Kawiti Glow-worm Caves

The best part of road trips are the unintended detours that you make along the way, and our stop at the Kawiti Glow Worm Cave was a definite unexpected score.

We were cruising down Route 1 (New Zealand’s national one-lane highway that would be classified as a road into a mountainous subdivision in the US) when I saw a marker that read “Kawiti Glow Worm Cave 400m,” and we figured that we might as well make our way down the 1km road to the advertised site. The road bordered a pasture of cows that eyed us as we rode past and ended in a small parking lot with only one other car. After parking alongside it, we found the “visitor center,” a small shack of a room that only fit an old cash register, a chair, and a stand selling postcards, and which was left vacant with a “Guide on Tour” sign propped in the window. We sat in the covered porch area outside to wait for the guide to return, wondering about the legitimacy of this particular site. New Zealand’s famous glow worms are in Waitomo, about a 6-hour drive down to the South Island, but this place DID have a brown national park sign, which we something at least.

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Eventually the guide returned with his previous tour of two visitors, took our 15NZD/person admission fee, and introduced himself as James. We waited as two other visitors (at least we weren’t the only ones there! +1 Legitimacy Point) went to the restroom, and then set out as a group into the dark, chilly cave.

Apparently the cave was first discovered in the 1800s, when an Englishwoman ran off from her husband and established a hideout 50 meters deep into the cave. She lit herself a constant fire for light and warmth, and it was unclear how long she spent there but eventually the tribes nearby noticed that their sweet potatoes were disappearing a bit faster than could be accounted for. In their investigation they saw smoke coming from the cave, and they followed it to discover the woman along with their missing sweet potatoes. They took her in briefly but ultimately delivered her back to wherever she had come from. I’m sure she wasn’t particularly thrilled, because it takes a lot of either hatred or fear (or both) towards one’s husband to prefer to live in a damp, cold cave instead. (The website tells a different story, but that’s at least what James told us!)

Despite the gloomy surroundings and questionable truth of the story, she did pick a beautiful place to stay. About 75 meters into the cave, James instructed us to turn off our lanterns and just like that, we were staring at the Milky Way. Thousands of little green stars dotted the cave walls and stalactites above us, some brighter than others, evenly spaced and flowing across in a river formation above our heads. It was quite a wonder to behold. I could have stayed and stared all day, except my neck didn’t take long to start protesting and I was struck with the reminder that they were in reality thousands of squirming worms.

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(We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the cave, so all of the pictures except for the first were found online. They still don’t do justice to the amazing full glow worm experience!)

An unpleasant thought, but quite extraordinary creatures they are. James filled us in with some interesting facts along the way:

  • The latin name for these worms isĀ Arachnocampa luminosa, and they are only found in New Zealand and parts of Australia. Worms that do not glow but are identical in every other respect are found in other areas of the world, where there are enough little insects flying around that the worms do not need to glow to attract their prey.
  • The glow comes from the tails of the worms, where the luciferin chemical that the worms produce creates the glow when it comes in contact with oxygen. The worm’s glow is remarkably efficient, with 99% light and 1% heat.

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  • The worms can turn their glow on and off, and glow brighter when they are hungrier. They usually glow brighter in the late afternoon, when insects tend to be flying around, or on rainy days, when insects seek shelter in the caves.
  • The purpose of the glow is to attract little insects, which the worms trap in lines of mucus that hang down from a mucus tunnel in rows like a curtain. In one day a worm can produce 70 lines, and they have gone up to half a meter long.
  • The worms range from 2mm to 4cm long.
  • The worms are territorial, which is why they are fairly evenly spaced on the cave walls. If two worms get a bit too close to one another, a battle ensues and the loser gets eaten.
  • The worms can survive on one meal every two weeks, but the more they eat, the faster they grow.
  • The worms usually stay as worms for 11 months, after which they build cocoons and emerge as mosquito-like flies that only have a lifespan of three days. Within that time period, they must seek a mate and reproduce, all in the dark and with the danger of flying into another worm’s web and being eaten.
  • The worm’s natural predators are a cave spider that looks like a Daddy Long Legs and a native cricket with spider-like legs that can grow to be the size of an adult human hand.

So, we figured, this cave was legitimate enough! We weren’t expecting any of it, least of all the best part: the way back out. On a stretch of path that was level and devoid of any surprising hanging stalactites, James taught us to feel the inside of the railings (so as not to scrape our hands on the rocks) and we felt our way along in the dark. It was pitch black, so dark that we couldn’t be sure of anything except for the path under our feet, the railing at our fingertips, and of course, the stream of little green dots above. It felt like I was walking along the galaxy, so close that I could almost reach up and touch the stars (except, of course, it’d be a horrible idea, since I’d really end up with a handful of webs and worms).

Amazing, that something so small and simple can be so awe-strucking and wonderful. Little treasures like this are so close but so easily missed, and I couldn’t be more thankful that I noticed that brown national park sign when we blew past it on the highway.