By Roger Childs

It’s the biggest island in Wellington Harbour and it has had a colourful history. Maori were the first to use the 25 hectare island and two pa were built, however they were used mainly as a refuge during inter-tribal wars, and were never permanently occupied. 

In later times it was used as a —

  • a lighthouse location on the south coast. It was built in 1866.
  • a farm mainly running sheep
  • a destination for day trips in the 1860s and 1870s
  • a quarantine station for people and later animals
  • an internment camp for German aliens and prisoners of war in World War I
  • a location for ant-aircraft artillery batteries 
  • a camp in World War II for German and Austrian New Zealanders, and German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war. There was also a hospital for sick prisoners.

Maurice Gee has written an excellent novel entitled Live Bodies, centred on life for an Austrian born New Zealander on the island during the Second World War.

It was also called Leper Island by some as there was once a Chinese man on Somes who was confined to a cave. Sadly after he died it was found that he did not have leprosy.

It is now a predator-free scientific reserve run by the Department of Conservation and since 1990s it has been a tourist destination. 

Easy to get there and plenty to see

Ferries from Queens Wharf drop off visitors to Somes Island on the way to Days Bay. From Wellington it takes about 25 minutes to get there. It’s $25 for adults and $13 for children, but free for Gold Card holders. 

You need to allow at least 2 hours to explore the island.  On arrival there is a 20 minute briefing on the protocols of being on Somes. From the wharf there is a significant climb to reach the higher grassy areas where the visitor centre, other historic buildings, the trig station and the gun emplacements are located. Along the way there are a number of display boards detailing the history of the island and providing information on the biodiversity. Much of the island is bush clad and there are plenty of birds, a few sheep and reptiles such as skinks and tuatara.

Changing biodiversity along the many tracks

20 years ago the island was mainly grass with a few pine and macrocarpa areas. However since then volunteers have planted over 100,000 flaxes, bushes and trees.

There are many paths and trails on the island including a circular track that follows the coast in many parts which takes about 45 minutes to complete. The views in all directions, especially from the higher areas, are great.

Back in the 1990s Wairarapa harrier Rod Sutherland lived on the island working for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. He found the ups and downs of the trails ideal for marathon training.  

Visiting Matiu / Somes Island is well worth the effort, but obviously best in good weather as it is rather wind-swept. Taking a picnic is highly desirable as there are many seats and grassy areas where you can have your lunch.