Around 600 years ago (which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things), the Maori living around Hauraki Gulf had a pretty exciting day. They got to witness the birth of a new landmass.

Like most births, this one had its share of sturm und drang. There was the steam and the choking sulfurous cloud, and all that lava spewing into the air. But after all that drama, there was a new island where once there was only water, and six hundred years later Cece and I got to walk up it.

We took a ferry over to the island, and applied liberal amounts of sunscreen on every exposed bit of skin (because there’s a hole in the ozone layer over New Zealand, so your ass can fry if you leave it out in the sun too long).  We also had two big bottles of water which we would only later come to realize weren’t quite big enough.

I really wish I could post more pictures, because there’s only so many times I can say “it was beautiful” and “it was exhausting.” I’ll post a few pictures of the beautiful bits, and one or two that show you how far the top of the caldera is from the dock, both horizontally and vertically.

Cece in the jungle

For now, imagine this: there are several stages for a volcano to become inhabitable, and each of those stages was on full display for us.

1.    Hot lava.  Not good for much except letting off some steam, or maybe sacrificing virgins. Luckily, this was the one stage we didn’t see in person.

2.    The lava cools into rocks. Sharp rocks with holes and pores in them. The kind that make it look like you’re standing on the surface of Mars, if Mars was black and had gravity and atmosphere and stuff. Also, since it’s black, it absorbs heat like crazy. You can feel the heat radiating off the rocks.  Very inhospitable and forbidding territory.

On the border between Hawaii & Mars

3.    Airborne lichens and mosses land on the rocks. Over some time, a couple of things happen – first, the lichens and mosses break the surface of the rocks into dirt, and second, the dead lichens and mosses themselves become a fertile dirt called humus (that’s “humus,” fertile mossdirt, not “hummus,” delicious garbanzo dip – if you try to plant your begonias in hummus, or eat humus on pita bread, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise).  There are some fields of rock on Rangitoto that look like they’re covered in a light dusting of powdered sugar.

4.    Seeds of larger plants float in on the tide or are dropped by birds. They find purchase in the humus and grow. Their roots further break the lava rocks into mineral-rich dirt, and their canopies provide shade and living spaces for birds and lots of different kinds of bugs. Pretty soon, you have a healthy and diverse biosystem.

5.    People discover the beauty of the healthy and diverse biosystem, and build houses there, and import cute furry things that eat everything else.  This often leads to a less healthy and diverse biosystem, but what can you do?  Well, you can do what the Kiwis did, and decide to stop living there. They turned the whole island into a park and got rid of the larger mammals (possums and furry wallabies, mostly), which were eating everything.

5.5.    Foreign tourists travel to the island to explore its amazing scenery and have the climb kick their asses.

Speaking of the climb, did I mention that it kicked our asses? We’ve spent the last ten years sitting in front of computers for 10 hours a day, breathing the dense yellow stuff that in Los Angeles passes for “air.” Grandmothers were passing us on the trail, concerned looks in their eyes.  When they saw we were Americans (they can always tell, somehow), I guess they figured we could always call in an airlift or airstrike or something if we really needed help, and jauntily skipped past us as we struggled to put one foot in front of the other.

See that the cove where I'm pointing? That's the dock we walked from.

One of the cool things around Rangitoto was the variety of people there. The grandmothers I mentioned before could have been from a dozen different places. On the trail I heard English (four or five versions), German, Italian, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, and a few Asian languages that I could differentiate but couldn’t identify.  We traded picture-taking with a cute German couple, shared directions with a friendly Korean family, and were informed about poisonous spiders by a nice English guy.

Oh, did I mention the spiders? New Zealand has some SPIDERS, brother, and no foolin’. Big spiders, little spiders, black spiders, red spiders. And Rangitoto is like their national convention area.

Personally, I’m pretty neutral on the whole spider question. I don’t bug them and they don’t bug me. If I find one in my house, I’ll do my best to catch it and take it outside.

Cece has a similar philosophy on spiders, except she’d prefer that they not bug her from a distance of at least a mile. She’s not the kind of girl to stand on a chair and scream, but they definitely give her the heebie jeebies.

And the lava caves are full of spiders and their webs.

Oh, did I mention the lava caves? Rangitoto has ‘em. You know how I mentioned that lava rocks have holes and pores in them? Well, some of those holes and pores are big enough to climb through. If you don’t mind the spiders.

Cece minds the spiders, and also she minds closed-in dark spaces, but we’re on a grand adventure and she wants to confront her fears – so she plucked up her courage and crawled through the lava caves. And she did it with a grace and aplomb that I wouldn’t have been able to summon if I was confronting two of my phobias simultaneously.

Oh, did I mention that my wife is a complete badass? She is.

[Slight interruption here from the wifey.  Steve is correct in stating that I set my extreme claustrophobia aside and attempted a couple of lava caves.  The first cave was very much covered in spider webs and could only be accessed from a crouching position.  I was most of the way through until I could have sworn Shelob tapped me on the shoulder.  From that moment I shot through the cave like a pig on fire.  Thinking I had just overcome the worst of my fears, Steve and I attempted a second cave which looked much easier as we could explore it in a standing position (for the most part).  However, the further we walked in the dark, the more it began to resemble a set from Indiana Jones.  As soon as I spotted sunlight, I ran to what I thought was the exit.  I was wrong, it was only a break in the cave roof.  The only way to climb out would be to scale some serious vertical lava walls.  So we had to push through to the second half of the cave.  Upon entering the cave, there was no pinhole of light at the other end.  Steve basically explored the second half of the cave with a Cece backpack on the verge of sobbing like a baby.  To my humiliation, little children gleefully explored the caves right after we finished.  Ok, back to Steve’s story.]

I was pretty much finished with my story.  But I will say that Cece is totally undercutting her own bravery. I guess she’s practicing her Kiwi humility.