The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 12 (March 1, 1938.)
“Waitomo” And Especially Its Glow Worm Cave
Like a glow-worm golden,
In a dell of dew.
Probably you know the story of the American who saw the giraffe for the first time. He didn't believe it. You may feel like that when you see our glow-worm cave. There is none like it—none. Many countries have caves of stalactites and stalagmites (I am never quite sure which is which) finer, some of them, than those at Waitomo. Limestone formation is fairly common. But nowhere, so I am told, is there a glow-worm cave like New Zealand's. There are, indeed, no such glow-worms anywhere else; you find them only in the Waitomo district. So visitors quite sincerely go into raptures over Waitomo's glow-worms. Some of them, though they may have seen Rotorua and Mt. Cook, the Wanganui river and the southern glaciers, and all our other chief sights, declare the glow-worm cave to be the most wonderful of all. Bernard Shaw said it was worth while coming twelve thousand miles to see it. An American in the publicity line describes it as one of the leading wonders of the world, at any rate among what he has seen, and apparently he has seen a good deal.
In a world so full of advertisement that outruns the object of its devotion, it is certainly cheering to find something that does come up to expectations. After dinner at the hostel you take a short walk and the guide opens a door in the face of a hill; you are reminded of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and other delights of your childhood. This is a sufficiently thrilling introduction, especially as, just before this, the guide has indicated a bush-fringed stream straight below where you stand, and told the party that they will come out of the glow-worm cave there. The cave itself, therefore, is fairly deep down. It is approached by limestone caverns rich in beautiful and curious formations, lit by electric light. Before you enter the glow-worm cave proper the guide uses his torch to show the party some glow-worms at close quarters—in the cave we shall see only their lights—and explains the habits of this unique creature. The glow-worm of the open bush is a tiny affair, so small and fragile as to be very difficult to capture and examine. This underground glow-worm in the grub stage is quite substantial. You can see him plainly, with his body encased in a transparent sheath and his beautiful gossamer-like fishing threads hanging down. These threads—there are as many as fifteen or twenty to one worm—carry tiny pearl-like globules of mucus. On the grub's last segment is his light. In the dark, insects that breed in the underground river-bed are attracted by the light and barge into the threads. There they are caught by the sticky stuff and held. If he is hungry the glow-worm hauls up his fishing line and has his meal; if he is not, he lets the fish hang there till his appetite returns. In the bush, open to wind and weather, such a system of lines would be impossible. When he saw Pelorus Jack, Mark Twain was highly excited. Here, he exclaimed, was a fishing story that turned out to be true. Well, here's another that's equally true. Go and see for yourself. The worm does not always remain a worm; it turns into a fly. In that stage, however, it has interest only for the scientist. The attraction for the visitor is the light-bearing grub.
The glow-worm cave is on the lowest level. In the darkness a shallow stream runs under a vault lit by myriads of these tiny points of white light. Unlike Shelley's, the glow-worm is not golden. The lights don't twinkle; they are not so friendly. They are steady, passionless diamonds in a setting of black velvet. Apparently the glow-worm has solved a problem that is occupying research workers—production of light without heat. At the water's edge you step into a boat, and no one who has read about the ancient Styx and old Charon the ferryman can help calling the resemblance to mind at once. It is dark save for the glow of electric light behind you, and the star-powdered roof, and it is very, very still. You are asked to be quiet, for noise alarms the glow-worm by way of vibrations that pass up his fishing lines, and he is apt to dowse his light. “Why should I keep quiet?” asked an English tourist, true to the tradition of free speech. There must be a lot of good stories about tourists in these caves, but don't forget, gentle reader, that when you go there, you will be a tourist yourself. I must borrow Pat Lawlor's, of the tourist (like the other, a woman) who asked audibly: “What do these glow-worms do? Do they sing or dance?” Only stern self-control prevented a response by the rest of the party that would have put out all the lights above.
You glide along the stream. Charon does not pull with oars; his hands move over a rope. There is no sound save the softest whisper about the boat. Everyone gazes at the amazing illumination overhead. The world is very far away. Soon the boat is in a faint twilight; you are in the mouth of the stream, where it issues into a bush ravine. Then you go back, slowly as before, under the roof of light, and land, and walk up through the artificially lit halls of marbled quietness, where the water drips gently, occasionally, and eternally, and, still subdued by awe, pass out through the door in the wall, into the world you know, with real stars overhead and the night wind on your face.
After the glow-worm cave, plus its ante-rooms of limestone architecture, the other caves may be a little flat, but if there were no glow-worm cave, there would still be a hostel at Waitomo and page 51 crowds of tourists. You are impressed by the beauty, weirdness, and mystery of these formations and the “unimaginable touch of time” that they illustrate. Here are deposits so fashioned that the eye of imagination sees in them fairly easily a variety of shapes from a wedding cake to a cathedral. The skilfully placed lights make the scene brilliant, and ghosts seem to lurk in the shadows. One admires the courage of those first-comers who explored these long winding and descending caverns with match and candle. There is something majestically aloof in these shapes that have been hidden for so long and that show no marked change as the years pass. Here one can measure the rate at which nature works. They show you a point from which water drips on to a point below, and tell you that the two are in just about the same condition as when they were first observed fifty years ago. A cubic inch of formation in three hundred years is said to be the rate of progress. At this rate one large piece hanging from the roof is estimated to be eight million years old. The guides who tell you these and other things are well-informed, well spoken, and helpful in every way.
You go back to your comfortable hotel and leave this underground studio to its unceasing modelling. Drip, drip, drip—it goes on for ever. Compared with its aeons, our life is but a watch in the night “Little drops of water, little grains of sand”—perhaps you murmur this as you climb into bed. In the morning you will probably think less about this sobering contrast. The sun is shining and your seat is booked for another stage. Or perhaps you are not tied to time, and you decide that a few days here will be very pleasant. There are outdoor games to be played, and a beautiful countryside to walk over, with its rolling pastures, winding roads, and forested hills. It was thoughtful of nature to place these caves in the bush. And in the evening there is a deep armchair, and perhaps you have the latest Dorothy Sayers in your bag. Rushing from place to place is not the only kind of holiday.