We drifted silently through a pitch black cave on a boat we hadn’t seen except for swift flashes of a torch. One by one as the luminescent cave dwellers winked on, the ceiling began to resemble a galaxy of twinkling stars. Still sat with arms clutched tightly and our necks craned as we tried to absorb the moment, floating along a 30 million year old subterranean limestone grotto.
Our escort hand pulled us along the cave river, feeling her way along with a guide line mounted just above head level, calling out softly at one point laughingly to a fellow guide who decided to take a strange shortcut.
We had entered at ground level, walking along paved pathways before we were taken down the first few levels of caves. Our tour guide explained the history of the area, the discovery of the caving system and how the family still runs the tourist attraction (a mixed blessing he tells us) before leading us down a quick handrailed catacomb path into the 18-meter high Cathedral Cave. Encouraged to play with the amazing acoustics (an American member our the crew sang ‘Oh When The Saints Go Marching In’) and told stories of opera singers holding concerts and early tourists feasting in the nicknamed Banquet Cave, we learnt about the amazing glowworm Arachnocampa luminosa that live lower in the cave system.
125+ years ago a local Māori Chief and an English surveyor conducted a candlelit exploration of a selection of Waikato caves, discovering the series of millenia old chambers full of stalagmites and stalactites. The name “Waitomo” comes from the Māori words wai, water and tomo, hole or shafts that pepper this area of New Zealand.
This particular species of glowworm are found only in New Zealand, dwelling in caves and grottos, or sheltered places in forests. They are little mosquito-sized larvae for the most of their lives, spinning up to 70 sticky ‘fishing lines’ of web which hang up to 3cm long outside their nests. The glowworms glimmer to attract and ensnare passing insects (talk about fatal attraction…!) Gollum wouldn’t out of place in these passages, rubbing his hands together and prancing from shore to rock face.
What the textbooks don’t mention is the sense of wonder you feel drifting along the subterranean darkness, the rest of the (surprisingly large) group hushed as the ceiling shimmers in starred beauty.
Altogether too quickly the boat comes out of the cave system, back to a short forest shrouded path leading to the majestic restaurant and usually gimmicky gift shop. Tourists, huh? Visiting the glowworm caves is a standard bit of tourist schtick and you feel a touch herded through (though nicely) but I had wanted my Englishman to experience one of my school memories.
For me, this was a drive through childhood. When I was only knee-high to a grasshopper, we grew up a half hour drive away in a couple of tiny adjacent towns. We drove past my Dad’s old shop, the ancient house we lived in, the Marae where school afternoons of learning were spent, the small dairy (corner shop) where lunchtime sweets were purchased to the ding of the doorbell, the teeny Girl Guide hall where I swore to “…do my best…to help other people…” and close to a mountain that we were occasionally hauled up in the name of fitness and local history.
We even drove past my 100 pupil Primary School and the trees I first dreamed under (and may have kissed a boy or two – don’t tell my Dad ok? I was seven or so and it usually consisted of hand holding, a peck on the cheek then frantically rubbing our faces before running away in squealing in disgust about the boy germs. Eeeeeeew.)
It was one of those rare expat joys, to revel occasionally in the memories of home that appear in your distant dreamings.
The longer I live away from home, the more I appreciate visits back to the lovely country of my birth. (Only visits mind, there’s still too much fun to be had in my second home!) I laugh so often that I had to leave my country to really appreciate it, to want to swim with dophins, appreciate summer Christmasses and intentionally plan explorations of places like Waitomo (it is definitely something visitors have to whilst in New Zealand!)
How about you?