Everything I thought I knew about glow worms was wrong.
“They’re maggots.” Daniel, the Kiwi guide, laughs. “but we couldn’t call them that or you’d never have come.” He clicks the next slide and a child in the front squeals.
“They’re highly territorial, as you can see.” A translucent slug gulps down its smaller neighbour. “See that flickering light? That’s the tail going out. It’s dying.”
We watch in horror as the older maggot snuffs out the light.
“Is that what they eat? Each other?” A man asks.
“Oh no. They paralyse and eat flies by making these,” He points to what looks like beaded necklaces, floating daintily from the rock. “We call them fishing lines. Those beads are poisonous.”
We watch another worm sink its fangs into a moth caught on a line, liquifying its organs for easier digestion. “And voila! A moth milkshake that’ll last a month!” Daniel grins.
So… a twinkling glow worm is actually a cannibalistic maggot that sucks on its paralysed prey for days on end?
That’s just about the best marketing I’ve ever heard of.
I’m in the Real Journeys lodge at the entrance of the Te Anau Glow worm caves, 2 hours’ drive west of Queenstown. After a quick presentation, our guide seems happy he’s disgusted us enough, and we continue to the cave.
The entrance is small, no higher than a metre, surrounded by dripping ferns and glistening boulders. One by one we duck under and disappear into the darkness, following Daniel’s glowing red hand as he cups his fingers over a torch.
The sound of the river is overwhelming – it roars down a warren of twisting tunnels, sculpted by 12,000 years of rushing water. After crossing whirlpools and tip-toeing through 22m high ‘cathedrals’, we finally reach the boat.
“No noise, no lights.” our guide says. Then he turns off the torch.
It’s a surreal experience. You can’t see or hear anyone, it’s just you, rocking through the dark on a velveteen river. Until suddenly, thousands of blue lights pulse from above, a night sky hidden underground for centuries.
Dammit, those mini cannibal maggots sure are pretty.
No one speaks. Not even the four-year-old, whose Spiderman gloves glow in the dark and confuse the hell out of me.
As Daniel pulls us back using a chain nailed to the limestone, I notice there’s another boat in the tiny dock.
It wasn’t there before, and the caves are so narrow – only a few metres across.
“Did we pass a boat on the way back?” I ask. Daniel gives me a rueful smile.
“Twice. They were loud.” I get a little shiver. The idea I was so close to another group of people, in the dark, and didn’t even realise it…
We meander back, all starry-eyed. I try to shout questions over the roar of the water.
“Did you learn to do that tour with the lights on?” I ask.
“Yes, there’s emergency lights if something goes wrong.” he replies.
Hmm. Chinese Whispers would be a great game to play down here.
When I ask him again later, he says they get 2 hours to memorise the caves, before they turn the lights off.
“But I’ve been down here 8 months, so my eyes adjust a lot quicker.”
“You can see in the dark?” It had literally been pitch black.
Book your Real Journeys tour here. It really was fantastic, the guides were knowledgeable and fun, and the journey to the caves over Te Anau lake was stunning. Well worth $75!
First and second photo: Real Journeys