Glowworm Caves of Te Anau

Our fifth day in New Zealand had an uneventful start as we made the drive from Aoraki/Mount Cook to Fiordland National Park.  The views were still beautiful as we drove through the countryside, stopping to stretch our legs and take in some sights.

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We made good time on our drive, arriving in Te Anau by mid-afternoon.  I hadn’t scheduled anything for this day because I wasn’t sure how early we would arrive, but we had decided to try to see the glowworm caves.  When we reached Te Anau, we went straight to the town visitor center to inquire about booking a tour.  The afternoon slots were all booked up, so we scheduled an evening tour and then got some helpful information about walks we could do in the meantime.  We decided to do a section of the Kepler Track (a 60 km loop), which started from the Fiordland visitor center on the shore of Lake Te Anau.

Although the weather was hot (we kept hearing that it was an insane fluke that we got to see Fiordlands in the sun), the walking was easy, and we stopped a few times to wade in the frigid waters of the lake.

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We turned back before long, wanting to eat dinner before meeting up for our excursion with Real Journeys.  We didn’t have to wait long to board a ferry that would take us to the cave, and while on board, we got to watch the sun setting behind the mountains that bordered the lake.

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It was only a twenty minute ride to a dock that jutted out from a wild section of rainforest, where we disembarked and walked along a short trail.  The evening grew darker with every step, and the surrounds were inviting, beautiful, and unlike any forest I’d ever seen.

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Soon we reached a small building, where the tour was split into two groups.  A group of about twelve people were led immediately into the caves, and the rest of us were ushered into a comfortable room where we were served tea and coffee while a guide gave a presentation about the glowworms.  After the talk we were split into smaller groups again, and our group was the next to enter the cave.

We were led deeper into the forest and to the mouth of the cave.  On the way, we were informed that cameras weren’t allowed out inside, which was a disappointment to me at first, until I realized that this experience deserved my undivided attention.  We had to duck to enter the cave as the mouth was only about four feet tall.  Once inside, there was space to stand up straight, and we immediately started to see glowing dots of blue light above us.  The cave had a river flowing through it, and the rushing water drowned out all other noise.  As our guide led us deeper into the cave, we passed a series of underground waterfalls, and finally we reached a platform where a boat was waiting to take us into the darkness.

We piled into the low vessel, and the lights were doused.  Immediately, we could see thousands of glowing blue dots floating around and above us.  The guide steered the boat through tight passages, making sure that we had plenty of time to marvel at the tiny creatures, which seemed more like stars in a far-off galaxy than larvae clinging to a damp rock inches away.  Everyone on the boat was silent.  The only sound was that of the underground river that carried us, and the only sight was the soft light of the glowworms.  I was overcome with the raw beauty of the moment.  I felt like I was the only one in the cave, and that I was surrounded by magic, rather than slimy, hungry insects.

As I stared, completely awestruck by this very real place that seemed like the backdrop of a fantasy world, I couldn’t stop thinking that experiences like this were why I love travel so much.  The world is full of strange and beautiful things, that need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.  Every once in a while, a place will leave me feeling small, insignificant, and overwhelmed.  These moments are a sobering, but also exhilarating.  I left the cave feeling giddy, and grateful to have been able to witness something so wonderful.

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