Friday, July 4, 2008


We changed our plans to go straight from Roturua to Auckland in favour of a one-night stopover in Waitomo Cave. This tiny little place, almost on the West coast of the North Island, is popular for caving and black-water rafting. But we were not going for any more extreme sports. After Zorbing, Bungy Jumping, and playing mini-golf in the rain (mini-golf has always been extreme for us - the last time Letizia and I played, it was midnight and we were under the influence of large gins-and-tonic - I blame you guys Phil and Sheila) we had a more gentle activity in mind: watching glow-worms. While in the South Island, we missed a few opportunities to see glow-worms, and Waitomo Cave has a great reputation in this regard.

We opted for a combination tour of Aranui Cave (no glow-worms but beautiful rock formations) and the glow-worm tour of Waitomo Cave itself. Aranui has the singular feature of having been discovered by a wild pig, though the cave was named, most unfairly in my opinion, after the Maori hunter who was chasing the pig at the time. We were given a great tour that took us deep into the earth and shown stalactites that had been forming over hundred of thousands of years (it takes a century to add one cubic centimetre to these natural sculptures).

Respecting the convention honoured by caves the world over, certain structures were given names to reflect passing resemblances. At one particularly populated section of the cave, our guide stopped and her torch beam settled on one formation after the other and she reeled off their poetic names: Snow White, Elephant's Head, Fairy Glade etc. Then she snapped her torch off, and walked wordlessly past Penis Forest and the adjoining I've Never Seen One So Big.

Waitomo Cave was a great deal more spacious, and the management had worked much harder on making the interior as pleasant as possible. Well-crafted spiral staircases led down to the cathedral, and the lighting was beautifully executed. The geological features were less dramatic than Aranui, but the cave's history is no less compelling. The guide pointed towards the "most recent" rockfall to have taken place - a large chunk of limestone that fell from the roof of the cathedral around 2000 years ago. "That rock fell when Jesus was alive", I said to Nina, an idea which elicited the sought-after oohs and aahs. The cave itself was formed about 6 million years ago, which is around about the time that the evolutionary tree branched - one branch leading to the Orangutan, the other to you and me. But we were there to see something ephemeral. A creature whose lifespan is less than a single year. An insect that when it reaches maturity lives for 2 or 3 days, living only long enough to breed.

We were led down some more steps to the sound of water. I say 'sound' because it was harder and harder to see anything. Our group of about 15 people felt our way onto a boat, and then pushed off into total darkness, silent except for the lapping of water and the occasional intake of breath. Above us, the ceiling was a net of green-blue points of light. Not like a starry sky as the brochure would have us believe. The points moved in relation to each other as we floated by underneath, a parallax effect created by the fact that the net of glow-worms took on the concave shapes in the stone above. It's hard to find a complete silence. Nature is loud, not just cities. The last time I remember a perfect silence was in a woods just outside Jasper in British Columbia, Canada. To achieve that sort of quiet you either need the kind of expanse that Canada provides, or the kind of deathly enclosure you'll find in a cave. As much as I enjoyed the light-show, I enjoyed the peace it brought even more. I sat back, one arm around Nina, and just kept on looking up.

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