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Queenstown, New Zealand

Today’s travel update -- I woke up at 6am to catch the 7am bus to the town of Te Anau, a roughly 2.5 hour trip. This is the closest town to Fiordland National Park, another two hours driving to Milford Sound. On the way we passed mountains and lakes shrouded in darkness and fog, and I watched as the sun rose, though I was far too tired to truly appreciate it. When we arrived at Te Anau the entire town was covered in a thick layer of fog, evidently a normal occurrence for that area. While Queenstown is a dry place, the area around Fiordland is one of the wettest in New Zealand, having rainfall on average 200 days of the year, a fact I was unaware of when I had booked my flight the previous day. Most of the people on the bus stayed on, going further to Milford, but I always seem to do things unconventionally as I had booked a different tour, and so I disembarked.

There was a three-hour wait in town. Te Anau is a very small place, comprised largely of tourist shops, diners, and tourism offices. In the winter it is nearly deserted. After about an hour getting lunch and walking around largely alone I followed some advice and took a thirty-minute walk around Lake Te Anau and into the Ivon Wilson Scenic reserve. On the way I met one person riding a bicycle. In the reserve I found a bird sanctuary containing a number of rare New Zealand bird species, including the KāKā and the Takahē. The Takahē was thought to be extinct until 1948, until a flock of about fifty was found on a remote island (to which I will go in the next paragraph) and currently only approximately 300 Takahē are known to exist thanks to human conservation efforts. I’ve added a few of bird photos to the google photo album. Please keep in mind that these birds were in large cages and taking the photos required manually playing with the camera focus while dealing with fidgety birds. Also, the owl was asleep and I had a hard time even finding it. Unfortunately there were no kiwis and none have been sighted during my travels because they are a nocturnal bird. There are several places where a simulated nighttime environment is used to lure them but it is expensive. I prefer the colorful, endangered Takahēs anyway, and they’re similarly chubby and flightless.

I returned from the sanctuary to join a tour group taking a ship to the Glowworm caves on the very island where the Takahē rediscovered. The trip on the Te Anau lake offered once again beautiful views of mountains and small island covered in mist and clouds. And then we went spelunking!

The cave we went into was very young (~12000 years old), and its largest stalactite nicknamed Percy was shorter than the length of my index finger. There was water gushing everywhere, strong currents passing through and carving the cave further. It’s hard to imagine that over thousands of years that water is responsible for the large formations through which people can walk. After about twenty minutes walking through the cave with lights set up throughout we came onto a small lake inside and gathered onto a boat specially designed for hitting rocks and cave walls. The lights went out and everything was pitch black except for clusters of light dotting the ceiling -- glowworms. I have never suffered from claustrophobia, but for however long we were in that darkness, I felt just a little bit afraid. It was more than that. It was so dark I could not see my hand in front of me. The only assurance of my existence was my self-awareness, the occasional brush by the jacket of my neighbor, and the lights on the walls and the ceiling provided by the luminescent light of the glowworm tails. I felt completely alone in the universe and it was the loneliest I have felt during this entire trip. Sixty meters below ground surrounded by nothing save for spots glowing brightly in the distance.

The lights of the glowworm tails were yellow, though I later found out that some people saw blue-green, others saw orange, apparently an indication of how one’s eyes adjust to darkness. Initially I wanted to compare their glow in the darkness to stars in the night sky, but the formations were too evenly spaced, too precise. Glowworms gather in groups to generate more light for capturing prey in their spiderweb-like threads, but they are also territorial and so the clusters are spaced like a crystal lattice. Perhaps that is the correct analogy: crystal lattices shining in the dark.

Then the boat arrived back at the start, the lights went back on, and the experience was shattered. We made our way back to the mouth of the cave and to the visitor center to learn more about glowworms. I am no expert, but I probably know enough now to provide a quick overview of these creatures for anyone who is interested. One last piece of business; we were not allowed to take photographs in the cave for obvious reasons. Cave photos in my album were provided by the tour company.

And then it was time to take the boat back across the lake, once again looking over at the mountains in the distance. During the return trip a helicopter passed over us carrying several deer in a net over the water. At Te Anau I transferred to the bus for the long ride back to Queenstown. During the ride home the moon was large and visible over the mountains on one side, and across from it the sun set over the mountains and slowly faded further and further until only a bright white outline and a purple hue remained over the peaks. We passed large fields of sheep and cows going to sleep. I stared out into the darkening countryside taking it all in. Then it was over, and I sat at home with my memories.


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