The only sound in the cave was a gentle lap of water as our guide propelled us along the underground river with a pole. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, the brilliance of thousands of glowworms just above our heads led the way. Glowworms are one to two inches long and live their whole lives attached to the roof of a cave with the tip of their tail glowing. They spin a strand of web that hangs down, which is how they catch their food. The caves are often discovered by telltale clumps of trees on the surface that hides a hole where the odd cow, or sheep drop into.
The cave that we went through is on private land and they had preserved an in-situ skeleton of an extinct moa (a two to three meter high bird that is native to New Zealand) that fell through the hole eons ago. There are over 300 such caves in New Zealand and they had, for the most part, been left alone by the Maori, who believe that when you die, your spirit passes along a waterway and though a cave. Then, in the 1800’s, European settlers discovered the caves and started giving tours. In the 1980s, it was debated who had rights to the caves and it was decided that if you bought the land before 1960, you own the land right down to the center of the earth, but if you bought the land after 1960, you own only two meters deep.
We left the caves and returned to our grander trek, heading south. We charted our way through a steep forest trail where, at times, it was only 6 inches wide. A misstep could mean our last, followed by a very, very long tumble. We were careful! As such, it was much later in the day than usual when we finally broke through the trees and were able to camp on a small flat ledge with a stunning panoramic vista that felt far from anywhere, but probably wasn’t. It was dark when we got settled in to our tents. Kael had pitched hers about 30 metres down the hill and beside the bridge to be out of Gord’s snoring range. It takes him, literally, two seconds to fall asleep, but because I read for a while, I was still awake an hour later when I heard a faint call drifting up from below: “Daaaaddddy…..Arleeeennee…. Can you shine your light down here, there’s something out there”, Kael called. Hearing the alarm in her voice, my mama bear instincts kicked into high gear and I raced out of the tent, boots on, bum bare, and ran down the hill.
“Something is out there and it’s big”, she quavered. “I can’t sleep here. I’m so scared”. She was breathing fast. I could hear twigs breaking in the forest but saw nothing. “It’s OK, it’s probably just a possum”, I soothed, hoping it wasn’t a wild boar. We were both moving fast as we gathered up her stuff. Kael grabbed her backpack, I grabbed the tent and we started scrambling up the hill. Halfway up she stopped dead. “Is that a kiwi?” she said. There on the trail was what looked like a little hedgehog playing dead. A kiwi is a rare and elusive nonflying nocturnal bird. Most New Zealanders we have spoken to have never seen one in the wild.
We excitedly marvelled at it (while throwing scared looks behind us), before resuming our panicked dash up the hill. We parked her tent beside ours and the rest of the night passed uneventfully. We had a great laugh the next day.
Kael has now skedaddled off to start her job as an au pair further south. Gord and I are beginning a 100 km track over a couple of significant summits with no civilization in between. It will take us much longer than it says in the trail guide. We will be out of service and contact for a while so don’t fret. Our body parts are hanging in there and we are well. (At the moment there is not enough service to post pictures but I’ll post them when we come out the other side).