We are herded into a cold, damp, narrow cave -- then boarded onto a small boat. It's as black as the dead of night. The word is: no words. Silence. ``If you speak,'' our guide admonishes us in a whisper, ``they will turn themselves off.'' And then, suddenly, up above a galaxy of tiny stars appears. Actually, they are tiny specks of light -- given off by a living phenomenon: the glowworm.
A visit to the glowworm grotto in Fiordland National Park is a major highlight of a trip to New Zealand's South Island. This entire area is a vacationer's paradise, graced by clear blue lakes and lofty peaks, small islands, solitary caves, magnificent fjords, and breathtaking waterfalls.
Less than 15,000 years ago, this region was locked in ice. Receding glaciers gradually sculptured the land -- carving out long, narrow lakes, coastal fjords, and high mountain valleys. In the 1770s, the legendary Capt. James Cook sailed around the coast, visiting these fjords and putting in for ship repair at Dusky Sound.
The glowworm caves at Te Anau Lake -- with their extensive limestone caverns -- were named by the early Maori settlers ``Caves of the Rushing Waters.'' The caves were originally formed by steam, and steam still flows through them. These are the only active caves in the Southern Hemisphere open to the public.
We set out for this geological wonder by tourist launch -- a 21/2-hour round trip from park headquarters in Te Anau. After a scenic ride across Te Anau Lake, guides greeted us at Cavern House, a structure built of limestone blocks and protected by a moss-covered sod roof. We left our belongings there before winding our way down a footpath and boarding a small boat, which floated its way past the tumultuous roar of waterfalls and into the realm of a glittering glowworm grotto.
In season, between December and April, both daylight and evening excursions to the caverns run about every two hours. (Write Box 29, Te Anau, for exact schedules.)
New Zealand's written history began here in Fiordland National Park. But there are a lot of ``probablies'' -- probably this is the area where the nation's first house was built, probably it's the site of the first coastal shipwreck, and probably the first bagpipe was played here.
But there's no doubt about the fact that this is a fine place for fishing, camping, hiking, cruising, and float-plane rides.
With the wonders of the glowworm grotto behind us, we headed north by chartered bus from our Te Anau base to Milford, and there we boarded a launch for a cruise through 600-million-year-old Milford Sound -- clicking camera shutters at the ecological and natural wonders found there.
Milford's grandeur may be best glimpsed from the water. A line of steep granite mountains dot the landscape, casting mirrored reflections on the calm waters. Waterfalls rush into the sheltered Sound. Only a scattering of man-made objects at the head of the Sound -- boats and buildings -- break nature's link of mountains, forest, and water. Dominating the scene is Milford's landmark -- the triangular pinnacle of mile-high Mitre Peak.
Despite the late spring climate of November (New Zealand, like Australia, enjoys its spring and summer warmth as the United States enters its winter months), the wind is cool and the air is often damp with rain. So light jackets and headgear are appropriate.
A scenic highlight on the road between Te Anau and Milford is the Mirror Lakes, famed for their mountain and sky reflections. They are well worth a stop for a camera session.
The Fiordland area was made not only for the sedate viewer, but also for the active and adventurous. Trampers from around the globe come here to embark on what 19th-century pioneers called the ``finest walk in the world'' -- along the Milford Track.
This popular four- to five-day hike from Te Anau Lake to Milford is popular from November to April. (Heavy rains sometimes close it temporarily, so a call ahead to Fiordland National Park headquarters is advised.)
Trail access is limited, and advance bookings and a park permit are required. Huts are available along the way. Highlights of the walk include gazing down from the summit of Mackinnon Pass and a glimpse of the awesome Sutherland Falls.
From November to March, organized hiking parties regularly depart from Te Anau for the 33-mile tramp to Milford Sound. On these scheduled excursions, meals are provided, as are huts with bunks, electricity, hot showers, and toilets. Bookings must be made through the New Zealand tourist office for this group trek.
Park officials stress that the trail is ``good going'' in decent weather. But they warn that the hike is challenging even for experienced and fit walkers.
One should not really leave the Fiordland area without visiting Queenstown, another of South Island's historic resort areas.
The outgrowth of a gold rush, Queenstown prospered from miner finds in the Arrow, Shotover, and Kawarau rivers. When the gold was gone and the prospectors moved west, New Zealand sheepmen staked out the grassy slopes here for their stations.
Cruising, rafting, and Land-Rover trips are popular in this area. But Queenstown is also an attractive oasis for a weary traveler looking for some time for shopping -- and just lolling around.
One ``must'' is a ride on the skyline gondola above Lake Wakatipu. The view from above is wonderful, especially at night. Worthwhile sidetrips include a visit to Goldfields Town, a reproduction of an early gold-mining community, and to Arrowtown, another former prospecting area. must beware the occasional tourist trap. We found that wool-lined boots, fleece slippers, sweaters, and long underwear were reasonably priced. One United States dollar currently buys about $2 worth of New Zealand goods.
Also, an out-of-the-way antiques shop here produced unique brooches and other jewelry with scenes of New Zealand hand-painted on silk.
The Fiordland area is easily accessible by plane, bus, or car. Mount Cook airlines connects Te Anau with major South Island cities. Inn and motel reservations should be made ahead, especially during the November to April peak tourist season. Practical information:
Qantas, Air New Zealand, and Pan Am all fly directly to New Zealand. Check with your local travel agent for current fares and tour offerings. For further information about travel to New Zealand, contact the New Zealand Tourist Office, 630 Fifth Avenue (Suite 530), New York, N.Y. 10111. Telephone (212) 586-0060.