One of Wellington’s best day-trips is to Matiu/Somes Island, in the northern reaches of the harbour. Legendary navigator Kupe is said to have named it Matiu (meaning “peace”) in the tenth century and his descendants lived on the island until deposed by European settlers in the late 1830s. They renamed the island after Joseph Somes, then deputy governor of the New Zealand Company that had “bought” it. For eighty years it was a quarantine station where travellers carrying diseases such as smallpox were held until they recovered or died. During both world wars anyone in New Zealand considered even vaguely suspect – Germans, Italians, Turks, Mexicans and Japanese – was interned on the island until the end of the war, after which it became an animal quarantine station for a number of years.
In the early 1980s its conservation value was recognized, and it is now managed by DOC, which oversees continued efforts to revitalize native vegetation and restore the historic buildings. All introduced mammalian predators have now been eradicated and threatened native species are being introduced in an effort to save them from extinction. Already there are six types of lizard, kakariki (the red-crowned parakeet), North Island robins, little blue penguins, the cricket-like weta and the ancient reptilian tuatara. Over fifty of these ancient lizard-like creatures were captive-bred at Wellington’s Victoria University and released in 1998. They seem to like it, as numbers are increasing.