The Waitomo Caves

(The Nationalist, 12 December 2003)


Some thirty years ago, when I was stationed in New Zealand, I was travelling by car with some of my confrères from Wellington to Auckland for a retreat. The journey was long, about 500 kilometres or more, and it was going to take the whole day. We were anxious to reach our destination in time for the evening meal and opening talk.

Along the way we saw a signpost pointing to the Waitomo caves, a well-known tourist spot. We paused for a while and debated what to do. In the first place we didn’t have much money, and the entrance fee would leave us with little to spare. And it would take at least an hour to see the caves properly. On the one hand we might never again have the chance; it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, now or never. On the other hand, there was the problem of money and time. What to do? We decided to visit them.

Entry to the caves was through a passage which led to a large chamber filled with water. We climbed into boats. In the roof of the caves, which, of course, were totally dark, were tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of glow-worms. These tiny creatures generate light, each has a tiny organic LED. They are among the most energy-efficient sources of light on earth. Their energy produces about 95% light for only 5% heat, much better than a light bulb. Together they lit up the roof and gave a greenish, almost neon, glow to the dark, lending it an air of mystery. They were sensitive to sound, and if you made any noise they might stop glowing, so no oars, much less engines, were used. We were pulled around the pool by ropes set into the walls of the cave.

I can still feel something of the sense of wonder I experienced at that time. It was a magical hour, one to remember for a lifetime, and I’m very glad we did it. We made the right decision. I have to admit that I remember nothing whatever of the retreat that followed. The preacher, whoever he was, did his best, I’m sure, but it was the Waitomo caves which left the lasting memory.

I learned something from that experience. It’s summarized in a Latin saying, carpe diem, meaning “seize the day”, or take the opportunity. The Christian virtue of prudence is not only about caution; it also says, “Seize the day! This is the moment! Use it!” Thank you, Brother and Sister Glow-Worms.