19 September 2009

te anau and the glowworms (new zealand)

Oh, look. Another beautiful lake with snow-covered mountains in the background. Yawn, right? But wait. While we really fell in love with New Zealand and found everything (even the bus rides) beautiful, the tiny town of Te Anau (population: about 1850) was one of our favorite places on the whole south island.

Part of our love for Te Anau was our boat ride across Lake Te Anau, sailing into the south fiord (spelled with an "I" in New Zealand), and then visiting a glowworm grotto that would have been worth it for the cave alone.

We enjoyed the boat ride and the snow-covered mountains all around the lake.

And the sky went from perfect to dramatic and back to perfect as we sailed along.

When we reached the other side of Lake Te Anau, it was neat to see that the water was a clear green (versus the milky turquoise glacial water we'd been seeing):

As with every other New Zealand expedition, we walked through jungley forest, passing a little river...

to reach the cave opening:

The cave was narrow throughout, but the opening was so small, we had to practically crawl in. For scale, that walkway is wide enough for one person, and the height of the entrance is about 3 1/2-4 feet high.

You can see how low the overhead space is at the entrance, and it got even lower before the cave opened up:

Once inside, we benefited from the recent rain because the water was roaring down waterfalls and swirling from side to side, following the twists and turns of the cave. After walking through the cave and enjoying the narrow cream-colored stone tunnels and gushing water, we boarded a tiny wooden boat and drifted into darkness.

The cave had been dim, but it took another moment for our eyes to adjust to the dark. We waited silently, as we were told the glow worms were sensitive to sound. After coasting slowly for a few moments, we started to see tiny lights just a few feet above our heads. It looked like a starry sky with the stars looking white-yellow instead of just white, and it was magical. We weren't allowed to take photos inside, but here is the promotional photo, to give you an idea:

In person, there were many more lights, the grotto felt much smaller, and the glowworm lights felt like they were within arm's reach.

Lawson Burrows discovered the cave in 1948 and said the cave looked alien but not frightening. That description is right on-- it was strange and surreal (I can't imagine how I would have felt if I hadn't known what was producing the little twinkling lights), but it also felt peaceful, sitting in a little boat, rocking gently and seeing clusters of tiny lights in the darkness above.

We learned that the glowworms in Te Anau emit light to attract prey (some insects with bioluminescence do it to attract mates), and they spin these sticky little threads that trap their prey:

What was most surprising was that they eat with these sticky glowing threads as larvae, but once they mature into little flies, they have no mouths and never eat again. They basically have 72 hours to mate and then they die. As our cheeky guide said, they go out with a bang.

After visiting the glowworms, we walked along the edge of Lake Te Anau and came upon a wildlife sanctuary (which, in New Zealand, means birds, as the only mammals native to the islands are two species of bats-- all other mammals have been introduced by foreigners). It makes sense that there are so many flightless birds in New Zealand-- they basically took the place of mammals.

We saw birds like the takahe that were thought to be extinct from 1898 until it was rediscovered near Lake Te Anau in 1948:

They have these huge feet:

We saw a kea, the alpine mountain parrot we'd seen while we were on the TranzAlpine, and we learned that they were very mischievous. They're "the world's only true Alpine parrot" and are "very curious, comical and at times destructive... They enjoy the following sports: ripping tents and sleeping bags, trying on tramping boots (if they don't fit they usually cut off a bit here and there) and eating your supplies."

And we saw a kaka named Charlie Brown that had been rescued from captivity. The sign for her said:
When we found Charlie Brown she had been confined to a very small cage inside a house for quite some time. She had forgotten how to fly. This long confinement had led to the unusual behaviour you may notice at times. She enjoys people (except when she is resting). Stop and talk to her if you have time.
We didn't notice any really strange behavior, but sure enough, we saw a lady who was talking to her (and several of the other birds). (Perhaps, she is the equivalent of the crazy cat lady we see in typical mammal-populated areas of the world.)

Anyway, the final reason we loved Te Anau was that we found the Fiordland Hotel & Motel and got a hotel room for less than what it would cost us to stay in a hostel (about US$35 for both of us), and while the huge hotel was deserted and felt a little like "The Shining," it also had a separate wing (the motel) with a kitchen. Plus, our room had an old-fashioned knob-dial radio on the wall (with good music, to boot) and a TV. This was the not-shabby view from our $35 room:

This may not seem like a mindblowing boon, but compare it to the ratty hostel we paid about the same amount for in Queenstown (cough, cough, the Alpine Lodge) that charged NZ$2 for a blanket (we refused on principle). So, finding our hotel felt like hitting the jackpot. When traveling, it's often the tiny things that make my day.

Like the Te Anau library providing free internet (which is a good tip, in general). If you're traveling sans computer and don't want to keep shelling out to tell your loved ones you're alive, the public libraries are a good place to visit. They're also interesting as an insight into the local culture, like grocery stores and markets.

In any case, if you're exploring the southwestern part of New Zealand's south island, if for nothing else than shortening your journey from Queenstown to the "must-see" Milford Sound, I'd recommend adding Te Anau to your itinerary.

I think you'll like it. (Unless you're searching for raging nightlife, which it certainly does not have.)