There they are. Thousands of them. They turn on at night.
I was in Waitomo, New Zealand with my girlfriend, both of us starkers in a seemingly twilit glowworm cave (this one easy to reach and blessedly on the surface), doing what I can only imagine. As Bob Eubanks, the talk show host of The Newlyweds, would euphemise: Where is the strangest place you ever made whoopee? Ici.
Even though the Waitomo region was literally riddled with caves, I was too chicken to go on a serious expedition of the earth’s sinuses, or so I thought. Sitting around in the hostel one day, I saw a German traveler with aviator glasses reading the only book on the premises, The Prophet
by Kahlil Gibran, a philosophic and worthy read. Dressed all in black, he resembled Dieter from “The Sprockets", the faux East German TV show brought to life by Mike Meyers on “Saturday Night Live".
A group of loud-laughing thugs landed at the hostel, dragging cases of Steinlager beer and duffelbags of equipment across the wooden floor like the hairy knuckles of the Geico cavemen.
These were members of a gregarious gung-ho club of spelunkers, who had arrived to explore the serious underground caves around Waitomo. We watched in fascination as they unwrapped their gear, which included wet suits, mining caps with lights and inner tubes.
By way of introducing themselves, they extended a cheerio invitation, one that only a coward would turn down: Want to go black water tubing?
“Cave tubing” is traveling by inner tube down the underground rivers of this crazy karsty dreamscape, with over 300 mapped labyrinthine caves, limestone sculptures pinched and prodded by a celestial Rodin. The main draw of Waitomo (that’s Maori for “water hole”), 200 kilometers south of Aukland, on the North Island, was the popular “Glowworm Cave and Grotto", which Maori chief, Tane Tinorau, introduced to the West in 1887 and which now unfortunately, charges admission.
The real adventure though, I was assured, was to go off on your own with a seasoned group of spelunkers and explore lesser-known but much scarier caves.
Before we set out, clad in colorful wetsuits, everyone posed for pictures. The group leader, whose blonde-haired head was topped by a cyclops-lighted miner’s cap, resembled “Quake” from the obsolete cereal box in the 1970s. Dieter was shivering with existential angst. I could tell he would rather be reading Heidegger. My girlfriend appeared braver than I thought. I felt alienated;
I didn’t know a stalagtite from a stalagmite.
I had also forgotten in the confusing rush of activity that I was acutely claustrophobic. Exploring underground caves, with the very real chance of never resurfacing, is probably not the best activity for someone whose bedroom back home still featured a nightlight. I’ve always been kind of fascinated but afraid of caves. I’d seen flicks, ranging from Journey to the Center of the Earth, wherein Pat Boone and James Mason discover giant mushrooms and unconvincing dinosaurs resembling home movies of Gila Monsters, to Trog, where a young Burt Reynolds in his cinematic debut comes across an ugly troglodytic cave dweller. The gist of these movies: don’t get lost!
We piled into cars and sped off on “metal roads” (gravel paths), while the Southern Cross became visible in the night sky, shining like the glittery sequined belt of Liberace or a Glam Rock singer. Before you knew it, we were at the entrance to a hole in the ground. We entered one by one with our inner tubes in a slow motion blur of fear and anticipation, like doing it for the first time. I followed the person in front of me slavishly through the tunnel, dimly lit by our headlights.
There was a sound of rushing water – eventually we reached an underground river, much like the Lethe (“The River of Forgetfullness”) of pagan myth, which featured a waterfall.
“Go! Go! Go!” Over the waterfall, splash! I was on my way. Drifting down this tributary of a dream, in my innertube doughnut, I attempted to fight off the intermingling cold worms of dread in the pit of my stomach. I felt like I was traveling through the tube of a telescope.
“Now, all of you, turn off your lights!” Quake shouted. “Now!”
One by one our headlights flickered out, replaced not with pitch darkness, but with what I at first thought was an awesome constellation of yellow-green stars overhead.
Had we exited the cave already and made it out to the open air?
“Just look at all those glowworms,” came a voice resounding with awe. It was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen.
In the monastic shared silence of the cold and clammy cavern, languidly afloat on the subterranean stream and staring into the numinous lights, I experienced an epiphany – a feeling of wonder liberally laced with deja-vu.
I didn’t get it. The glowworms seemed to live a meaningless existence: they hung around in their hammocks like youth hostelers and provided light, away from view, for no audience in particular. It was only by chance that we humans had happened upon their Milky Way-like space opera.
Arachnocampa luminosa, the larval stage of the fungus gnat, live in the nether regions of New Zealand and use naturally occurring light, or bioluminescense, to catch insects in their webs. The glowworms that shine the brightest are the hungriest! Eventually, the luminous larvae turn into adult fungus gnats, often eaten by their ungrateful children – which seems like one of Nature’s crueler jokes.
It gets worse:
“The hatched adults have no mouths, so they cannot feed, and only live a couple of days,” Quake quothed in the Queen’s Commonwealth English.
“How do they reproduce?” someone came up with, the question echoing in the underground like a pronouncement on the absurdity of creation itself.
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