Picturesque New Zealand/Chapter 8

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Picturesque New Zealand by David Paul Gooding
Chapter VIII


CHAPTER VIII

Weird Waitomo's Beautiful Caves—Glowworm Grotto

The thermal wonderland is not the only weird district in New Zealand. In Waitomo there is weirdness too, for it is celebrated for its caves, lying in a volcanic, limestone area one hundred miles south of Auckland. They are reached by the Main Trunk, New Zealand's longest railway, running between Auckland and Wellington four hundred and twenty-six miles long.

The Main Trunk passes within sight of the mountains of Tongariro National Park and through districts that until a comparatively few years ago were inhabited only by Maoris. Some of the construction features of this line are high steel viaducts and the Raurimu Spiral, which enables trains to ascend about seven hundred feet in two miles. At its highest part the railway is half a mile above the sea, and for more than two hundred miles the cost of construction exceeded seventy thousand dollars a mile.

Compared with Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, Waitomo's caverns are small; but they are remarkably formed. Aranui, for example, has formations resembling lace and fresh snow; it has "shawls" and "blankets," "marble" and "wax," and it is the only New Zealand cave yet discovered that has "water-lilies."

Of the principal caves Waitomo and Ruakuri have

ARANUI CAVES

been known to the Maoris for generations; but not by them were the caves explored. They ventured to bury some of their dead in recesses near the entrance to Ruakuri, but into Ruakuri's blackness they no more than peered.

As for us who came after, doubly fortified with candle and magnesium wire to search this abode of ghostliness, vengeful sprites and spirits troubled us not, and the forbidding darkness glowed and flashed with beauty. At its entrance Ruakuri, a series of fissures and grottoes with a maximum length of three fourths of a mile, was narrow, dismal, and commonplace. A few hundred yards from its mouth the crevice widened, and here the magnesium light flared upon the "cauliflowers" and "mushrooms" and "Queen Alexandra's Drawing-Room." Just beyond these I heard splashing water; somewhere in the blackness was a hidden waterfall.

Retracing, and proceeding up another fissure, I saw, well ahead, a sparkle. It looked like a star in a black sky; but soon I saw another like it, then a half-dozen, a score, fifty, a hundred.

"What are they?" the guide was asked.

"They may be diamonds," he replied, with a grin.

Of course they were not; they were glowworms, of which more later.

In the Throne Room, in Rouen Cathedral, in the Coral Cave, and before the Wedding Cake, we saw stalactites and stalagmites of wonderful construction. Here were long, slender tubes that looked like glass, forming, I was told, at the rate of one inch in ninety years. Here were formations, pure white and varicolored, more delicately wrought than coral; and brown, yellow, and white shapes resembling carrots and parsnips.

In one respect Waitomo was the reverse of Ruakuri. Waitomo was beautiful at the beginning and weird at the end. As soon as Waitomo's door was opened, a white grotto, encrusted, and fit for the chamber of a fairy princess, was revealed.

For my visit to Waitomo I had chosen the most impressive hour, nightfall. At that hour there was awesome and mysterious suggestiveness in the preparations and in the approach to the cave's mouth. As the cave-seekers neared Waitomo in single file beneath the trees that darkened the entrance, moonshiners, night-riders, and ghosts were suggested in the low voices, the crouching figures, the cautious tread, and the gloom of shadows.

The supreme architectural feature of this cave was the Cathedral, which had a ceiling sixty feet high. Both ceiling and walls were elaborately decorated, and in the main room a fair-sized congregation could have assembled for worship.

In Waitomo, too, were the Organ and the Jew's-Harp, each possessing stalactites that, when struck, produced music something like that of a steam calliope.

In the Court-Room fancy had formed from limestone a judge, jury, counsel, and prisoners. Near here, sitting on the cold stone floor, was the lone figure of the Monkey.

Perhaps the most amazing sight in Waitomo was Glowworm Grotto, at the rear of the Cathedral. As we approached it in the darkness, for effect, we saw what looked like a roof of gems. These "gems" were the steady gleam of thousands of glowworms, shedding day and night a dim light suited only to goblin worlds. On this scene the guide flashed a magnesium light. The result was startling. Hanging closely together from the roof were countless tiny pendants resembling fine wire strands and weighted with millions of drops of moisture. The whole formed one glistening, gently swaying screen across the damp ceiling. These filaments were the threads of glowworms. Looking down, we saw the glittering canopy reflected in a dark expanse of water.

Retracing our steps, we followed the guide to the top of a wooden stairway. Here the lanterns were extinguished, leaving us in the flickerings of one candle. After a few rods of stumbling, we halted. Something dimly white was ahead, and it was moving. What was it? An uncanny inhabitant of these dripping silences? No—a boat, and tens of thousands of glowworms! We were on the banks of an underground stream, a stream as dark as the river of death; and here were a boat and a boatman as ghostly in appearance as flitting forms of a spirit world.

By the light of a candle half the party boarded the boat and were pushed off. Slowly they glided away, into the intense gloom beyond. Yet there was no sound of an oar; not a splash nor a dip was heard. Even spirits, to whom this silent navigation seemed most fitting, could not have moved more inaudibly. How was the boat navigated? By wire. Standing in the craft the guide grasped a single wire and easily piloted his passengers downstream to the exit.

As the boat left the landing the candle was extinguished, leaving for illumination only the light of the glowworms. At first it was so dark that we on shore could not see face or hand six inches from our eyes. In a few minutes we could see vaguely our own outlines and the cavern walls opposite to us. But the silence did not decrease; excepting when broken at intervals by drops of water falling loudly into the stream, it was as the silence of a tomb.

At last it was my turn for a ride, and a wonderful ride it was. The current carried me under a Milky Way of glowworms, under constellations, satellites, and isolated planets. In fancy the black roof and walls were the sky and the gleaming lights the stars. But the glint of glowworms was not everywhere visible; it was mainly on the roof. There were broad spaces without even one "star," and shortly before I emerged into the moonlight I passed stalactites and stalagmites unlighted by a single ray.