Matiu/Somes Is­land

Sunday Star-Times - - On The Road - Pamela Wade

Strate­gi­cally lo­cated at the cen­tre of Welling­ton Har­bour, and first named Matiu by Kupe, this is­land has a 1000-year his­tory. It was es­pe­cially busy af­ter the colonists ar­rived: as a light­house site, then a quar­an­tine for peo­ple and an­i­mals, a de­fence post, and in­tern­ment camp. Now, it’s run by the De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion as a pest-free sci­en­tific and his­toric re­serve, home to ka¯ka¯riki, tu­atara, gi­ant we¯ta¯, and lit­tle blue pen­guins – which you might see if you’re sharp-eyed, pa­tient and lucky.

Why go?

Be­cause this is our ver­sion of Al­ca­traz, with added lla­mas. Af­ter a 25-minute ferry trip to the jetty, you can spend a cou­ple of hours, or longer – even overnight, in DOC ac­com­mo­da­tion – ex­plor­ing the is­land and its his­tory, which is told on sto­ry­boards.

You can walk through the bush to the pho­to­genic light­house, now well over 100 years old, or climb up to the anti-air­craft gun em­place­ments from World War II, from where there are great views in all di­rec­tions. The is­land was used in both wars to im­prison ‘‘en­emy aliens’’: mostly Ger­man peo­ple liv­ing (and some of them born) in New Zealand, as well as some Ja­panese and Ital­ians. They lived in bar­racks and spent their time gar­den­ing, fish­ing and road­build­ing, as well as mak­ing crafts. None suc­ceeded in es­cap­ing.

The is­land was also used to quar­an­tine im­mi­grants sus­pected of bring­ing sick­ness, such as small­pox, ty­phoid and scar­let fever. Even ap­par­ently healthy ar­rivals had to sit cough­ing in the smoke­house while sul­phur and chlo­rine gases were pumped in to kill their lice. One poor Chi­nese man thought to have le­prosy was ex­iled to an islet at the tip of Matiu, where he died af­ter six months in iso­la­tion.

An­i­mals were sub­jected to max­i­mum se­cu­rity, un­til 1995 – mostly sheep and cat­tle from coun­tries other than Bri­tain, Canada and Aus­tralia, but also ex­otic species such as lla­mas, deer and elk, all reg­u­larly in­spected dur­ing their two-month quar­an­tine af­ter be­ing im­ported. Many of the build­ings re­lated to the quar­an­tine sta­tion are still there to be ex­plored.

In­sider tip

There’s no shop on the is­land, so bring your own pic­nic – and be ready to be checked for pests on ar­rival. Keep an eye out for the we¯ta¯ ho­tels.

On the way/nearby

You’ll leave from Queen’s Wharf on the water­front, which is full of things to ex­plore and en­joy: mu­se­ums, art gal­leries and out­door art, res­tau­rants, shops, and mar­ket. Or re­turn via a stop-off at Day’s Bay.

How much?

East By West fer­ries visit three times daily: $25 adults, $13 chil­dren, $68 fam­ily, and Su­per­gold card hold­ers are free. Welling­ton Mu­seum of­fers a Ship ’n Chip guided tour of the mu­seum with fish and chips for lunch and a visit to the is­land, for $55 for adults and $39 chil­dren.

Best time to go

Choose a calm day for a smooth ride. Go early to beat the crowds.

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