First named Matiu by the legendary Maori explorer Kupe (Koopay) over 1000 years ago, Somes Island was later taken over by the New Zealand Company when the first European settlers arrived in the 1840s. In 1995, 150 years on, it was opened by the Department of Conservation as a Scientific and Historic Reserve, reflecting its important place in the history and biodiversity of Wellington.
Matiu/Somes Island, as it is now officially known, sits in the middle of Wellington Harbour. The only way to get there is by the East by West Ferry which runs from central Wellington to Eastbourne up to nine times a day. If you’re driving a Wellington Airport rental car you can park it at a nearby car park building before catching the ferry. There are security measures in place when landing on the island to ensure that you are not bringing in anything that may threaten bio-security. Most of the flora and fauna is reintroduced as the island has previously been grazed. It is now home to endangered species such as tuatara, lizards and giant wetas and is also home to the world’s smallest penguin – korora.
But nature hasn’t always been king on the island. Following early European settlement it was used as a quarantine station for immigrants arriving by ship. Passengers were off-loaded through Matiu/Somes Island to help contain diseases like smallpox, typhoid and scarlet fever, and a de-licing facility was also set up. The island was used sporadically for this until after World War I. Since then it has also been used as an animal quarantine station and an internment camp for alien nationals during World War II.
Today Matiu/Somes Island is a regenerating environment where the native bush cover is slowly being replanted or allowed to regenerate naturally. Protected and endangered species of birds, insects and reptiles roam freely, without the threat of exotic predators. It has also become a nesting site for many kinds of seabird.
The island has an extensive network of walking tracks, starting from the wharf where the ferries drop arriving passengers. It’s an easy climb to the Visitors Centre on the central ridge with most of the walking tracks radiating from there. There has been a lighthouse on the south-western corner of the island since 1865 to help light the way for ships arriving out of the tempestuous Cook Strait. A new lighthouse was built in 1900, with a stronger light, and although now automated, it still guides shipping into Wellington harbour today.