By James Cook
If you are in Wellington Matiu/Somes island is the perfect place for a day trip. The small island has a rich history. Legend has it that the mythical navigator Kupe discovered the island over 1000 years ago and named the island Matiu, after his daughter.
The island has always been important to the Maori people with two Pa being located there. A Pa is a easily defensible village. Due to the relative isolation of the island these Pa were not lived in permanently. They were only used as a safe place to retreat to in times of distress.
When the Europeans were settling the area that is now Wellington the island was renamed Somes Island. Its new name was for the Deputy Governor of the New Zealand Company Joseph Somes. The New Zealand Company was highly influential in the early settling of New Zealand. Purchasing much of the land from the Maori peoples.
Wellington soon became a bustling trade hub and Somes Island played an important part. It was here that the first permanant light-house in New Zealand was built. The lighthouse keepers would live on the small island with their familys and keep a close watch for any ships in distress. Nowadays everything is automated, although the lighthouse remains in the exact same spot as when it was first built.
Somes Island was also the perfect location to conduct quarantine operations on people, who came to New Zealand. The quarantine centre was set up in 1872 after a immigrant ship arrived with some of the persons onboard ill with smallpox. Between the time of its establishment and the end of the first world war many people looking to immigrate to New Zealand were quarantined here and sadly many did not make it the final two miles to the mainland.
There was also the incredibly sad case of the Chinese Leper. Kim Lee was a Chinese immigrant who was suspected of having leprosy. He was sent to a tiny island just north of Somes Island. There he lived alone with his only contact with humanity being when his food was delivered by the lighthouse keeper. He died after six months and the small island is still is known as Leper Island.
Somes Island was also New Zealands first animal quarantine station. It was very important to have this quarantine as all the animals that were to be farmed had to be shipped in. There are literally no useful farm animals that are native to New Zealand. Due to the fact that every animal was shipped in there was a smaller gene pool amoung the animals. This means that if a disease were to spread, it would spread FAST! Animals were normally quarantined on the island between 30 and 60 days. They were also treated for parasites here. The animal quarantine station was operational until 1995.
The Maori were not the only people to realise the defensive properties of the island. During world war two a anti aircraft battery was placed on the island. At the time of building the guns the war in the Pacific looked like it could go either way and with Darwin at the top of Australia being sporadicly bombed by the Japanese the threat seemed all to real. The war in the Pacific was centered around the many islands stretching between Australia and Japan. To get to these Islands the Allied forces utilized a huge navy. The Japanese countered with many sea mines. These were wired to explode when they came into contact with a ships magnetic signature. Fortunately it is relatively simple to cloak your magnetic field and Somes Island was one of the places that ships could go to have this done.
Somes Island was renamed Matiu/Somes Island in 1997 in recognition of the importance of the island to both the Maori people and the European settlers.
Nowadays Matiu/Somes Island is a wildlife haven. Managed by DOC and staffed with volunteers the island is the perfect place to go and see weta. These insects are endemic to New Zealand with the largest one being as large as three mice (which is enough to give anyone nightmares). There is also a rather large parakeet colony living on the island and it is one of the best places to see a Tuatara (strange New Zealand lizard).
The Nitty Gritty
Getting there Matiu/Somes Island is a forty minute ferry journey from the centre of Wellington.
The ferry costs $21 return and there are discounts for students
Get there Early as despite its small size there is a lot to see on Matiu/Somes Island.
Take enough food and water for the day you will not be able to get anything once you are on the island.