Somes Island sits in the middle of Wellington harbour. The island has served many purposes over the years – most notably as a recent day trip location for Kate and I.
To get to the island we needed to get the ferry – so we drove over to Days Bay on the eastern side of the harbour for 11am. Running bang on time, we of course missed every set of traffic lights and got stuck behind every slow-driving dickhead en route. As we drove along the winding 70kmph Eastbourne road around picturesque bays all we could think of was killing the knob in front of us who refused to go over 50. Fortunately it was a lovely day and the ferry was very busy – which meant it was very late.
After boarding the ferry, getting to the jetty on Somes took a good ten minutes. We disembarked and were hastily shepherded into a small hut run by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Here an elderly volunteer gave us the spiel about the island, then had us rummage in our backpacks for rats and mice. The island’s latest tale is as a conservation area, and since New Zealand native fauna is completely incapable of surviving a mouse, they make every day tripper go through their pack just in case there’s a weasel. As I pretended to search my bag, feeling for a small furry body deep in the recesses, I fantasised about having brought a family of ferrets instead of a sandwich – wouldn’t that be a tale, unleashing a bag of irritated ferrets into a tiny hot shoebox of a room packed with 60 people? No-one would be able to leave – it would be a bloodbath.
One person had hiking boots with mud on them – a DOC worker came over with a chemical soaked brush and gave them a good buffing. I understand this level of quarantine elsewhere, but this island has such public foot traffic, it seems like pissing on a bonfire. The place is ‘conservation-lite’, heralded more as a conservation education spot for the public than where the real work goes down, yet this sort of thing makes you feel so unwelcome. The guy even made a mother take off her baby backpack and pick up the baby – just in case there were some pesky rodent hidden under there. He then proceeded to tell us all what we were NOT to do.
- Don’t leave the paths
- Don’t pick anything up
- Don’t sit on benches
- Don’t visit beaches
- Don’t eat the poison
- Don’t litter
- Don’t eat things in this area
- Don’t some other stuff I forget now.
Don’t don’t don’t. What a dick! I’ve been to the island plenty of times, and us Kiwis know the drill – I left feeling like he felt us public types were some horrible pain he had to put up with, not welcomed, but tolerated due to policy – it was terrible. He told us nothing about the island, just what not to do on our visit.
Eventually he allowed us to leave his miserable keep-your-hands-in-pockets-at-all-times briefing, and we all scattered out across the foreshore. I found a quiet spot next to a nesting penguin box to let the stoats out of my pockets (we didn’t have to check our clothes! Haha!) and Kate and I began wandering up the hill.
The fruits of DOC’s irritating nagging were immediately apparent, as along the road there were plentiful native skinks. There are thousands of them dotted all around the island. Mostly you only notice them as they scurry away out of eyesight as you walk past – but walking slowly along the paths, we spotted many.
Also across the whole island were the lively Kakariki, the New Zealand native parrot. Mostly flying in pairs and having a great time clowning about, they were something we don’t get around home and delightful to watch.
The island was one of the first quarantine stations, designated as such back in 1869. So when a shipload of smallpox blighted Britons arrived in 1872 they spent time on our very own mini-Alcatraz. Sadly, many died, and there’s a small cemetery on the island which attests to the young and the old suffering the most. Lousy!
During the war years, nationals of the axis powers were imprisoned on the island too, and this wee monument stands for the Italians who were held. During its time as internment camp a couple of Germans escaped as far as Petone but that was about the extent of the action.
We pottered around the circumference of the island, ever so slowly, trying a stint of skink spotting. We saw various things:
Tuatara are New Zealand’s funny little dinosaur, thriving around 200 million years ago. Biologists love ’em! The DOC workers can pretty reliably tell you where you’ll see them – they tend to sit outside their burrow waiting for some insect to bumble past rather than hunt actively. With this little one, we found it purely by wondering what three screaming children were jostling for position over in the bushes. In a rare act of parents-being-bros, the Mum told us what they were looking at and reined the sprogs in so we could get a glimpse before they scared it off. DOC had put a little rope barrier around to stop people getting too close – a funny little ‘non-cage’ situation!
On top of the island are the remnants of a small anti-aircraft battery from WW2. The fog was something else, and as we ate lunch, nesting gulls provided some amusement. One protective parent dive bombed another couple, encouraging us to take a more distant path.
In the centre of the island is the 1970s animal quarantine station. It’s all still there and has been opened up, so you can potter about, which is pretty neat. You could film a hell of a horror there in the dark! I particularly enjoyed the staff room, with the old kitchen furnishings reminding me of my childhood home. Speaking of the childhood home, I found us in an old 1994 phone book hanging in the corner!
That covers the island, for the most-part. In pre-European times the island served as a defensive haven for Maori, and it seems a disservice to not mention its strong historical ties to Te Ati Awa – but there’s nothing to see about that.
We wandered down to the wharf and awaited our ferry home.