By Whitney Mackman
“So, they aren’t actually glowworms,” our guide stalled as we settled in against the sharp, ridged limestone for the obligatory history lesson. “Turn off your headlights now and look up,” he instructed; we obeyed. This was the moment we had been waiting for. To our delight, the cave ceiling twinkled the purest, brightest blue—poets would call it electric cyan. With heads back and mouths open, we let out a collective gasp that echoed throughout the cave. Our guide had anticipated that very reaction, and at the exact moment we fell in love, he said, “They are actually maggots.” My mouth snapped shut and I dry heaved, resentful of the false advertisement. In the pitch black, I could feel—and practically hear—the force of the twisted convulsions of disgust happening on each person’s face. “But if we invited you here to see our glowing maggot cave, would you come?” “No!” we all replied emphatically, wondering when all those maggots were going to drop on us, or poop on us, in the sixty-five-meter-deep dark. “Don’t worry, they won’t poop on you because they don’t poop,” he reassured us, after seeming to read minds. “They have no way to poop, and so their waste piles in the back of their body and their excretory tubes become bioluminescent.” Their butts glow the milkiest, most iridescent blue I have ever seen. They are a literal shit show. These “glowworms,” Arachnocampa luminosa, are exclusive to New Zealand and are actually a type of fungus gnat. They dangle sticky fishing lines made of spit, turn on the blue-light butt special, and entangle bugs hopeless enough to believe their glow is a way out of the darkness. Over time, they pull up their captives and pulverize them from the inside out—a fate National Geographic deems one of the top ten worst ways to die.
When they are no longer hungry but very horny, glowworms mate for forty-eight hours. Then, totally spent and fearing fatherhood, the male dies. The female lasts only a bit longer in order to lay a hundred twenty eggs, and then, at the thought of that many children, she dies. However, she doesn’t know only one child will survive. She doesn’t remember that the first egg to hatch will be the only egg to hatch because glowworms are cannibals; the firstborn makes a tasty first meal out of its would-be brothers and sisters. “Why do they do this?” the guide asked, and I hoped for some kind of rational, survival- based explanation. Nobody moved. Nobody had an answer. “So people like you can tell their friends they went all the way to New Zealand to tube through a dark cave full of cannibalistic maggots with shiny shit who shag themselves to death.” I laughed, even though I had been duped. I hadn’t caught up with myself yet or processed the meaning of our exact location. Everything happened so fast after almost not happening at all—and somehow, I sat underground with shimmering, pulverizing maggot-worms whose true power and identity I had not prepared for. What was I doing? There is only deadly blue light and frigid black water here; there is no escape. Confronted by the darkness, entranced by the blue glow, I finally accepted my reality. On this day, the final day of a three-week New Zealand vacation, my partner and I had caught a Naked Bus at 7:10 a.m. for the three-and-a-half-hour road trip to Waitomo. We hoped to arrive in time for the three-hour Black Labyrinth tour and one-hour Grotto tour before catching the only bus back to Auckland at 5:00 p.m. For some reason and with no explanation, our bus turned around and backtracked quite a distance to pick up a person who was twenty minutes late. This left us tense and tired the entire bus ride and, indeed, we almost missed our tour.
We scrambled through everything once we arrived: the payment, the waivers, the clammy wetsuits, the boots—all a blur. We jumped onto the company’s shuttle to the cave as it pulled away. We had anticipated this moment for months, this exclamation point at the end of the adventure story, and we almost missed it. Now, here we were, crouching in a narrow cave chute that resembled a frozen drainage pipe, eating the chocolate gummy worms the guide pranked us with, convincing ourselves it was safe to swallow. Ruakuri Cave, like most caves, is a claustrophobic’s nightmare, and my partner had overestimated her ability to conquer her fears. In the beginning, we had to limbo under a low ceiling on our tubes, and I worried she would have a panic attack, so I tried to be supportive. She told me to quit asking how she was doing, so I did. Thankfully, the sandwiched spelunking soon ended, and we stood up and followed the shallow stream as it descended deeper and deeper into the cave. Tubes on one shoulder, hands on soaring limestone rock face, my feet searched for the next step in what was quickly becoming a river. We climbed in the near dark, save what little the head lamp illuminated, stepping into black water and hoping the bottom was the same level as the previous step. Sometimes, I would take a step and sink deep. The icy, ten degrees Celsius water would rush inside my wetsuit and I would rush to get out—grabbing onto a vaulted wall so sharp in places it slit my skin open. I couldn’t move too fast. I had to react without slamming my head into the stalactites hanging down or snapping the stalagmites shooting up. And they were everywhere, puckering the pathway with their stagnant loneliness. Touching these towering deposits of limestone crystal can damage them, and they take hundreds of years to grow just a few cubic centimeters. As water droplets fall from the cave ceiling, they leave an icicle-shaped trail of limestone crystal in their wake (stalactites) and create a cone-shaped pile where they land below (stalagmites). The two formations reach for one another for decades but may never actually connect. I could hear water rushing ahead and feared the first of the two waterfalls we were warned about. I trailed the group, so I heard, “one, two, three,” and then a loud slap followed by cheers. I felt my way farther down the river toward slap after slap, claps and cheers. I walked toward the guide, who was crouching at the edge of the waterfall, and got as close as I could without getting swept away. I peeked over the edge to see the extended ledge we had been warned to avoid. I turned around, spread my legs apart, and balanced on two difference rocks as the guide held my calf firm with both hands so I didn’t slip. I put my tube against my butt, and he counted: “one, two…” I didn’t wait to hear “three,” I just jumped. I leapt out and back and took a deep breath. SMACK! I fell three or four feet, and gravity pulled me down while the buoyant tube pulled me up. The cold water flooded my face, and I realized I must remember to breathe. I surfaced to cheers and caught my breath through a smile so wide it hurt my frozen face. Vacating the tubes, we continued farther down the river on foot. I felt I was walking into the earth’s core, until I heard the next waterfall. One by one, we turned our backs on a five- or six-foot waterfall. I threw myself backward off the ledge without hesitation. When, how, would I ever do this again? In the pool below the waterfall, we linked our feet under the armpits of the person in front of us and floated away from the pool as one human eel. With head lamps off, the guide up front steered us, making us feel like we would have lost our way without knowing the correct turns. We floated sixty-five meters below the earth in total blackness, in total silence besides the slow swish of water and our heartbeats, staring in disbelief at the blue-glowworm Milky Way suspended on the cave ceiling above.
The beauty is incomprehensible; as I stared, my limbs went slightly numb, and I lost all grasp of space and time because I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing, but it was the most magnificent sight I had ever seen. Tiny blue stars, the purest blue so bright against the black, just out of reach in the darkness. I wanted to reach, but why risk touching something plausible and transporting myself from such an enchanted world? Soon, the shivers of the stranger’s boots squeezed under my armpit shocked me back to reality and the rushing sound of shallow rapids.
We hopped and balanced our way across a cavernous and slippery part of the river where water rushed fast through small rock chutes, leading to our exit: the Tunnel of Love. I assumed the channel narrow enough, with no other tributaries, because we free floated independently without head lamps. Who’s to know? I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. But I resisted flashing my head lamp quickly as I didn’t want to spoil the magic. I floated by myself, trusting the current, letting go. It was both calming and terrifying to be in complete underground blackness, unable to see anyone next me or see anything around me. My partner panicked and yelped out for me at one point; I had been right next to her the whole time. We held hands until a speck of a light from the distant Waitomo Forest infiltrated our world.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the glorious glowing maggot stars above me. The cave brightened and the current pushed me forward, but I kept turning back, knowing it was almost over. Knowing we were over. So I let myself drift through liquid space, splash through sparkling constellations of iridescent, only-child, cannibal gnats, whose tantalizing glow would guide me out of the darkness.
Whitney Mackman teaches writing and creative arts classes at Loyola University New Orleans. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a specialty in Poetry and extensive study of Creative Nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. She referees for high school and college lacrosse and, during the summer, coaches mountain biking for a nonprofit in Colorado. In 2014, Whitney published one of the last interviews with Dr. Maya Angelou in The Rumpus, and in 2018, Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, What Ties Us. Her travel writing can be found noadventure.com, airplanereading.org, and wesaidgotravel.com; some of her poems can be found in Matador Review, The Poet’s Billow, Apalachee Review, Furious Season, and Sliver of Stone.