Monday, 3 June 2013


We passed in silence through the darkness, as our guide maneuvered our punt past smooth rocks that were only centimetres from our face. Our necks ached from looking up at the ceiling at the thousands of tiny luminous spheres that hung there. Some say that they look like haphazardly strung fairy lights, others say they remind them of the Northern lights. I preferred to think of them as a facsimile of the night sky, a place that you could bring someone to show them what the night sky used to look like if some catastrophe, man-made or otherwise, conspired to deprive us of a starry view. Of course, there’s none of the same constellations present. Nonetheless, looking up at the lights gave you the same sense of awe as a starry night in a suitably dim part of Earth. The ceiling of this natural Sistine Chapel is made up of lures, the result of the labour of a fungus gnat, more commonly known as a glow-worm.  The lures emit light that first tempt insects to them, then traps them, leaving a tasty little morsel for the glow-worm to digest at its leisure.

Punting in the caves.

 This spectacle took place in Te Anau's glow worm caves.To get to the glow worm caves, you have to take a boat from Te Anau, the gateway town to New Zealand’s largest and probably most spectacular national park, Fiordland and leave civilization behind (if a town of 2000 can be called civilization). The half hour boat heads across Lake Te Anau, New Zealand’s second biggest lake, taking you over to a lost world of tree terns and dense forest, a remnant of what the South Island used to look like before human settlement, before successive waves of settlers, first Maori and then European, burnt away much of the island’s vegetation. In places like this, things can easily get lost. Moose, liberated here in 1910, probably no longer survive but the possibility remains that they remain hidden in impenetrable bush. Romantics hold out hope that moas, New Zealand’s giant bird, may still hang on in the inhospitable and little explored mountains. The chances of moa and moose still living in Fiordland is probably fanciful but no more so than the assertion made in Gavin Menzies historical-fantasy book, “1421: The year China discovered the world”. In that book, Menzies, (which was released as a non-fiction book) said that Chinese explorers released giant sloths that they had captured in South America (despite the facts that giant sloths have probably been extinct for 10 millennia and that the Chinese have never been conclusively shown to have been to New Zealand pre-European colonization) and then released at least a pair of these beasts into Fiordland. Some hope for the megafauna believers was found in the Murchinson Mountains, the mountains above the caves, that are also the last stronghold of the takehe, a bird considered extinct until a small population was revealed to a very interested public in 1948. You know that a species is endangered if all the members of the species are given a name that is the case for the 200 or so takehe that are survived the extinction precipice. The caves themselves were lost, only known as part of Maori folklore, but remained undiscovered by Europeans until 1948 (1948 seemed to be a good year for rediscovery) when they were finally “re-discovered” after three years of searching

Mary and a takehe (Note: Not to scale)

The caves are accessed by walking down a short track from the visitor centre, before you head into the narrow opening that makes you appreciate why it took three years of searching before the caves were “re-found”. A small stream pushes its way out, twisting and coursing its way through the limestone, the main protagonist in forming the caves that are still being aggressively carved out, creating violent eddies and whirlpools in this young (in geological terms anyway) cave system. Water runs down the sculptured rock-walls and in places, congregates to form waterfalls. In pools under the largest one, we could see eels, hovering, perhaps waiting for food to fall down to them. It was here that the guides snapped at people for using their cameras (our party was not immune to criticism) and issued last warnings to not talk; light and sound seemingly being the natural and mortal enemies of glow-worms.

Heading out across Lake Te Anau

 From here on in, the caves were accessed by punt. This is not a trip that recommends itself to claustrophobics, as the boat, small by necessity, passes by walls so close that if you put your hands out, both sides could be touched simultaneously. Thankfully, for the nerves of any claustrophobes on the trip, just how tight the cave was, was largely obscured by the profound darkness. Just as you start to get accustomed to the dark, you see stabs of light that signal the glow-worm spectacle is just ahead. 

Close-up of  the glow worms.
You then reach the main cavern; you look up and out and take in this Milky Way of thousands of little lights that pierce the darkness, justifying the unofficial name used by the national caving association, Aurora. You spend five to ten minutes in the dark. The quiet is unnerving, only broken by excited murmuring and contented sighs before you head back from where you’ve came, back out into the sunshine, out of the quiet which is first broken by the sound of rushing water then by the sounds of native songbirds, that are reasonably prolific in this part of New Zealand. I had done this trip before as a child but I couldn’t remember much of it-couldn’t remember much at all in fact apart from the darkness of the cave. This time, I think I’ll remember much more of this magnificent natural spectacle.