Wellington’s Pearl: a trip to Matiu/Somes Island

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The main beach of San Sebastián, Spain, is called La Concha due to its shape resembling that of a seashell a seashell. In the centre of the harbour is an island, appropriately named La Pearla, the pearl. Matiu/Somes is Wellington harbour’s pearl, a not-so hidden but underrated gem of a tiny island between Wellington city and Lower Hutt. Yesterday, because the sun was shining and Steve had a random day off work, we took the ferry out to visit this interesting and beautiful place.

The Matiu/Somes ferry runs infrequently, only three times on weekdays, so we took the earliest ferry at 10am and after a brisk 25 minute jaunt through the harbour we arrived on the island. The island’s main appeal today is that it has been a mammalian predator-free zone since the 1980s—e.g. no mice, rats, etc.— and is also free of a number of invasive species that are found elsewhere in Wellington, so when you get off the boat the first thing you have to do is go through a biosecurity check. Go through bags, empty pockets, clean the soles of your shoes. Once that’s finished, you’re let loose to explore the island.

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Our first stop was to the visitor’s centre, where we learned the history of Matiu/Somes Island. I was only aware of its status as a protected nature reserve, so hearing all of the things it had been used for in the past was fascinating. From Maori Pa (settlement) to lighthouse station, to wartime internment camp, to quarantine station, Matiu/Somes had a variety of purposes over the centuries. It also once held anti-aircraft guns and a degaussing station to protect ships from magnetic mines, and you can see the remains of these encasements on the island today.

Now, Matiu/Somes Island is most important for its role in New Zealand’s ecology. The island is full of native birds such as the New Zealand fantail and the kākāriki, a type of parakeet. Brothers island tuatara were released there in 1998 as part of conservation efforts to protect the species from extinction, and a number of other reptiles also reside on the island.

Weta, the massive nocturnal insects for which Wellington’s famous VFX company is named (you’ve seen their work in The Lord of the Rings and about a million other films), also call the island home. Matiu/Somes features several “weta motels,” carved logs with hinges you can open up to observe the weta napping inside.

Finally, the island is also home to a herd of sheep. New Zealand obviously has no shortage of sheep and you can see them pretty much anywhere and everywhere, but as we were going through the biosecurity check the ranger mentioned that two lambs had been born the night before, so I was excited to go see them. As expected, they were pretty darn adorable.

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The main trail on the island is a loop that takes you more or less around its edge. It’s quite short, maybe an hour total walking time, but all along the way you get gorgeous views of Wellington and the surrounding area.

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There’s also plenty of time spent walking through the lush forest. I’ve heard that the island gets very crowded during the summer due to its easy access from Wellington and opportunities to camp and kayak. But yesterday in mid-winter there were only about 20 of us who made the trip over and so for most of the walk the only sounds we could hear where the various birdsongs of fantails peeping and kākāriki chattering at each other.

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The two ferry options to get off the island were at 1pm and 3.30pm, and while we certainly could have stuck around and enjoyed the scenery for another two hours, I had some work to get done yesterday afternoon so we decided to take the earlier boat back. We arrived back at the wharf and had time to walk along the rocky water’s edge for a few minutes before catching the ferry.

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On the trip back to the wharf, we were ushered the whole way by little blue penguins swimming around the harbour. We reached Queens Wharf around 1.25pm and had just enough time to warm up with a hot chocolate from Bohemien on Featherston Street (I only mention this because I’d been dying to try their chilli hot choc and it definitely lived up to the hype) before catching the bus home. Definitely a morning well spent, and a slightly off-the-beaten-track option I would recommend to anyone visiting Wellington and any Wellingtonians who have never made the trip.

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