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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 12 (March 2, 1936)

Acquaintance With The Glow-Worms

Acquaintance With The Glow-Worms.

Getting to know a glowworm really well is, in the normal course of things, not nearly so easy as the disinterested spectator might think. To begin with, it's a case of “First catch your glow worms, then get matey with them.” Consider the wildernesses of Auckland and Wellington. I do know a Wellington man who has, or says he has, a sort of manorial right or seigneurie over some glow-worms. The tail end of his garden backs, rather cleverly, into the wilder part of a handsome public reserve, nothing but a jasmine arch between the two. Many a night, this good citizen has said to his friends and business connections, “Bridge is too tame, let's go down the gully and see my glow-worms.” But, segregating rumour, all I could learn was that just one man, by dint of getting his shoes and sox and the ends of his trousers soaked in dew, did manage to see beneath a bushlawyer, a few pale and uninteresting gleams which might have been glow-worms. But the moment he said to his proud companion, “Oh, are those your glow-worms, those little white sort of squiggly things?” they at once went out. And although he made a close examination of the ground with his torch (his friend exclaiming crossly, “Stop it, you'll frighten the wits out of them.”) they remained obscure, so he never quite knew whether they were glow-worms, as specified, or a phosphorescent bit of toadstool, or possibly just imagination. Auckland is in much the same sad position, and I believe that for glow-worms the South Island fares no better. This is one, but not the only reason, why you should visit Waitomo.

Of course, when you hear about the Waitomo Caves in general and the Glow Worm Grotto in particular, you don't really believe in it, because you take it for granted that it's far too good to be true. What is the use of these modern Sinbads hurrying back to town, and explaining to us, who are old enough and sad enough to know better, that of all the places in the world, little New Zealand is the one which has been singled out and presented with a cross-section of Fairyland? New Zealanders are sometimes said to have an inferiority complex, which is as may be … not about their football or their racing, anyhow … but it is certainly true that they don't, so far, seem to have grasped the fact that they really possess Waitomo, and that every other country in the world would give its eyebrows for the privilege.

However, to recede like a wave on the shore back to our beginning, I was one of the unbelievers too, just a few months ago. When people said to me, “Have you heard about the Glow-Worm Grotto?” I answered, “Aha, but have you heard the one about the Scotchman who met the Irishman, when the both of them were going to market?” or words to that effect. However, there was a week-end excursion, and Auckland had taken on a sudden look of frightfulness, and the only place in the city that I could bear to look at, at all, was that handsome bronze, buff and green railway station. So the next thing was to my own surprise, I was on a train bound for the Waitomo Caves, and feeling curiously thrilled about it, but prepared to be disappointed.

It's a good train, too, from Auckland, an all-daylight run, and not enough of it to make the voyager feel that fatal cockle in the middle of his backbone. We departed on a good, hearty, reasonable breakfast, served in a big buff breakfast-room with smartly-dressed, quick, friendly waitresses and table decorations just as youthful and inviting, to wit, spring's first yellow jonquils. Then the train puffed solemnly into green country, presaging all sorts of fun for the farmer later on, but a bit too early for us to see the first lambs dotted about all white as daisies (as one can, sometimes, from the windows of the trains speeding through the Waikato district). I may say that a good many others had had the same idea about spending a week-end as myself, including a party of Australians whose great pet was a large stuffed wallaby with a pink smile on his face. There were also footballers, playing the ukulele and crooning in a nearby carriage: and by and by, a pretty lass came through, and with an earnest expression on her face said, “Come along and see, it's a treasure hunt.” After that the journey took on an extraordinarily sociable, and at the same time very active character, people crawling about and looking under the pillows of the few old stagers who, far from joining in, had gone peacefully off to sleep, sprawling page 42 page 43
(Rly. Publicity photo.) The wonderful glow-worm grotto at Waitomo.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
The wonderful glow-worm grotto at Waitomo.

back in the deep leather-cushioned chairs. But we all survived the treasure-hunt, even the wallaby, in whose pouch, as it turned out, they had hidden the treasure; and, after a light lunch and more cursory refreshments at minor ports of call, we arrived, with a wild Redskin whoop (that was partly the train's whistle and partly the footballers) at a tiny station called Hangatiki.

Hangatiki is just six miles from Waitomo, but you don't have to keep on walking, the train connecting with large and comfy motor-service vehicles, which collect you on the station, and discharge you upon the very doorstep of the Caves Hostel. It is a fine drive, the low-rounded hills parting to show you first a little confraternity of old willow trees and a bridge, then, standing over a terraced garden and gazing down in silent pride, the white double-storeyed building of the new hostelry.

The Caves Hostel looks as a first-class colonial hotel should look …. plain, commanding, simple and handsome. Within, you come straightway into an atmosphere of wide-windowed dining rooms and lounges, and enormous ruddy fires, their flames leaping up and down like Test Match spectators.

Also, if like myself you are of the finnicky souls who, instantaneously on ending a journey, however brief, like to plunge neck-deep into hot soapy water and float there supine for twenty minutes or so, there are splendid bathrooms, showers and things, porcelain with that smooth, deep-set look, a shadowy world of hills and crags outside your bedroom window (for it is just about dusk, if your excursion is a winter or early spring one, when you arrive).

The next item on the programme for some is to dance (there are firelit lounges where dancing seemed to go on the whole time, bridge ditto), but for me was to dine. Conversation swept like a sociable wave over the dining-room, and the Australians and the footballers fraternised practically on one another's bosoms, and the rest of us passed one another the walnuts, and talked in superior voices about Caves We Had Known. (We were all a trifle thrilled, in private, about
(Rly. Publicity photo.) Guide explaining the formations in the Ruakura Cave.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Guide explaining the formations in the Ruakura Cave.

our prospective glow-worms. But none of us wanted to admit it.)

After coffee there was but little delay before things were up and doing. We filed straightway down into strange passages, where the men went to the right and the women to the left, as on sinking schooners: but only for a few moments, until the guides, good-looking and athletic young men, had us fitted out in enormous Kiplingesque boots of leather, their greenhide soles, half an inch thick, dotted all over with hobnails. It was extraordinary to see, once we climbed into these, what a trifling difference there was between the size of the imposing male hoof, and the pretty little feminine foot which a few minutes before, natty in bronze glace kid or discreet black satin, had demanded admiration in the dining-room. However, boots, when you get to know them, are very wonderful things. First we had a brief lesson in picking our feet up; then behold the lot of us, walking as though on velvet, with pebbles and flints and puddles alike absolutely ignored by our massive soles. And as we went, I am sorry to say, we all lifted up voices in addition to feet, and chanted things about Tipperary and Mother Machree.

You come to a door in a hillside. It is a white-painted door, about five feet high, and locked. On the other side of the road, a bank shelves abruptly into a darkness of native bush, where you can hear a morepork complaining bitterly about the parlous page 44 state of his inside, and also a mountain stream, descending with a series of resounding plops into a fern-fringed pool beneath. Then the guide says “Open Sesame,” and, behold, you are inside the hillside, and almost straight away confronted, in mid-trail, by a curious and bulging figure which looks like a bookmaker but turns out to be a stalactite.

Personally, I love caves. Their queer little chessman figures, their beaky gargoyles and birds in limestone, their wicked old limestone gentlemen and stout little limestone ladies tobogganing down from the shadows to stare at the passerby, give me the feeling that a marvellous puppet show is being staged here, with black velvet shadows for the theatre curtain. And Waitomo Cave is quainter and more imaginative than most. Sometimes you see a gleam of dazzling white splendour, as a limestone beauty, whose curved arm has for thousands and thousands of years stayed in the same lovely beckoning attitude, waits for you at a turn of the track, which is softly lit, showing the odd figures, but not spoiling the mystery. There seem to be miles and miles of queer little corridors, though your sevenleague boots make nothing of them. And, as your own fancy pleases, you can pick out Apostles, Aldermen in Council, Snowy-breasted Pearls, Lot's Wife. There are official sights, of course, like the Sculptor's Studio,
(Rly. Publicity photo.) A typical portion of the Aranui Cave.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A typical portion of the Aranui Cave.

with its weird and delicate little tanagra figurines. And I was entranced to hear how the lucky Mr. Mace, who climbed into a boat one moonlit night and said, “Goodbye, world,” gliding along an underground river to explore the then unknown caves, once also brought a party of cronies into the caves at midnight, and down in the banqueting hall held a feast that the old Roman emperors might have envied. Stalactites, the moment you turn your back on them, have an odd way of changing their shapes: you peer back, suspiciously, but they give nothing away. Bless you, they've been at this game for so many millions of years that if they hadn't by now learned to keep poker faces, they never would. All the same, down near the banqueting hall I did see a little goblin gentleman who precisely three seconds later was Venus de Milo, and a very good copy too. And when you laugh or call out in some of the corridors, a hundred little gnomic voices rattle down from above, like pebbles.

The real excitement begins with the river of Styx, or rather, on its brink: where, beneath a rock-shelf overhanging the swift-flowing underground river, you meet the first of the glow-worm population. Under their fragile and tiny lights, you can see cables spun and threaded from the finest of seed-pearls. And these are Friend Glow-Worm's visible means of support, for by means of these (vigorously attracting silly strangers with his blue lambent beacon) he entraps midges, and feasts on them with great gluttony and some lack of the poetic spirit. However, I suppose it were too much to expect that our blue-lighted fairy should turn out to be also a Bernard Shaw of the insect world, and sternly decline any form of nourishment save lettuce-leaf. Besides, in fairness to the glow-worm, one must point out that for several millions of years no lettuces have ever been grown in Waitomo.

It may interest you to know that whatever you may see in foreign parts, you will nowhere see the glow-worm of the sapphire light and the pearly thread: for he lives in Waitomo, but nowhere else in the known world.

Now a large flat-bottomed boat, commodious enough for twenty or so to board her without wobbling, invites you to step aboard. And unconsciously or otherwise, voices are lowered, for the mystery of the caverns is intensified the moment the river is lapping like a great black cat alongside the wooden sides of your craft. Wire ropes run ahead, and disappear, apparently, in the face of the rock. You wave farewell to your friends and relatives, or, if not, to the limestone gentlemen and the first sentinels of the glow-worm country, and the guide hauls stoutly on the wire cable, first admonishing you not to rock the boat, seize hold of outstanding crags or promontories, or talk in loud voices, which would frighten the glow-worms.

A word to the wise. Do this underground river trip in company with quiet folk. For the marvel hidden behind the rock-face is not a thing you will see every day. You can believe it better if there is no one at hand to ask the guide at how many knots the punt is travelling, or how long it was since the stalactites began to grow.

You are swept on black water through a jagged orifice in the wall of the cavern. And here there is no light at all but what the glow-worms provide: but that should be enough. The great black velvet sky overhead, vaulted so that you cannot even guess how high it rises, is studded with clusters and companies of a million million glow-worms. And for untold centuries all those tiny blue lamps, clear and tender, have diffused their secret light over black rock, and black, running water. Sometimes they are as thick overhead as the stars that swarm like wild golden bees right above the Equator. Sometimes they hang so low that you could touch them. Right in midstream, there is the couchant figure of a huge rock, shaped exactly like a panther, and in the eye-sockets of this meditative black idol, and behind his page 45 flattened ears, the glow-worms cluster thick and bright, so that you would think sapphire eyes winked at you. I do not expect to see anything stranger in the whole of a lifetime than the black rock panther in the glow-worm grotto. But you can't leave off staring at the roof. The silence creeps into you, that and the tender blue light, and the feeling that this dream has gone on for ever and ever, will go on for ever and ever, even when you are no longer drifting down the underground stream.

There is a surprised moment when the boat shoots out into clear, cold moonlight, on that very fern-hung pool whose chortlings you heard as you stood outside the door in the hillside. But that is not the end of the glow-worms. The guide seizes the wire cable once again, and hauls you upstream. So you discover, to your mingled amazement and relief, that it was all true, black panther, myriad burning blue lamps in the great black temple, and utter, dreaming silence.

That is Waitomo. It is not an experience of which it is easy to write, for the great hall, plunged in its mingled darkness and unreal light, is something you could never have believed in, if you hadn't actually been there. But I think, if I were to name all the places I have ever seen, and ask, “Which one was an experience?” I would look longingly at several others, but say, “The glow-worm grotto.” It's just because it is so impossible that it is so lovely.

Large green and white snowball bushes have gone to sleep in the moonlight, up in the Hostel garden, and their white dewy knots of blossom hit you in the eye as you and your enormous boots climb the paths once more.

Auckland-Wellington Express near Taumarunui, North Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

Auckland-Wellington Express near Taumarunui, North Island, New Zealand. (Rly. Publicity photo.)

That isn't the end of the adventure either. In the morning, and by fine sunlight, you descend into a deep glen, and visit Ruakuri—approached through native bush. There are magnificent old trees, and high up in their notched branches the golden nuggets of wild honey, with the wild bees droning a solemn litany over them. There's a bridal cake, and a very handsome regalia of jewels for a limestone bride, who must be the deuce of a personage in their select society down yonder. But I think the most fascinating thing I saw was a limestone drama called “Scott at the South Pole.” You can see the shining wastes of snow, the huts and the hummocks, and the queer little patient figures, complete with dogs, wearily straining on the last lap towards the Pole. This was welllighted. But when we turned to depart, the guide lowered the lights: and one almost felt that under cover of the darkness, Scott and his comrades, the stalactites, pressed onward just another inch to the haven where they would be.

There is likewise an underground waterfall which rumbles and booms very solemnly in Ruakuri. One of the guides told me he had seen it once, by dint of swimming up a particularly cold and uninviting stretch of underground stream, and wrestling with the spirits of two large rocks which seemed greatly interested in the possibilities of squeezing him out of existence. However, this little dip is not down on your schedule for the day: it may be as well. The water is extremely wet and wild and cold.

Aranui, the remaining cavern, or chain of caverns, you can do either in the afternoon of the same day, or next morning. (Did I mention that you are stayed with boiling tea and comforted with sandwiches, at a pleasant little bush kiosk not five minutes away from the mouth of Ruakuri? If not, it is none the less true.) Aranui does things handsomely, what with pillars and flutes and organs and statues, rising near twenty feet high in the Crystal Palace. Likewise there is a Temple of Peace, all crystal and gleaming. And looking at it, you suddenly remember where you have glimpsed all this before. Of course! …

“In Xanadu did Kubhla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea…. .”

But the wild bees, when you come forth from that strangeness into bright sunlight once more, murmur and murmur among the trees with the beautiful names … . mahoe, rimu, kahikatea, the stubborn climbing ratas, with their torches all aflare in the autumns as though they had run hotfoot with news of a great victory on the secret battlefields of Tane Mahuta. “Come and see the waterfall,” urges a friendly soul with a car. The guide, at luncheon, counts heads and finds enough for a waterfall expedition, and you dash off for a wild hillock and tea-tree spin, culminating in the flashing white leap and sparkle of a very creditable cascade, a fall whose rainbows end in brown pools dearly loved of the wily trout.

But for me, my thought was all taken up with that swifter, darker stream, coursing underground … . with the patient old boat drawn up on the rocky shores of Styx, and the dreaming little blue lamps waiting in their eternal velvety darkness.