We enter the cave, the sunlight disappearing behind us. Our guide tells us to take the spiral to the bottom: the spiral is a ramp that descends twenty metres to our first check-point inside the Ruakuri Caves. These are limestone caves near Waitoma, New Zealand.
Our guide is Jim, a good natured, white-haired Kiwi, who clearly loves these caves. Water falls from the distant roof onto a block of limestone, made porous by the dripping water, and Jim has us rinse our hands in the stream, a symbolic cleansing to honour the Maori people who discovered these caves four centuries ago. Then, we begin our descent.
We follow the path, a metal grating that takes us over chasms and along the wall of the cave as we move deeper under the hill. The metal sidewalk has a rail—not high enough, as far as I’m concerned. Jim tells us about the different limestone formations, the stalactites and curtains of stone that festoon the walls. In dryer sections, the limestone hardens into coral-like patterns, but here, the water drips from the roof and sometimes pools on the floor. It’s all owing to the action of water, says Jim. And one day, he says, these caverns will collapse, leaving a deep gorge behind. But for now, the water drips and runs, adding to and changing these flowing walls. As we move, the sound echoes from all around, the air sometimes going dead as we crouch to shuffle through a narrow passage from one cavern to the next.
Jim brings us to a platform, cantilevered over a twenty metre drop into the main cavern. Here, he shows us the glow-worms that live in these caves. As he turns out the lights, the ceiling looks as though it’s dotted with stars. Fully 99% of these creature’s lives are dedicated to feeding and cocooning. Once they emerge, they have less than forty-eight hours to mate and begin the cycle over again. I stand in a corner of the platform. I grip the rail to either side, listening to Jim’s enthusiastic account of these insects, simultaneously hearing the rushing of water from far below and half-imagining the drop and what lies lower down.
Again, we go deeper, until, finally, we stand on another platform over a stream, one-hundred and sixty metres deep. I think of the caves of which I’ve read—places where dark things creep, or unnameable creatures hide in corners and listen to the silence. I listen, too—listen hard. Down here, I’m away from every familiar sound I know, save the sound of water. Without the water, the silence is absolute. It’s then that Jim tells us about the giant eels that live in the stream—more than two metres long, that have names, and that are sometimes fed by the guides. I want him to be kidding.
I’ve lost track of time down here, but finally, we begin to make our way back up. Jim keeps track of us. He shows us the Mirror Pool, where Andy Serkis of LotR fame learned how to be Gollum; he tells us about the ghost walk, where your shadow runs ahead of you into the darkness. On and on, through narrow twisting passages where we have to bend nearly double to avoid the stone of the ceiling. Finally, we arrive back at the limestone block beneath the falling water and the spiral that will take us back up into the sunlight. We emerge from the caves and everyone exclaims at the light. The sun shines brightly in the cool, winter air. I hear birds, the sighing of trees, and feel the wind on my face. The familiar world demands our attention, but we won’t forget the Ruakuri Caves.