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.
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.
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.
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.