When you gotta glow, you gotta glow…

Kawiti Cave Entrance

I recently visited the Kawiti Glow Worm Caves with my friend Nancy. Situated between Whangarei (where I live) and Opua (where she lives), the caves are reputed to be one of the North Island’s natural landmarks here in New Zealand.

We arrived first around mid-day, along with two tour buses. Nancy I and exchanged troubled glances, but sallied forth to the ticket desk nonetheless. We made our way through the elderly American crowd with their bulky cameras and loud floral prints and shrill chatter, and asked if there were possibly two tours scheduled for this time. “No, you’ll be with this group,” the woman near the ticket booth replied. But then, she added kindly, “But you can come back later.” Did she instantly understand that we were not part of the group? Did I see her wink? We inquired further: “When would be a good time to come back?”

The amicable guide explained that they had tour buses scheduled all day, but if we came at the end of the day, around 4pm, we’d arrive just after the last had left, and we’d probably end up in a smaller group. We headed to the nearby town of Paihia in search of coffee, lunch, and bookstores.

Several hours later, we arrived back at Kawiti. The last bus was loading, and in a few minutes we were the only ones there. The same woman greeted us with her broad smile, said she was so pleased we had come back. We paid up, and a young man led us to the cave entrance. We wondered aloud whether any others would join us, and he said: “This is it: your own private tour!” Boy, were we lucky!

Not that there was anything wrong with the group — they seemed pleasant enough in that typically I’m An American Tourist Who Prefers To See The World Through The Tinted Windows Of A Bus sort of way. It’s the buses, really, not the people in them. Nancy had been to these caves before, and she knew what lay ahead: steep steps and narrow passages that would be claustrophobic in a crowd of twenty or more.

So we proceeded with Soloman into the 25 million year old limestone and sandstone caves. We made the most of our private tour, asking all the questions that occurred to us, and Soloman obliged with a scripted delivery and even some details that were not part of his well rendered spiel. Good-natured and friendly, he delivered Maori stories about the caves, the family that owns the surrounding land, the tribe to which they belong, and the 10-month life cycle of the glow worm itself.

Among the stories, the most captivating is of the girl Roku, who lived some 360 years ago in this cave. She swam in, set up a kitchen, and stayed in the dark center of the cave for nearly one and a half years, only coming out to gather firewood and foodstuff off nearby farmland. It was the female chief of the local Ngatihine tribe, Hine-a-maru, who noticed trampled Tawa berries and saw smoke coming from the cave. The girl was discovered in poor health and nursed back to life by the village.

Nancy and I found this story charming (as all guests of Kawiti Caves surely do). But because we were alone with Soloman, we probed a bit deeper.

Why was she there in the first place? She ran away from her village.

Why did she run away? She ran away from her husband.

Why would she do that? Well, you see, her husband, being the chief of his own village, had several wives, and, at 17, she was the youngest. Being the chief, he would have been old, maybe 60. Maybe it wasn’t so good for her.

What happened to her after she was saved by the village? They sent her back to her husband.

Not so charming any more, but Soloman’s deadpan delivery was just great (even if he did refer to anyone over 40 as old a little farther up the path). And, he assured us, the story did have an eventual happy ending, as the girl was allowed to return to the Ngatihihi people and marry someone there. We tried to get to the bottom of this part of the tale, but nowadays folks are vague on the intricacies of divorce back then. I sense, however, that there’s more research to be done into Roku the Rebel.

The details about the glow worm’s life were fascinating too, and can be found here. But what resonates with me a week later are a few things outside the lifecycle of the glow worm.

First, that the species Arachnocampa luminosa is only found here in New Zealand, and that New Zealanders are proud of this fact. I like it that the country I might possibly come to call home takes pride in something so small and unattractive as a worm.

Also, the New Zealand glow worm is both territorial and communal, maintaining its own space among thousands on a cave wall, while also gathering together just close enough to create more light, thus attracting bugs for dinner. I can relate to this story: I like my own space, yet I find life too unbearable without a community of sorts. The glow worm, like me, might flirt with anarchy but realizes it just ain’t possible; in the end, the community matters more — and also helps you get your grub. Social contract theory at its most elemental, right here among the Arachnocampa luminosa.

In addition to what I learned from Soloman that day, there are other things about this unlikely hero that draw me to it. Like the fact that close relatives of the New Zealand variety reside in my other home-away-from-home, Germany. And although the New Zealand glow worm is different from its European counterpart, which is a beetle, I take comfort in knowing that this small thing which I’ve adopted as my mascot is also reminiscent of the very symbol of my youth, the nocturnal members of the family Lampyridae, the firefly or what we chased around in summer months and called lightning bugs.

Our Guide Soloman

Finally, a note about the song made famous by the Mills Brothers in 1952 (which I played and replayed on a plastic player in my small kitchen in Berlin in the 1980s). It’s the Mills Brothers hit that I love most, but it was adapted by Johnny Mercer from the original song Das Glühwürmchen written by German composer Paul Lincke for his 1908 operetta Lysistrata, which, in turn, is based on Aristophanes’ play of the same name, a comedy about women protesting the Peloponnesian War by staging – what else? — a sex strike. The protest was led by a woman named Lysistrata, which means “releaser of war”.

How could I not like the Glow Worm?

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One Response to When you gotta glow, you gotta glow…

  1. George says:

    The story of Roku was intriguing — as were the facts about the glow worm. Are the caves actually aglow while you’re in them? Did you get to touch a glow worm? It was great that you have your own private tour. I hope that someday we’ll be able to get to New Zealand to visit with you — it sounds like you’ll be calling the island “home” for a while.

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