Matiu/Somes Island is perfectly situation in Wellington Harbour. From its humble beginning as native Maori land, to a quarantine sight, gun emplacement and research centre, this island has served as a unique piece of New Zealand’s history over the past several centuries.
Check metlink.org.nz for the ferry departure schedule, then purchase tickets and board the ferry at Queen’s Wharf in Wellington. The trip was about 15 minutes and although I sat at the top to admire the harbour views, I held on tightly as the catamaran rocked viciously through the choppy waters.
Upon arrival at Matiu-Somes, I received a warm greeting from a Department of Conservation (DoC) Ranger – a welcome contrast to the offending journey.
Once I caught my bearings, I set off on the trails. It was a typically overcast and windy day, which made for an ironically peaceful walk with few other visitors on the island. I’d say that this is a hiking trail for City Slickers: you can wear your fancy new sneakers – and maybe even a pair of dress flats – and you will come out un-scathed.
From multiple viewpoints along the trail, you’ll be rewarded with one-of-a-kind views of Wellington City and the surrounding suburbs, along with the vastly untouched coastal line of Matiu/Somes (my favourite spot is about about 50m from the lighthouse).
If you’re quiet, you’ll be delighted by the island’s friendly birds and may even come across some of the other animal species if you get your timing right. The island has accommodation for large groups and even boasts several campsites if you’re feeling adventurous. The trails are an easy grade, only steep near the summit, and boasts several picnic tables for families to enjoy a relaxing day.
But there’s more to this island than the bright chirping birds, impeccably manicured trails and incredible views. This island has a past – several of them, in fact, which you learn about through the interpretation sites scattered along the island trail.
A dark past
In brief, the land originally belonged to several Maori iwi (tribes) and was then (captured) by European settlers, who used this island to house gun emplacements during WWII. Shots were never fired, and the land was eventually transformed to a high-security quarantine for both animals and humans as they entered New Zealand. And throughout it all, the harbour’s lighthouse, perched on the coast’s edge, continued guided ships into Wellington’s harbour, as it does to this day.
There are still traces of history left on Matiu/Somes, such as a monument dedicated to those who died on the island – generally those who were quarantined with diseases. The gun emplacements also hold a permanent position at the summit, one of many sites throughout Wellington that reminds us of the world’s dark past.
Several things, however, have drastically changed. Volunteers and the Department of Conservation (DoC) have worked over the past several decades to rebuild the land by planting thousands of native seedlings and reintroducing species that were once found on the island. It’s now a research centre and protected land for a variety of animals and reptiles, including the famous weta, tuatara and skink. Red-crowned parakeets and small penguins have also been happy to call this rodent-free island home, and grounds even boast a herd of sheep to keep the grass short.
The section surrounding the lighthouse is now unrecognisable from the past, having been restored from volunteers over several decades. And the recently erected Maori waharoa (monument) has a prominent home at the Wharf.
To me, the island is about more than just the nature conservation – it’s both a nod to the past and a hopeful outlook to the future. The amount of effort that has been put back into Somes Island is genuinely impressive, and the care taken to preserve this piece of New Zealand’s history does not go unnoticed.
When I first arrived on Matiu/Somes Island, I was looking forward to a bit of exploring and hoped to see a nice bird or two – but when I left, I had learned so much about this island, the history, and the measures in place today, and this island means so much more to me now that I have been here and heard their stories.
My grandchildren play
Hide and seek
-Nola Borell, 2015
*Credit to DoC interpretation sites on Matiu/Somes Island for the history lesson. And check out http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/wellington-kapiti/places/matiu-somes-island/ for more detailed info.