In darkness, from a wooden boat on a still river, I’m staring up at the walls of a huge cave. Its vast ceiling is covered in thousands of tiny, magical-looking lights. Except they’re not lights … they’re glow worms. An hour earlier, at the entrance to the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand, I’d confessed to another tourist that I’d only recently realised that glow worms were real. He responded, absolutely seriously and somewhat accusatory, “You must have read fairy stories when you were a child though and they had glow worms – what did you think the glow worms in those were then”? (Mentally, I’m sure he added, “What are you, an idiot”?). Hmm … I decided to remain silent about the logic of using fairy tales to prove the existence of something.
Our diminutive tour guide proudly informs us that she auditioned for The Hobbit. I think of a friend, an imposing 6’8”, and how constricted he’d feel in these tunnels. On the other hand, my mother (5’1”) and her husband (5’0”) could quite happily set up their own hobbit home in here. The atmosphere is surreal in these murky, ancient surroundings and my imagination quickly embraces a world where hobbits, fairies and giants might exist.
Our “Little Guide” (as she calls herself) interrupts my daydreaming.
Little Guide: Who knows the name of the parts of the cave that drop down from the roof and the ones that come up from the ground?
Mum (without hesitation – she has more than a touch of the Lisa Simpson about her): Stalactites and stalagmites!
Little Guide: That’s right. And which one is which?
Mum (pauses, unsure of the answer and internally reprimanding herself): Ooh, I’m not entirely sure but I think stalactites drop down from the roof.
She’s correct. She always is.
Little Guide: The caves have amazing acoustic ability. Would anyone like to sing a song?
My mother looks at me and I telepathically plead for her silence; she visibly struggles to restrain herself. Little Guide sings a lilting Maori song and then explains the lifecycle of the glow worm. The scientific details don’t hold my attention – I turn and look in awe at the 24 million year old cave. Absorbed in the wonder of the place, my mind easily drifts.
Of Maori descent, my father grew up here – his family farm is three miles away. He and his friends played in these caves (an image that conjures up the movies Stand by Me and Goonies; I’m clearly a child of the eighties). They swam in this river and scared themselves with local stories about spirits who inhabited the place. The fear is entrenched; to this day, he refuses to go underground.
My father’s imagination has been passed to me – a blessing and a curse, depending on your viewpoint. In my mind, in this cave, and in this moment, times and worlds are interchangeable – aided by having been in four time zones in nine days, a recent immersion in the unreal and the absence of daylight. In two weeks, I’ve read all four books in the Twilight Saga; the previous night I’d watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; at 3:30 this morning, I’d risen to watch the lunar eclipse. Wizards, goblins, werewolves and vampires are floating through my head as the norm.
Harsh light suddenly hits my eyes as we exit the cave and disembark. Abruptly I’m returned to the physical world. Leaving us on the river bank, Little Guide directs the boat away from us back into the tunnel. I want to follow her into the enchanted cave and remain in The Shire with the hobbits. Reality will never be for me.
Since writing this, I’ve been to Rotorua’s thermal springs and the breathtaking Huka Falls. I’ve walked through dense forests and by crystal clear rivers – I’ve never seen comparable natural beauty. New Zealand fuels the imagination in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t think I can bear to tell my father he was right about this country … it’s magnificent.