On Island in the Sun (Matiu / Somes Island)

It was supposed to rain for her whole visit, but we decided that wasn’t going stop us. Sneakers, cool weather gear, a long rain jacket and an umbrella later, we were off. Andrew dropped us near the ferry where we picked up some tea and purchased tickets to an island. This island was going to get explored today, and the drizzle which promised to turn into rain wasn’t going to stop us! Nay, friends! It would be REFRESHING and ENVIGORATING!

Punctual, the East by West Ferry picked us up. It was as if the heavens realised we’d left the shore, since once that ferry took off, the clouds seemed to magically disappear into the most humid (and only humid) and hot day that summer. It didn’t matter that we were so inappropriately dressed for this, we spread the bit of sunblock we did have on and sought out this island.

Matiu/Somes Island is now a predator-free scientific reserve, but it has a very interesting history. It’s owned by a local iwi (tribe) called Te Atiawa. We were graciously welcomed to the island by a Department of Conservation (DOC) volunteer on behalf of the iwi who also gave us a very quick but helpful run-down of the correct procedures needed to keep the island predator free as well as some helpful pointers:


We were told we could circumnavigate the island in around an hour and a half, plus there were cool places to stop along the way. Lookouts, small visitor’s center and a lighthouse, old gun emplacements, among others. It’s such a tiny island, but a lot was going on.

We started the walk up from the harbor to go around the island. The path was steep and sunny, but quick and returned some great views!

It’s hard sometimes to be taken back to reality when the conversation turns from spectacular view, to memorial. Matiu / Somes Island had many purposes throughout the years. Some of which have stark reminders for us living in the present.

Matiu / Somes Island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants arriving to New Zealand starting in 1872 when a ship with several passengers and crew carrying small pox arrived to the country. As a small island nation, this practice doesn’t sound so cruel, though the process was rather stark. A welcome package at the Matiu / Somes Island day spa included a 10 minute visit to the smoke house to include an aromatherapy of chlorine, potassium nitrate and sulfur for uh… relaxation… and ahem, lice. In one tragic case, an immigrant grocer who had lived in Wellington for several years had developed some red sores. Due to the racist opinions about those of Chinese descent being genetically weak, and hysteria over leprosy, he was quarantined even more remotely out to Mokopuna Island just north of Matiu / Somes Island (see the small island off the larger one in the photos above.) He was given flat pack furniture and shelter to prepare himself and food was delivered by boat or zipline if it the seas were rough. He ended up dying after 6 months, and medical investigations show it’s unlikely he ever had leprosy at all. There is a memorial to both Mr. Kim and others who were buried on the island. All that’s left of the smokehouses are the crumbling bricks scattered along the shore near the dock.

But the sun was shining bright, and the island was so lovely, it was hard to dwell on the long-ago plight of immigrants (of whom I am now one).


That same sun likely shone down on the German Nationals who were interned here during both World War I and II. During World War I, some New Zealanders who were born in New Zealand, had families and homes here, but made the mistake of having German heritage were rounded up and placed in the internment camp on the island along with Italian and Japanese immigrants during World War II. Every country has these shameful tragedies peppered through their histories that should never be forgotten, lest they are repeated. I’ll repeat that; it is and was a tragedy, and this kind of xenophobia is wrong and is not okay. Not then, nor now.

Fortunately, the day was not lost to somber stories. These little guys and gals cheered us up!

Further along the island we also ran into a lighthouse jutting along the way. A very valuable location in Wellington Harbour, it’s no surprise there was and is a lighthouse here. Now automated, the lighthouse used to have a keeper who lived on the island.


There was a tiny house. Which looks pretty rad, especially when you realise it really is tiny. Not much taller than a standard bottle of water.img_20170219_112420

There were cute little sheep just past the gun emplacements:


Fortunately for these sheep, their only job was to mow the lawn. Previously the animals housed on this island were housed a little differently:


But to end on a positive note, there were some friendlier faces than the ghosts of the quarantined animals. These little ducklings liked the shade my umbrella afforded and there were wetas all around the island! (Okay, okay, I didn’t see any that big. The one I’m holding is a shell. The tree wetas that are out during the day aren’t nearly that large.)

A stunning half-day trip from Wellington, I’d highly recommend a visit!