FolkestoneJack's Tracks

An island refuge

Posted in New Zealand, Wellington by folkestonejack on March 26, 2013

Standing around amidst the bustle of Wellington’s waterfront it is hard to imagine that you can be transported to a tranquil haven free of predators in just twenty minutes, but that is precisely what is on offer if you catch the East by West ferry to Matiu/Somes Island from Queens Wharf.

In the current schedule there are three weekday crossings from Queens Wharf to the island each day. We opted to take the 10am departure out to the island and return to Queens Wharf on the 12.50pm sailing. The fresh air of the morning crossing turned out to be a good way for us to wake up after a somewhat bleary-eyed start to the day (we flew down from Auckland last night on the Night Rider, arriving at our hotel in Wellington not long before midnight).

The ferry to Somes Island

The ferry to Somes Island

The history of Matiu/Somes Island has been incredibly varied for such a small stake of land. The island already had a long history of occupation by the Māori when the New Zealand Company took control in 1839. It was set aside as a quarantine point in 1860, although initially only in name.

A quarantine facility was hastily constructed on the island in 1872 after the arrival of the England, a ship in which 16 passengers had died from disease. The quarantined passengers had to spend six weeks in spartan accomodation on the island and those that didn’t make it were buried in a small cemetery on the island. In the next 47 years many more passengers found their arrival somewhat less friendly than they might have hoped.

A small monument on the island remembers those who lost their lives during their confinement, along with a few of the memorial stones erected over time.

Monument to those who lost their lives on Somes Island during their quarantine

Monument to those who lost their lives on Somes Island during their quarantine

One ship that found its way to Port Nicholson (Wellington) was the barque Oxford which set sail from London via Plymouth on 20th January 1883. The Oxford didn’t get very far, making it only to the Bay of Biscay before a storm broke the ship’s masts. The ship was left to drift helplessly in the atlantic ocean for many days before it was towed in to Cardiff. The emigrants travelled on to Plymouth by train, awaiting the refit of the Oxford, but in the intervening period an epidemic of typhoid fever swept through the passengers, resulting in nine deaths.

The Oxford eventually set sail from Plymouth on 26th April 1883. Once again an epidemic broke out and when the ship arrived in Wellington on 23rd July 1883 the passengers were quarantined on Somes Island. A later Royal Commission report was critical of many aspects of the arrangements made for the emigrants in Plymouth, including the ineffectual fumigation of the ship after the first epidemic – noting that rats in the hold survived the fumigation! One of the passengers from the Oxford, Catherina Crabb from Cornwall, who had travelled out to New Zealand with her parents and siblings, died in quarantine on 26th August 1883 at the age of twenty five. Catherina’s headstone is one of a few arranged around the monument.

Catherina Crabb's headstone on Somes Island

Catherina Crabb’s headstone on Somes Island

Inevitably, the strategic position of Somes island in Wellington Harbour made it the natural choice of location for defence and security in times of war. Although the onset of war in Europe must have seemed like a distant threat, the sinking of the Trans-Pacific liner Niagara in the Hauraki Gulf in 1940 brought home the reality that distance would be no protection.

In 1941 a German raiding ship made it to New Zealand and laid magnetic mines at the entrance to Wellington Harbour and Lyttelton Harbour. To counter this threat a degaussing station operated by the Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service was established on Somes island in 1942 to help allied ships in the process of neutralising their magnetic signatures.

The island was also used for the internment of enemy aliens and an anti-aircraft artillery position was constructed here in 1942 to defend the capital. The HAA position on Somes Island (one of six constructed at high points around Wellington) consisted of a command post and four gun emplacements. Although the guns have long gone you can still wander around the remaining concrete buildings.

Command post for the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery position on Somes Island

Command post for the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery position on Somes Island

Gun emplacement on Somes Island

Gun emplacement on Somes Island

The last re-invention of the island was as a maximum security animal quarantine facility, a function it served for 23 years between 1972 and 1995. The buildings that were left behind from this era look incredibly forbidding with fences worthy of any prison camp, but a sign nearby points out that you are actually free to walk in and take a closer look!

The maximum security animal quarantine station on Somes Island

The maximum security animal quarantine station

Today, the island has a happier purpose as a sanctuary for plants, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. It is home to a number of species that have been successfully re-introduced, such as the red-crowned parakeet and tuatara. As one of the volunteers explained, the re-building of a delicate food chain has been tricky. The first attempts to re-introduce the North Island robin were not as successful as had been hoped, partly because the supply of invertebrates on the island was not plentiful enough to sustain them.

The wharf and visitor shelter on Somes Island

The wharf and visitor shelter

After arriving on the ferry we were directed down to an inspection facility which all visitors to the island must enter, with the vital purpose of ensuring that the island remains predator free. A rather alarming sign in the visitor shelter stated that ‘in the unlikely event that a pest animal is found amongst luggage, the doors must remain locked and everyone must stay in the building until the animal has been killed’ but thankfully there was no need for an animal bloodbath in the hut today!

We headed out of the hut armed with some useful tips about recent sightings of the island’s tuatara, but sadly they proved to be completely elusive. We were luckier with the red-crowned parakeets which seemed to be really active today wherever we wandered. In addition, on our loop around the island we managed to see one copper skink, two spotted skinks, a number of spotted shags and a weta (yuk!).

The lighthouse on Somes Island

The lighthouse on Somes Island

The walk around the island was a delight, helped by the fact that only one other visitor disembarked from our ferry so it felt like we had the island to ourselves for almost the entirety of our wanders. It only takes an hour or so to complete a loop of the island, so it is quite amazing to think how much has taken place in such a small plot of land. The rich history, wonderful views and incredible wildlife make this island a quite remarkable spot to visit – I would heartily recommend it to any travellers out this way.

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