Everything here glistens; it is unsettling.
I've been on the road for days, criss-crossing the North Island of New Zealand powered by whims and a delightfully unhurried feeling that I've adopted and adapted to over years of no itinerary. (Truth be told, I'm probably more powered by Chocolate Fish, but that's besides the point. Adult Travel Professional™, remember?) Evenings spent star watching while huddled in a dim backseat with my headphones snugged down tight over my chilly ears and a rumpled, scribbled-over paper map cradled in my lap have lead me here. I never imagined that New Zealand could be so hollow, or encompass so much depth. I am, of course, referring to the caves.
I'm standing just inside of the entrance of one of them now, squeezing my eyes shut in intervals to help them adjust to the faint amber light.
I've been to half a dozen caves already — unexpected, yawning holes open in surprising numbers alongside slow rivers or hidden deep inland in the middle of pastures full of cows who are unimpressed I'm tromping through. I've been keenly aware the non-plussed and outright annoyed bovines wouldn't be inclined to call for help if I broke my neck, even were they able to, so up to this point I've kept my explorations as safe as possible. Aranui is the first cave I've entered with a guide, and I'm grateful for him. To even get to this point required a trek through damp, jungle-like foliage, and a weird half squeeze through a locked gate barring a natural entrance, since the stalactite formations in this cave are some of the most spectacular — and vulnerable — in the country.
He's used to this, and waits for me to get my bearings and resettle my gear. I have been beyond lucky, and it's just me for this run. (I make it a point to show up as early as possible to anything that could be considered a tourist attraction. I'm selfish and like to explore the world as if it belongs solely to me. It's just after six thirty in the morning, and this scholar has been a gentleman to bother getting out of bed for this.) "Weta." He gestures indistinctly. I want to answer with "bless you," but my jaw clicks shut on my smart ass tongue as I notice the bizarre grasshopper-spider-prawn amalgam with quivering antennae unsettlingly close to my face. This is what Peter Jackson named his studio after? Okie doke. I step ever-so-slightly-like-only-a-smidge-really away from the wall because I want to and for no other reason whatsoever.
We move forward, and the sounds of my foot scuffs and shallow breaths expand along with the acoustics as the main hall of the cave stretches overhead.
The entrance nook was quiet, almost like a studio with sound deadening; the close walls and soft damp stone surprised me by swallowing up the sounds of my being into a heavy silence. Now, at the edge of the expanse, my presence begins to reverberate again. I realize I've got a crick in my neck from craning to take in everything above me around the same time a thick droplet splats unceremoniously above my eyebrow with what feels like the loudest bare-assed-cannonball-smack in recorded history.
It is magnificent.
The ceiling is alive. Waves and layers, knobbed limbs pushing at a slick membrane on the cusp of tearing, straining to break free and drop to the floor to hunt.
Admittedly, my imagination is running wild... but I can't be sure that nothing there in the gloom isn't moving. My perceptions are skewed by the stretched echoes and the loss of perception and the vast space. Some of the formations are larger than city buses, but my brain has no way to prove it. It's not a far jump to a certainty that the walls themselves must breathing, pulsing wetly each time I look away. I'm mostly in a delighted state of awe, and partially sure a chest burster is going to clamp onto my gawping face as I set my long exposures.
There is art in nature. In this case, it's a Giger-drawn rilled and ridged tentacle nightmare daydream dripping from the heavens.
My guide is tolerant of being mostly ignored (or is asleep on his feet,) but either way, he leaves me to gawk and shoot around the cavern methodically. I get a little thrill each time I bring my camera to my face, as shutting on eye closes out the entire world but the truly alien square in my viewfinder and cuts down my awareness of my surroundings. Peering into the darkest recesses overhead with a long lens, we get ready to turn a blind corner and move on to the next room; I'm decently sure they aren't in the vents, and the game isn't over just yet.
These photos and words are my own work, inspired by travels all over this pretty blue marble of ours. I hope you like them. 🌶️