Like many places in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the biggest island in Wellington’s harbor has two names. Known as Matiu/Somes, it possesses a long and varied history. Legend has it that the island was named Matiu by the famous Maori explorer Kupe 1,000 years ago. After the Europeans arrived, they (re)named it for the Deputy Governor of the New Zealand Company, Joseph Somes. Finally in 1997, the island’s bicultural history was officially recognized, and it became Matiu/Somes Island.
I’ve been wanting to visit for ages – the island always seems so close, yet so far. A few weekends ago, Emma and I finally made plans for a trip out. We’d bought discounted ferry passes a while back, but the weather kept foiling our plans. Although it was a somewhat grey and windy day, we were determined to get to Matiu/Somes. We made our way down to the port and hopped on the small ferry that goes across the harbor, stopping at the island before continuing on to Eastbourne.
Wellington quickly receded behind us.
Despite the clouds, it was still a beautiful day to be on the water, especially on a nearly empty ferry.
About 15 minutes later, we closed in on Matiu/Somes.
After disembarking, we went through the DOC entry building and checked our bags and gear for any pests that could damage the fragile ecosystem on the island. Since Matiu/Somes is a predator-free scientific reserve, it’s crucial to have this first line of defense for all visitors.
The island is owned by local iwi Taranaki Whānui, and we were welcomed by this wonderful carved arch.
Because the day was a bit overcast, there weren’t many people on the island, and we had views like this all to ourselves.
Time for some self-timer shots!
Emma decided to make our four-shot sequence a bit more interesting…
Haha – gotta love the outcome!
Despite the natural beauty of this place, it wasn’t always somewhere people chose to visit. In fact, it used to be somewhere they weren’t allowed to leave, when it functioned as a quarantine station. This memorial to those who perished while held on Matiu/Somes is a stark reminder of harsher times, when contagious diseases like typhoid and smallpox claimed many lives.
About 40 people are buried on Matiu/Somes, most between 1872 and 1876 when smallpox and scarlet fever outbreaks swept through the area. By the time World War I came around, the island’s facilities were repurposed to hold “enemy aliens,” primarily German nationals, many with established families and lives in New Zealand. Come World War II, it was again an internment camp.
Today, it seems that Matiu/Somes has finally been given the chance to become a haven rather than a prison, now serving as an important sanctuary for native species like tuatara and geckos. But, we cannot forget the history of this beautiful spot, remote yet so close to the nation’s capital, in fact tortuously close for those who were once stuck here.
We were very lucky with weather, and the sun came out as we circled the island on well-formed hiking trails.
It was awesome to see the harbor and Wellington from a completely new angle.
I just had to pose with this sign:
Please admire me from a distance, thanks! We’re still not sure what the sign was actually referring to. Maybe tuatara frequent this area.
In case you didn’t know, there are motels on the island, but they’re very small…
We were lucky to catch a native weta in one of the hotel “rooms.”
Next, we came upon the island’s old lighthouse. Still in use today, the first iteration was built in 1866 to help guide ships into Wellington Harbor, in conjunction with the lighthouse at Pencarrow by the harbor mouth.
Although lighthouse keepers must have often been lonely, they truly had some unbeatable views. I guess I might change my mind when a big storm blows in, though.
Finally, we spotted some of the native lizards!
They didn’t really move much.
Matiu/Somes wasn’t only a quarantine location for people; animals were also held here. According to DOC, animals arriving in New Zealand from other countries (mainly the UK and Australia) were quarantined on the island for 30–60 days to check they were free of disease. The facilities on the island functioned for over 100 years, from 1893 to 1995.
Luckily, I was able to beat the obstacle that immediately confronted me at the facility’s entrance. You can’t lock this Fly out!
We were the only ones inside, and it was a bit eerie wandering the vast empty rooms where countless animals were held, now completely silent.
We certainly couldn’t walk past a photo op like this one…
Stay tuned for part two of Matiu/Somes for sheep, views and views with sheep.