The Inner Sanctum
At last, we reached the heart of the caves and the destination of our pilgrimage – the chamber where thousands of glowworms live.
These glowworms are the larvae of a type of gnat called Arachnocampa (“spider-worm”). Like spiders, the glowworms feed by trapping prey in sticky silk threads. Their bright blue-green glow, which is produced chemically, lures creatures into their sticky traps.
To enable visitors to get a close encounter with the glowworms, Real Journeys take you across an underground lake in a boat in complete darkness. They also tell everyone in the tour group to remain silent. All you can hear is the sounds of the water, and all you can see are the lights of the glowworms.
Floating slowly and quietly through the black caves with only the lights of the glowworms to be seen was an experience that moved me deeply. It felt like flying through the cosmos, surrounded only by stars. Because I couldn’t see the outline of the rocks where the glowworms were and I couldn’t tell how close they were to the boat, this experience also had a dreamlike quality – at times, it felt like the glowworms were the ones that were moving rather than the boat, that they were drifting all around us. It was as if we had passed through the veil and entered the realm of spirits, of kami. I felt such a sense of awe and reverence that I uttered a Shinto norito under my breath in honour of this place.
I am not surprised that these caves are significant in Māori legends. The Māori concept of mana is somewhat similar to kami in that it refers to something that possesses a spiritual quality. I am certain that the Māori who first discovered these caves, like the thousands of visitors after them, felt the overwhelming power of the mana of this place.
It may seem strange that one of the most profoundly Shinto experiences I’ve had was in New Zealand. The whole trip, from the cave’s entrance to the meditative atmosphere of the glowworm chamber, felt like a pilgrimage to a particularly powerful Shinto shrine. To me, this visit to Te Ana-Au Glowworm Caves demonstrated how universal the concept behind Shinto – the sense of respect and awe we feel in the face of Nature’s wonders – really is, and that the kami themselves truly are to be found everywhere.