Ever since discovering glow-worms one night while out for a walk at a New Zealand campsite and then seeing them highlighted in our Creatures of Light exhibition, I’ve wanted to visit the Waitomo Caves. This is where glow-worms live in abundance, hanging their sticky feeding lines above the cave’s river and catching insects that emerge from the river, attracted to the glow-worms’ self-produced light.
The Māori name for the Waitomo caves derives from wai, meaning “water”, and tomo, meaning “entrance” or “hole”. The caves were discovered in 1887 by local Māori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace, when they floated along the river and into the cave on a flax raft, using candles for light.
The cave ceiling is covered with small dots of silver blue light emitted by the glow-worms. Beautiful but deadly (for their prey) threads are suspended below the worms and look like beaded necklaces.
The atmosphere in the cave is surreal because of the thousands of soft lights above and the cave seeps dripping in irregular plops into the river. Movie director Peter Jackson recorded the cave’s sounds to give that same eeriness to Gollum’s cave in The Hobbit.
Visiting the cave after attending a conference in Auckland, I learned that more than glow-worms are there. Chief Tane Tinorau had also discovered an upper level, full of chambers and catacombs decorated with cascades of gold stalactites. “The Cathedral” chamber has such good acoustics that it is used for underground concerts.
In 1990, the New Zealand government returned the caves and the surrounding lands to Tane Tinorau’s descendants, many of whom now lead the tours.
When you visit the Creatures of Light exhibition at the museum, immerse yourself in its replica glow-worm grotto and imagine yourself drifting slowly below with the only sound being the slow drip of cave water. Could that be Gollum who is peering at you from the end of the tunnel?