Glowworms and Tea

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We finished our waterfall adventures and headed for one last tiny hike for the day. It’s called “Mounds Walk” and is listed as one of the short hikes near Whakapapa village, the center point of Tongariro. The New Zealand government helpfully supplies fantastic information on their parks website, well worth looking at for planning.

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The whole 20 minute there-and-back culminates in a small raised platform surrounded in the distance by sets of mounds, exactly as described. The mounds are small hills, rising and settling with gentle slopes turning the landscape into a bubbling greenscape. The walk has informative graphics as to the theorized origins of the mounds – debris from previous volcanic explosions.

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We visited too late in the day to get any really good shots of the mounds themselves, but the clouds filled in. As with many other places in New Zealand, the cloudscapes are vibrant, ever shifting, larger than life canvases in motion on which the sun paints with vivid palettes of reds and golds and violets.

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We got our exercise for the day running back to the car and motored off to our last destination for the day : glowworms were said to live in the walls formed by a road cut far-ish off into the countryside. What should have been an adventurous jaunt was threaded with anxiety and paranoia that night. Earlier in the day we’d met a very friendly Dutchman while we were drying out our camp gear. He’d been travelling around in a campervan for some months and chatted with us briefly. Before the rains came and we hurriedly stashed our gear, he brought us two cups of tea which we drank gratefully. Waterfalls and mounds followed, and my mind embarrassingly brooded on the incident. Despite months of meeting people and relying on their kindness and good will, the manual of safe travel popped up : be careful what you accept from whom, especially if you’re alone. Lack of sleep combined with darkening skies and childhood stories of backwoods terrors and coalesced into the though of : what if the tea was drugged. Natalie was in a similarly tired state and could only counter that it was highly unlikely, but now the errant thought nagged at her too.

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The last light before the long road to the worms.

What followed was a weary drive and a long conversation on travel, people, kindness and ill will. The short of it was that we were being very silly, and that by and large people everywhere want mostly the same things – a stable life, a chance to grow and raise their family. Of the places most people are likely to travel to, at worst people might be mildly annoyed at the large backpack and “tourists” ruining the area. We’ve found though that people we’ve met have been largely welcoming and curious. About why we’re in their part of the world, about what we think of it, about the rest of the world is like. We’ve been very lucky to not yet run into someone who wished us direct harm, though even then the goal is usually monetary gain rather than simple violence. This is not to say that the world is safe in all respects and that everything is peaches and cream, that would be too black-and-white for reality. But when it comes to people meeting people, at least in the places we’ve been to, the interactions are statistically for the better.

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The cut in the road, only barely a car’s width across.

We’d arrived at this point, more tired and anxious than anything. The dirt road was pitch black excepting the streetlight at the junction to the main road. Here there is no place to turn around, so forward is the only direction. The dirt sides of the cut-through hill rise up rapidly and surround the car, everything is quiet except for the rumbling of the motor and visibility is truly limited to the beams of the headlights. It’s the kind of place where horror stories live, and boy were we primed for it.

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Unfortunately, to see the glowworms, we had to kill the lights and let our eyes adjust to the total black. An unpleasant concept, but we did it. The result was this scene – blue-green lights twinkling on an unseen plane a foot from our eyes. We didn’t take the brave step of getting out of the car, and in retrospect that was a mistake.

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The phenomenon of glowworms is unique, at least to me. Other animals produce light, of course, and eyes glowing in the nightbush can sparkle just the same. The glowworms though are as if the stars were brought within arm’s reach in all their cold and distant glory. I find it endlessly fascinating searching for constellations unknown in the star field of the worms. That they live and are arrayed on the side of the road is a spectacular event. Their larvae eat fungus and other decomposing plant matter and need moisture and darkness to grow. Apparently this cut satisfied all their needs since they were thriving.

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Our night of anxiety ended as we slept at a roadside stop near Taumarunui. We woke to the sight of familiar rolling hills and winding roads. All was well, and we felt embarrassed and very silly. A sincere thank you and apology to the kind Dutchman for his tea and food for thought.

Waipu Caves

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The entrance to Waipu Caves, as seen from within

Our next stop on the Northland Peninsula in New Zealand are Waipu Caves, one of the few places on the islands where you can see glow worms for free. The glow worms, the larvae from a species of gnat that thrives in dark damp places, are some of the most magical sights in New Zealand. The area around Waipu also hosts quintessential New Zealand beauty – weather-sculpted karst rocks, twisted trees, and every shade of green you can imagine. Here are our photos from visiting Waipu, from hiking the area around it to exploring within the cave itself, to finally figuring out how to capture the magic of the glowworms by camera.

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A rather nondescript sign marks the entrance to the caves.
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There’s also a hiking track around the caves, weaving through woods and karst stone formations.
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A tree forces apart rocks as it grows.
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Anchors embedded at the top of the cliff for rock climbing.
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Into the cave itself, where the last of the light dies away.
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The entrance of the cave seen from deep inside the cave; the foreground light is courtesy of our headlamps.
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Fanciful figures in the darkness: a mushroom grows on a log that washed into the cave, illuminated only when we shine our light on it.

 

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Fantastic formations on the cave walls.
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Signs of damage: here, someone has broken off a stalactite from the cave’s ceiling. If you enter the cave, take care not to touch the formations or lean on them.

 

 

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The celebrity! A glow worm hangs from a wall, but with light shining on it we cannot capture its glow.
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After playing with the camera settings, we switch off our lights for total darkness and take a long exposure shot. We’re rewarded with a constellation of glow worms, scattered across the night sky of the cave’s ceiling.