Thursday, October 13, 2005

Frottage and Glow-worms

So, having ascertained that I am no action hero, we left Queenstown and headed for the boundless wastes of Fiordland. This, as I discovered several times over, is New Zealand's biggest nature reserve/national park, as well as being part of a World Heritage Site, mainly because it's so remote no-one can get there to spoil it. Not that they haven't tried.

We had found out a bit about Fiordland and the things you could do there from the numerous leaflets strategically placed around the bar on the Steamship Earnshaw. Everything seemed to happen around a sleepy little town called Te Anau, so that's where we headed. Along the way, we were sidetracked into Manapoura, where, for a princely sum, we signed up for boating trips to the Glow-worm caves, Milford and Doubtful Sound. Once more Barbara surprised me with her sudden enthusiasm for nautical adventuring. It might be something in the air, I suppose.

First off, the Glow-worm caves. These caverns, on the far side of lake Te Anau from the town that shares it's name, are carved out of the limestone and extend far into the hills. Maori legend told of a place of swirling water, and some enterprising westerner decided that it would attract tourists if only he could find the place. It took him three years, then a bit longer to develop it into something accessible to ladies in long skirts.

Nowadays it's a slickly run tourist attraction with a few nice rough edges. After a terrible video introduction, a group of us were lead into the caves along a series of walkways over the rushing water. Our cheerful guide let us know that the river occasionally rose quickly, filling the cave entirely, but that they usually had enough notice to clear everyone out first. This was after they had taken our money.

Inside the caves we were boated along cold streams and into a darkened cavern to see the glow-worms. A uniquely New Zealand phenomenon, these are the larval stage of a fly that has evolved to eat the insects hatched of eggs washed into the caves from streams and lakes high above. Attaching themselves onto the rocky cave ceiling, these matchstick sized grubs produces long tendrils of what looks a lot like snot, drooping them down into the cavern like fishing rods. Then they glow. How much they glow depends on how hungry they are. Newly hatched insects - moths and sandflies mainly - are attracted by the lights, and fly towards them, getting stuck in the mucus. The glow-worms haul in their lines and then have a jolly good feed.

It's one of those so-unlikely evolutionary strategies that plays so well into the hands of the creationists, but it's fascinating to see. At one point on the trip our guide punted us into a cavern in our long boat and everyone fell silent. For long minutes we just drifted around in the cold and dark, with a thousand pinprick stars overhead like it was a clear night and we weren't four hundred feet under a mountain. The only sound was the muted roar of the stream rushing through neighbouring caverns, there was no wind, no feeling at all. After a while I had to move in a slightly frottaging way towards the person sitting next to me, just to convince myself that I wasn't completely alone.


Next: A Doubtful Sound.

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