Matiu Somes Island, a conservation refuge open to the public, lies just 3 km from Wellington. If you are considering what to do in Wellington, this unique little island is serviced by daily ferries They leave from Queens Wharf and also run to other Wellington suburb destinations such as Seatoun. However, it is for some reason a little known island which even some Wellington residents are not even really aware of. Its history is interesting – Maori settlement, prisoner of war camp, military defence position and human and animal quarantine station.
Today it is a pest free, conservation island managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) on behalf of the local iwi (Maori tribes) to which ownership was officially returned in 2009 as part of the Treaty of Waitangi cultural redress.
Rather fortunately for me, one of my close Kiwi friends was for several years one of the full time DOC wardens who live on the island so I have had the unique opportunity of being able to stay at this special place as a guest, helping out with some voluntary work during my stay.
On arrival at Matiu Somes small pier, all visitors are greeted by a warden and then have to pass through the ‘Whare Kiore’ to have their bags checked for rats or mice. Matiu Somes has been vitally importantly, pest free now for many years which means that many endangered and rare species can thrive here unmolested and without threat.
Matiu Somes is a strange eclectic mix of the wondrously natural and the human made. One minute you can be observing the Cook Strait giant weta – a distinctly alien-like insect – or watching the tuatara – a large lizard-like creature with a lineage so ancient it has been dubbed ‘the living dinosaur’. The next minute can see you high up on the hill scrambling around old bunkers and World War II gun emplacements, eerily abandoned.
Often, once the last ferry of the day removes all day visitors from the island only the DOC wardens are left which meant during my first visit I was one of only 3 people present on the island as night descended. The lights of downtown Wellington are clearly visible – you can even see cars winding their way along the coast road – but it seems like the city is a million miles away. Often the only sound is the weird cry of the little blue penguins calling to each other from their nests among the island’s flax.
One evening we set out for a circuit walk around the island in the hush of the night. We each had head torches which included red LEDs. This feature for some reason makes the light invisible to any animal life and enhances wildlife watching experiences. This fact was demonstrated very clearly to us at one point as we watched a penguin – usually very shy – come shuffling up the path towards us. We all stood still, wondering what would happen. The penguin continued to walk towards us and then literally stopped at our feet – he could obviously sense something but he just wasn’t sure what. After a few seconds he continued on his way, literally stepping on my friend’s foot as he passed.
Whales and dolphins, frequent visitors to the harbour waters, are often spotted from Matiu Somes, sometimes following boats or bow-riding water craft. During my stay there I was fortunate to catch sight of both – the dolphins hanging around for several hours cruising and fishing.
The bird life on Matiu Somes is varied and colourful and certain species often have heart-rending survival stories attached. Many endangered species have been successfully removed here in a bid to slow their decline and nudge up their alarmingly dwindling numbers. Many New Zealand birds are exceptionally vulnerable to attacks from stoats, rats, dogs and cats – all of which have been introduced to the land through Western settlement. New Zealand has no native land mammals and evolution has not equipped much of the birdlife and lizards and skinks, also thriving here, with natural defences against such predators.
Two of the most endearing birds which have Matiu Somes related success stories are the super inquisitive North Island robin and the brightly coloured Kakariki or red crowned parakeet which is highly visible and very vocal all over the island.
Matiu Somes is special – not just because of the vital role it plays in conserving New Zealand native species but also because it allows visitors a rare opportunity of experiencing hush and solitude just a few miles from the nation’s capital city. School groups often come visiting here, also walkers, bird watchers, nature lovers and the simply curious. Additionally, experiencing the island’s solitariness and strange isolation at night is open to all as camping or simple hut rental is now possible on Matiu Somes.
New Zealand isn’t short of special places – each offering something a little different. However in all my wanderings throughout New Zealand I can honestly say I have never found anywhere anything like Matiu Somes. Unique is a somewhat overused word which has devalued its meaning. Shame – because really there is no other single word which describes this island better.
Part of the What to do in Wellington team – Deneice Arthurton. For further information please contact us directly.
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