Our Wellington

News | 23 July 2021

Big aspirations for a small island

Sitting in the heart of Wellington harbour, Matiu Somes Island is relatively small, however its history is anything but. And now, it is hoped Matiu will become a central place for all Taranaki Whānui descendants, and an education resource for the wider community.

A view looking down at Somes Island in the middle of  abright blue Wellington harbour, with mist and hills beyond.

At just under 25 hectares, the island has a rich past, having been put to many uses over the years.  

It was designated as the country’s first quarantine station for animals in 1889Prior to this, Matiu was often the first Kiwi experience for many new immigrantas a human quarantine centre, and the island also played a key role in New Zealand’s defence history.

But before all of this, Matiu was home to local Māori with pā sites belonging to iwi that make up Taranaki Whānui.  

Taranaki Whānui kaumātua Kura Moeahu says not long after Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed in 1840, their land in Te Whanganui-a-Tara was seized by the Crown. 

Matiu was returned to Taranaki Whānui in a 2008 Treaty settlement and is now governed by the Matiu / Somes Island Kaitiaki Board and managed by the Department of Conservation.

Kura Moeahu in a black hooded jersey and blue jeans, standing in front of a red, intricately carved, tall, narrow waharoa with a one metre tall tiki on top, with a gravel pathway and native bush behind.
Kura Moeahu.

“The return of the island was significant for us, for not only cultural value, but because it gives us a presence right in the harbour,” says Kura, chairman of the Kaitiaki Board. 

“For me personally it’s a place where I can just come relax and contemplate. It’s such a beautiful place to get in touch with the environment.”

Matiu is a 25-minute boat ride, 8km away from Wellington waterfront. 

Step off the ferry and you’ll be greeted by a rugged coastline, abundant bird life, hills covered in native plants, and 360-degree views of Aotearoa’s capital city. 

Kura, who is also Principal Māori Advisor for Parliament, says Matiu and it’s two neighbouring harbour islands, Mokopuna and Mākaro, were named by Kupe after his daughters or nieces. 

Wellington City Council Head of Māori Strategic Relationships Karepa Wall, of Taranaki Whānui, agrees it is a special place, featuring historic pā.

Eight people, with Karepa on the left and Kura on the right, lined up smiling on a lawn with a concrete path and native bush behind.
Head of Māori Strategic Relationships Karepa Wall (left) and Taranaki Whānui kaumātua Kura Moeahu (right) with Wellington City Council staff at Matiu Somes Island.

“The beauty about this island is we are able to reconnect to some of our traditional ways. We’ve got this clean green energy here, and the ability to practice the protocols that we used before colonisation. There’s opportunity to exercise our sovereignty here.” 

Karepa says part of Wellington City Council’s mahi is to empower the people of Taranaki Whānui to play a bigger role in the kaitiaki of Matiu. 

“We need to build capability in our people – in areas such as agriculture and horticulture – so iwi can take more of an ownership role of the island.”

Matiu is a predator-free scientific reserve, and is home to giant wētā, kororā (little blue penguin), tuatara, the tītī (muttonbird), kuaka (bar-tailed godwit) and many other native birds and wildlife. 

Visitors to the island are asked to follow Māori tikanga, and must check their bags and themselves for pests and plant matter before accessing the site. 

Kura says the predator-free status means much of the island’s traditional flora and fauna has been preserved, and he hopes to see the return of rowi (the rarest of the five species of kiwi) in future – “but there’s still heaps more opportunity”.

The hillside of Matiu Somes Island in the distance across the water, with the wharf where the ferry parks and the small orange building visitor centre.

He says the vision is for the island to become a hub for Taranaki Whānui and the wider community. 

“We want to develop a whare wānanga on here – create a total emersion space for te reo Māori and learning about our customs, our history, our arts, our martial and performing arts. 

“It will be iwi designed, telling our iwi stories, but it will be available for other organisations and schools that may want to deliver everything in te reo Māori. And with the right tech, this could really advance us into the future.”