From the Kapiti Coast to the Wairarapa and beyond, the Wellington region is full of wonderful opportunities for day tripping. But my personal favourite is only a stone’s throw from the city – Matiu/Somes Island, in the heart of Wellington Harbour.
I fell in love with this tiny island from my first visit. In exchange for a mere 25 minute ferry ride, you get such an incredible sense of escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life. Along with beautiful harbour views, native wildlife and some unusual history…
Planning your trip to Matiu/Somes Island
Visiting Matiu/Somes Island does take a bit more planning than your average day out. I recommend looking up ferry times in advance, since these will determine how long you can spend on the island.
I’ve included more information about catching the ferry, along with advice about how long to stay, facilities and what to bring, at the bottom of this post.
Arriving on the island
VISITING A PEST-FREE ISLAND
Further information about visiting pest-free islands in New Zealand is available here.
A key thing to note: Matiu/Somes is a pest-free reserve. This means that there are biosecurity checks in place to prevent any harm to the native plants, birds, reptiles and invertebrates.
Upon arrival, a ranger from the Department of Conservation (DOC) will welcome you and gather everyone together in the visitor shelter by the wharf. You’ll receive a brief introduction to the island, its history and wildlife as well as the rules for visiting the reserve. You’ll also be asked to check your own shoes and bags to ensure you haven’t carried any pests, soil or seeds with you.
Exploring Matiu/Somes Island
The island is pretty small, only 62 acres. You can walk around it via the circuit/loop track in around 40 minutes.
I’d recommend taking a little longer, though, to soak it all in!
There are limits to where you can walk in order to protect the wildlife. Be sure to stick to the paths and heed all signs. Luckily the tracks tend to be elevated, so you can admire much of the restricted coastline areas from afar, even if you can’t access them on foot.
A quick note: signs on the island give “walking times” to various locations. Take these with a pinch of salt—in our experience the walking times were overestimated a bit.
The Loop Track and the Lighthouse
There are a handful of little tracks on the island, but I can definitely recommend the loop track. It offers a steady supply of panoramic views across the harbour, interspersed with some shadier sections beneath the tree canopy.
The views towards the city are especially impressive. If you’ve visited the more “classic” scenic viewpoints on the mainland (at Mt Victoria, Kelburn, Mt Kaukau, etc.) you’ll find the view looking back on Wellington an interesting contrast.
The island’s historic lighthouse is the jewel in its crown. I especially love this viewpoint and the section of track just to the south of it. It’s a great place for watching shags diving around the rocks. We also saw three skinks foraging for scraps at the viewpoint on our last visit!
The Bullock Track
The Bullock Track is a steeper, gravel path alternative route from the wharf to the centre of the island. There are lots of pohutukawa trees (aka New Zealand Christmas trees) around this part of the island and they look gorgeous in bloom in the summer.
Most visitors prefer the main road up from the wharf, so we found the Bullock Track pleasantly quiet compared to other trails.
Spotting Native Wildlife
Due to its pest-free status, Matiu/Somes is a sanctuary for native wildlife. While some of the populations are monitored by DOC, the island isn’t to be confused with a designated eco-sanctuary like Zealandia.
With a bit of luck you may spot some of the island’s inhabitants over the course of your visit. We’ve seen kakariki (the bright green parakeet pictured above), weta, shags, and skinks. Not to mention plenty of seagulls and sheep!
Wildlife to look out for:
- Tuatara are pretty special creatures. Not only are they rare and the last remaining species of an ancient order of reptiles, but they have a “third eye” beneath the skin on their heads! Wild ones can only be found on New Zealand’s islands or at an eco-sanctuary like Zealandia. They’re nocturnal, so we’ve never managed to see one on Matiu/Somes Island (the above photo was taken at Zealandia). But apparently they are sometimes visible around the tracks. If you see people peering into the bushes, chances are they’re looking for/have spotted a tuatara.
If you’re particularly interested in nocturnal wildlife, you may want to consider staying overnight on Matiu/Somes. Read more below!
- Skinks and Geckos are the only other reptiles on Matiu/Somes. If you hear a rustling by the side of the track, most likely it’s one of the island’s four skink species. We saw skinks by the path and at one of the viewpoints, where they came up through the gaps in the boards in search of crumbs (above photo!). Like tuatara, geckos are nocturnal and so seen less frequently.
- Kakariki / red crowned parakeets are a very distinctive, vivid green with a touch of red. They seem to congregate around the Quarantine station and visitor centre area at the centre of the island. I enjoyed seeing flashes of green (and hearing their playful call) as they swooped around the coastline.
- Weta are one of the easiest creatures to see on Matiu/Somes thanks to several “Weta Motels” set up on the island. “What on earth is a Weta Motel?” I hear you ask! Basically just a log that’s been cut in half, with holes cut into one side and covered in perspex. The other half is then reattached as a “door” with hinges and a hook fastener, so that it can be opened and viewed. The weta crawl into the holes, and visitors can open the door to view the lovely motel “guests”.
- Little Penguins / korora (aka Little Blue Penguins) are the world’s smallest penguins and research has shown that the population on Matiu/Somes is thriving and growing. It’s highly unusual to see them during the day, though, as they’re usually either at sea or in their burrows.
Dolphins and whales?
I have never managed to spot one, but every now and again there are sightings of dolphins and whales in Wellington Harbour! This Facebook Group is the go-to place for tips on sightings.
History on Matiu/Somes
Matiu or Somes?
Matiu is the Maori name for the island, given by the polynesian explorer Kupe in honour of one of his daughters. In late 1839, however, the New Zealand Company “purchased” the entirety of Wellington harbour (along with vast swathes of land around the country). The company renamed the island Somes Island, after one of their investors and governors.
In 1996, the New Zealand Geographic Board made plans to change the name to Matiu Island. After objections, however, they settled on the bilingual name Matiu/Somes Island.
Matiu/Somes has fulfilled several roles over the course of its history. It’s hosted Maori Pa (villages or defensive settlements) and human and animal quarantine facilities, and served as both an internment camp and military installations.
You can still see the concrete anti-aircraft emplacements on the island. But the Animal Quarantine Station (pictured above), which closed in 1995, is the most intact and unusual relic of the island’s history.
Admittedly, the building isn’t presented in an educational way. There’s very little signage or explanation for what you see as you explore. The impression is more of an abandoned site than any real sense of preservation! But I’m happy about that – there’s a charm to the dilapidation and the sparse, industrial aesthetic.
If you do want a bit more information, there’s a short self-guided tour leaflet for the Animal Quarantine Station here.
Plan your trip to Matiu/Somes IslandHow long should I spend?
Half a day is certainly plenty of time to see pretty much everything Matiu/Somes island offers. Depending on your level of interest, 2 or 3 hours might be plenty!
You can also stay overnight for the opportunity to spot some of the nocturnal wildlife mentioned above, and simply to explore the island when the day visitors have taken the last ferry back. There’s a campsite with 12 tent sites and sheltered cooking facilities, and two houses (Education House and Forest and Bird House) available to book online if you prefer lodge-style accommodation.
What are the facilities like?
There are water fountains, but no cafés or places to buy food on the island. I’d recommend you bring your own lunch and/or snacks with you, ideally in sealed containers. (DOC guidance says: “pack food in sealed containers to avoid attracting rodents. No open bags or supermarket bags.”) There are some snacks available on the ferry, if you’re in a pinch, but it’d be cheaper to pack a lunch ahead of time.
There’s a toilet block at the Visitor Centre.
The Visitor Centre also has some displays of artefacts and some information. These are pretty small, though, so I wouldn’t set your expectations too high or plan to spend much time here.
What should I bring?
- Sunscreen and a hat: pretty much always a must-have in New Zealand (due to the ozone hole over the south pole)
- Comfy shoes/walking shoes
- A water bottle: refillable at water fountains on the island
- Your own picnic lunch or snacks. In sealed containers (see above)
- Camera and/or binoculars: for capturing the views and wildlife
How do I get there?
KEY INFORMATION: EAST BY WEST FERRY
Which wharf should I depart from?
Staying in central Wellington? Queens Wharf is your best bet.
If you’re staying a little further out in Petone, Lower Hutt or the Eastern Bays then Days Bay may be a better option, depending on your mode of transport.
Where do I buy tickets?
Please see the East-by-West website (scroll to the bottom of the page) for the latest information.
East-by-West don’t presell tickets. You buy tickets at the office at Queens Wharf on the day of travel, though they do recommend calling ahead if you have a party of more than 10 people. If you are sailing from Days Bay, or are travelling outside of their office hours, you pay on the boat. They take cash, EFTPOS and credit cards.
Potential summer offer on Ferry Tickets
If you have the opportunity to, be sure to check out the Wellington Advent Calendar in December. In 2018 and 2019 there’s been a “buy one return ticket, get one free” voucher from East by West in one of the windows. While you can only access the vouchers during the month of December, once you have them they don’t expire until the end of February.
There are no guarantees it’ll keep appearing, of course, but it’s definitely worth a look!
Over to you
What are your Wellington highlights? Is Matiu/Somes Island a place you’d like to visit?