My plan for Monday was thrown into doubt at 5am when a gust of wind woke me up. At first I thought it was a passing truck, but several “trucks” later it clicked: this isn’t a convoy, it’s just Wellington being Wellington!
In the lead-up to my staycation, I picked out Matiu/Somes Island as my number one place to see, and I’d go on the first tolerable day, weather-wise. Roaring gusts are not what I consider tolerable, especially when there’s a ferry trip involved!
I considered ringing the ferry company to check if they’d be sailing, but I figured if I turned up and they cancelled I could go walk a trail instead. As it turned out, the northerly backed off a little and, while it carried on all day, it was really a non-issue.
The place turned out quite different to what I expected, especially considering I’d read a friend’s blog post about it the day before I went. Not in a bad way, mind you.
The first thing was just how few people were on the ferry. I counted six other passengers, of whom just two disembarked on Matiu! I didn’t see them again until the return trip, meaning I effectively had the place to myself for 2½ hours! Pro tip: If you want to avoid the crowds, go at 10am on a Monday morning in winter with average weather.
Animals, real and imagined
On arrival, I was escorted to the “rat house” where I had the honour of fumbling through my many (many!) pockets for rodents and other stowaways. With the mandatory briefing out of the way, I was let loose to explore the island with a strict 1pm deadline. I set off up the path to the northern end where I was greeted by some locals:
While the crowds were absent, unfortunately so too was the much-touted local fauna. I caught two brief glances of the native kākāriki, but that was as exciting as it got. I imagine all the lizards hide out in places like this on cool windy days:
I managed to miss the weta hotel too, though I’m not sure I’d have had the guts to open the thing anyway!
To spice up the wildlife search a little, there were rumours that Matariki, the newly-famous humpback whale, was back and splashing around near Petone. With each northerly view I had one eye on the water, but alas, no joy there either.
This is going down in history
My next surprise was how hilly the island was. From a distance it doesn’t look that tall (especially viewed from high up), and the photos I’d seen didn’t convey just how steep the tracks were. Thankfully it was a short walk to the village.
Cresting the hill, I was greeted by a hodgepodge of structures that revealed the many histories of the island. In its brief time, Matiu/Somes has hosted a lighthouse, a prisoner-of-war camp, military bunkers, a quarantine station for sick people, and a quarantine station for other animals. Today it’s a tourist attraction, historic site, and nature reserve. The little island bears the marks of all, and most of it sits in the small plateau at the centre.
Already battered somewhat by the wind, I took refuge in the visitor centre which told the stories of the island. Inside were informational posters, artefacts, and remains of oversized insects. Of course, me being me, I went straight for the visitor book to make my mark.
Also in here was a prime example of the odd decorative touches that adorn the island’s buildings: a CD hanging in the window. At first I thought these were just a quirky creative expression, but I later found out they are to stop birds from flying into the glass! Most were old albums or videogames I’d never heard of, but there was the occasional gem like this.
Braving the elements once more, I navigated the maze of sheep pens that led to the summit and gun emplacements. Thankfully the locals were docile and moved out of my way, though I kept a respectful distance to be safe.
Nature into me
From there a track led down to the mercifully sheltered southern end of the island and the circuit track. This is where the real beauty of the landscape opened up: rugged coastline, numerous native plant species (labelled for the benefit of botanical newbs like me), and lookouts facing the harbour entrance and city centre.
With one eye on the clock and the other on the harbour (where are you, Whaley?), I bustled around the perimeter, stopping briefly to admire the views. Along the way I checked out the lighthouse (unfortunately closed) and pondered the location of the second one. Turns out I’d been bamboozled by the signs: There’s only one lighthouse, but two routes to it!
With that mystery solved, and time still up my sleeve, I looped back to the plateau to check out the quarantine station. I figured the warning signs at the entrance were out of date, and besides, it’s not like anyone was there to stop me. Although I kind of wish I’d had a guide, or some sort of company at least – this place is CREEPY.
It’s like something out of a zombie survival game – which I later discovered is a thing they actually run on the island once a year! There are long hallways, enclosures, scientific instruments, and the strangely terrifying “exercise yards”.
It’s mostly shrouded in darkness, punctuated by patches of sunlight filtering through. To complete the scene, a cool breeze whipped through, sending chills down the spine and producing eerie metal clanging sounds somewhere in the facility.
This place was terrifying enough in the middle of the day. Imagine being here in the middle of the night with nothing but a flickering torch to light the way! *shudder*
Aaand I’m outta here
Scared, cold and lonely, I was glad my ferry back to civilisation was just 15 minutes away. I hustled down the hill and downed my lunch at a picnic table in sight of the pier – just in case the boat turned up early. Hey, I don’t wanna miss it, it’s two hours till the next one!
Just 2½ hours after arriving, I left Matiu, satisfied that I’d seen enough. (It’s not a big place!) I watched the waves in the hopes of an exclusive whale sighting, but it wasn’t to be. But, whale or no whale, it was a wonderful half-day venture, and I’d recommend it to anyone – even on an average winter’s day!