josef glacier in his book on hitch-hiking around New Zealand, A Land of Two Halves, Joe runs into an old student of his, a guy named Hamish who now works as a glacier guide. At dinner over pizza and beer, Hamish offers to take Joe along on one of his hikes for free the next day, but the writer declines:
“Sorry, but I hate guided tours. I’ve never been on one, of course, but I know exactly what they’re like, the safety lecture, the ill-fitting gear I’ll be obliged to wear, the fat guy who lags at the back, the ex-schoolteacher type who’s scrawny fit and who stays close to the guide to ask earnest questions, the guide’s repertoire of stock jokes, the packed lunch with the ham, lettuce and boiled-egg roll wrapped in clingfilm, and as for the glacier itself, well there’ll be informative stuff about Alpine faultlines that the schoolmaster-type will listen to critically with his head cocked, and there’ll be crevasses and ice caves and ice tunnels, all of which will look exactly as you would expect them to look, and frankly when you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, and by halfway through the tour everyone will be wanting it to end, indeed would pay money to get out of it right now, but it’s a bit like a church service in that it simply has to run its allotted course however dull it may be, because that’s the deal, that’s how it’s done” (148).
I ride the fence on this issue. Obviously, I’m all for the purity of experience, for ‘going it alone,’ but yet there are some things I simply can’t do on my own – whether because of ability or logistics or, as in the case of my time in places like Waitomo and Franz Josef, the access allowed to the general public. But such a tour can be a welcome change from the isolation of the road, a chance to interact and switch to a plural pronoun for the dayl. And so I put up with the ill-fitting gear, with the corny jokes and the cheap, free soup, and trust that I can sift through what is staged for what I can take away with me…
And it certainly can’t be found in the gift-shop.