By the sixth day in Devonport, Andrew was getting antsy. Too many hot showers! Too much lovely counter space for cooking! Too much comfy bed and sunny backyard deck. We have to get out of here. But, we wanted to wait until our Lufi friends return from their road trip South to Wellington. So, we took Jack Kerouac and The Bean Stalk (the new mountain bikes) for a couple break-in rides while we waited.
Upon the Lufis return, we enjoyed a beautiful dinner in the back yard and met Laura's parents visiting all the way from England. The next morning we packed up bikes, clothes, toiletries, canned goods, dry goods and a “chilly bin,” then set off. We sped Southward through Auckland’s freeways until the four lane road dwindles. Soon, we are on a two lane road that swoops and curves through golden grasses and idyllic pastures with grazing sheep, goats, cattle, or alpacas. Our music played cheerfully along as we drove up and over rolling hills facing blue sky and warm sun. We are travelers; now we feel at home again.
We arrive at the Waitomo Farmstay campground with the sun still high in the sky at 3:00 p.m. Having left the depths of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, we marvel at the length of the days here. The sun literally lolls its way from horizon to horizon over the course of fifteen warm hours. “Don’t rush me!” it seems to say. I take a nap in the grass, wander around our campsite taking pictures of the resident Ostrich, and mentally prepare for this evening’s adventure: tubing through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
We are excited about this trek. We have heard great things about caves where millions of glowing worms build their nests on the ceilings and drape down like lace curtains. This is something we have to see. So, at 5:00 we head over to make our appointment at the Black Water Rafting Company. We hustle into booties, wetsuit bibs and jackets - all of which are already soaking wet and quite cold. Helmet, donut raft float, and we are ready to go. I am not very comfortable in my wetsuit, but I'm sure I'll be grateful once we get floating.
We meet our new friends in a big bus on the way to the caves. The guide leads an introduction requiring the declaration of our name (with an echo: “Hi! Leslie!”), our biggest fear, and our favorite ice cream flavor. We weave our way through several people named Emily and another set named Andrew: heights, spiders, tight spaces…..Leslie: Aussie Drop Bears and Rocky Road Ice Cream”; Andrew: “Running out of Rum and Mint Chocolate Chip”. Running out of rum! That is such a good one.
We arrive at the river and I am selected to be the test subject for showing everyone how to jump backwards off a waterfall. With my wet-suited hind end nestled into my donut tube, I lean back and push off. Landing bottom first in the river, frigid water envelops my head and slides down every opening in my wetsuit it can find. “Well, it’s not warm!” I exclaim. This girl prefers swimming in the tropics.
A line of new friends each follow me in, practicing their hop. Andrew comes behind, quite loudly voicing his protest of the cold water: “Auurugggahhha!”
Now we are ready. We climb out of the river and traipse down a path toward the opening of a cave. 200 feet below the surface of the earth, we march through running water, ducking stalactites and stalagmites. The cave is lit only by a line of headlamps. Sometimes we walk, sometimes we float. When we float, we have to paddle with our hands, our bums hanging through the hole of our donut raft. Our hands and feet go numb from the cold.
It isn’t long before we start seeing the worms and their webbing strung like drops of dew hanging from the roof of the cave. Glowing at the top of each of these bulb strings is one tiny green light after another, clustered in crevices at the center and top of the cave. They form a trail that guides us through the river.
We learn that the beautiful dew-drop strings are actually a trap used to catch baby mosquitos who hatch in the river below and fly toward the green light thinking it is a hole opening toward daylight. We also learn that the green dot is actually a chemical compound the worms make at their tip - the same stuff that creates the glowing green sparkles in the ocean: phosphorescence. When we turn off our headlamps and float down the river in our donut tubes, I look up at the trail of green stars. I am moving at the same rate as the river, so the sensation below me is one of calm. I cannot feel rushing water or really even movement. Just the bite of cold. I imagine this is the view a dolphin sees at night if he or she looks up from the depths of the ocean to see Sonrisa cutting a trail through the phosphoresence. This thought makes me miss Sonrisa.
Yes! It really looked like this!
Besides freezing to death, I could stay down in this cave looking at little green, glowing bugs and their dew drop death traps forever. So when our tour guides indicate there is a hike to our left one can do after the sun goes down to see more glow worms, I immediately formulate a plan for more fun. We heave our soggy wetsuits back to the office, shower, dry off, eat some hot tomato soup and a bagel. I buy their pictures because they took away my camera and wouldn’t let me get any of my own. Then, we immediately drive back to the glow worm trailhead.
Worms! We find little clusters coming out as the sun goes down. They love to hang onto the underside of rock overhangs. So, if you are another hiker, do not be surprised if you come upon Leslie Godfrey, laying in the middle of the trail craning her neck and the camera “just so” to try to get a picture. By the end of the night, I am covered in dirt.
I never really got a great picture, but here’s the best I could do.
Trust me, it's Glow Worm Art.
After it became to dark to even try to get pictures, we finish the hiking loop. You just cannot capture this on film, but as we hike tiny green stars peek through the forrest from every angle. We cross a bridge over a river, and on the other side you see a wall of forrest and tiny sparkling green stars. We come upon a local giving some young ladies from Texas a tour of the forrest and he invites us along to help us become less lost. He shows us enormous caves, giant New Zealand crickets, and more glow worms. The whole terrain could not be more magical.
Once we return to our van, we drive back to our spot at the Waitomo Farmstay and settle in for the night. As I lay on the squishy mattress, tucked into my sleeping bag I smile at how beautiful and unexpected life can be.