Time travel on Matiu Somes Island

00:48, Dec 14 2012

Visiting Matiu Somes Island in Wellington Harbour is like a trip back in time for a couple of reasons. First, due to the incredible human history of this 25-hectare island, and second, because of the continual recovery of some of Wellington's most precious natural treasures within a stone's throw of our capital city.

I was lucky enough to visit Matiu Somes Island again this week, and it didn't disappoint. I've been over there half a dozen times and I've enjoyed every trip. It always amazes me how few Wellingtonians have been over there, despite many of them driving alongside it every day or seeing it from the waterfront - it's only a 20-minute quite enjoyable boat trip on the Dominion Post Ferry. We saw plenty of blue penguins swimming in the mirror-calm waters of the harbour  before we landed and had a fantastic time - it's true, you can't beat Wellington on a good day.

During our few hours on the island we enjoyed many walks and we spotted wild tuatara, dozens of ornate skinks, giant Cook Strait weta (huge thanks to Reg, the volunteer guide who took a few of us to see a giant weta female he'd spotted earlier that day), all under the constant chatter and surveillance of the red-crowned kakariki. If you live in Wellington and haven't been yet, what are you waiting for!?

Check out this beautiful female giant Cook Strait weta - a gentle giant safe in the sanctuary of Matiu/Somes. Photo: Stu Hutchings


If you'd like to know a bit more, here are some of the highlights of the island's wonderful stories:


The human history of Matiu Somes goes back about a thousand years, when Kupe arrived in the Wellington Harbour and named the island for his daughter Matiu. 

Before European settlement there were two Maori pa sited on the island - but ultimately the island inhabitation was one of a refuge, since there was little fresh water on the island. However, in wartime, the island made a robust defence spot, with 360-degree views and being surrounded by water. 

In 1997 the New Zealand Geographic Board gave the island the official bilingual name of Matiu/Somes in recognition of its dual Maori and European history. In 2009 the Treaty settlement with Taranaki Whanui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika transferred ownership of all three Wellington Harbour islands to the iwi.

In 1839, the New Zealand Company took over Matiu and renamed it Somes after Joseph Somes, its deputy governor and financier. In 1866 the first lighthouse and first harbour light for Wellington Harbour was erected on the island.

The European story of Matiu Somes is a colourful and interesting one too.  After the island was "purchased", it had an early career as a human quarantine station. Many poor souls who'd endured the arduous trip to New Zealand by ship had to stop off on Somes to go through quarantine, which started with being put in a "smoke house", where things like sulphur were burnt in a brick room to smoke out any illness.

The most tragic and well-known tale of the human quarantine story was that of Kim Lee, a Chinese immigrant who was suspected of having leprosy. He was put on the tiny island just off Matiu Somes (Mokopuna Island) on his own and lived in a cave there until his death in 1904 (he only arrived in 1903). His food was either brought to him by boat by the lighthouse keeper or sent by flying fox. The tragic part of this story is that it is highly unlikely he had leprosy at all - instead, he probably had something like tuberculosis, which would have not been helped by living in a damp cave.

Matiu Somes became an animal quarantine station in 1893, and this activity continued for a century. Any new or potentially risky animals were quarantined there (or when there was too much livestock on the island, extra animals were quarantined on a boat anchored off the island). Our animal quarantine expertise became state of the art and helped to put us at the top of the biosecurity ranks.


A century of farming meant that until very recently Matiu/Somes Island has been naked of native vegetation (and wildlife). Until the wonderful volunteers off the Lower Hutt branch of Forest & Bird stepped in and spent the last 30 years planting more than 110,000 trees, creating in their words "A new cloak for Matiu" (the title of a book about their feats).

The new cloak was just the start. The pests were removed in the 80s, and then thanks to a pest-free home with a growing regenerating forest, a habitat was created for some very special creatures. Tuatara were introduced, and can be seen sunning themselves on or near the many walking tracks, and the giant weta are a wildlife nerd find on their own, but their other purpose for being there is to provide a nutritious lunch for the tuatara! Matiu Somes is a lounge lizard heaven, with many different kinds of skinks and geckos loving life there.  There are a range of birds, including hundreds of penguins, kakariki, oystercatchers, gulls and many more - and the views from this wee oasis back to Wellington city are a sight to behold.


Have you been to Matiu Somes? Are you planning on going? What did you think of it?

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