War Stories and Wildlife on Matiu-Somes Island
Matiu Somes Island rests in the center of Wellington Harbor. It is a 60 acre predator-free scientific reserve with a rich history. Outfitted with a historic lighthouse and WWII bunkers nestled between layers and layers of lush landscape, surrounded by a rocky, wild shore, Matiu / Somes Island is a great destination for nature lovers and history buffs alike.
Previously, Matiu/Somes was used as a human and animal quarantine site, an internment camp, and a military defence zone. In 1995 the island opened to the public as a Department of Conservation scientific and historic reserve. It is now a refuge for native wildlife, and a peaceful escape from the city, owned by local iwi, Taranaki Whānui. The island is embedded in rich history coming from both Māori and European influence. Matiu is the original Māori name for the Island, named by Kupe over 1,000 years ago. It was then renamed Somes Island after Joseph Somes, a British ship builder. In 1997, the Geographic Board gave the island its current name, in reference to both sides of its heritage, Matiu/Somes Island. While you’re trekking around, taking in the sights, there are historical markers to read up on the area’s history along the way.
The location of the island made it an ideal place for the country’s first inner harbor lighthouse. The lighthouse, which had been imported from England was erected in 1865, and in 1866, began guiding traffic through Wellington Harbor. In 1900, a new lighthouse was built after calls for a stronger light, allowing for visibility up to 16 miles into the Cook Straight. The light was automated in 1924, removing the need for keepers to stay on the island. The new lighthouse still stands, nestled in the dense bush, while the original tower can be seen at Jack’s Point, Timaru.
During World War I, the quarantine barracks were used to house about 300 prisoners of war, who were thought to be a security risk to the country. At around the time of the end of WWI, the site was also used to quarantine returning soldiers, in fear they may be carrying the Spanish Flu.
During World War II the island once again became an internment site. Half of one of the quarantine barracks is still on the island today.
Other historical sites that can still be found on the island include, the hospital, which is now the DOC Field Centre, the degaussing station, and the heavy anti-aircraft artillery battery.
So what wildlife can be found on Matiu/Somes?
Rats and other pests were eradicated in the late 80s, and ever since, the island has become a sanctuary for native plants, birds, reptiles and over 500 species of invertebrates, according to the NZ DOC.
Aside from the precious lambs that reside at the peak of the island, you can expect to — potentially — see plenty of weta, the ancient tuatara, many other reptiles, and plenty of native birds, including the world’s smallest penguin, kororā.
PLANNING A TRIP
The main track only takes about 40 minutes. Even with regular stops, a few hours for this day trip is plenty.
Keep in mind that what comes on the island must leave the island. There’s a perfect spot to stop for a picnic at the highest point, amongst the sheep. And while bringing food is welcome, all trash must be taken back to the main land.
Matiu/Somes Island can be reached via East by West Ferry, which departs a few times a day from Queens Wharf in Wellington’s city center. The ferry ride takes about 25 minutes, and is a great opportunity to see the city from a different perspective.