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This island was originally named after Matiu, a daughter of the famous Polynesian explorer Kupe. Around 1840 it was renamed Somes Island when, along with most of the land around Wellington, it was acquired by the colonial New Zealand Company. The island is now officially known by its bilingual name, Matiu/Somes Island.
For generations, Maori occupied this island and used it as an important strategic pa site (defence fortress). A lighthouse on the island, built in 1866, was the first harbour light in New Zealand. Its replacement, built in 1900 and later automated, continues to guide and welcome sea-borne travellers into the safety of Wellington Harbour.
For more than 100 years the island operated as a quarantine station, initially for people and later for animals as well. A memorial remembers the unfortunate people who died on the island while in quarantine.
During both world wars, the island served as a detention centre for people of alien nationality who were considered a security threat at the time. It also revived its role as a strategic defence position, and structures from the World War II heavy anti-aircraft positions can still be seen.
Today, the island is being re-forested with native plants by volunteers and organisations. Native birds, reptiles and invertebrates are also being released to thrive in the pest-free environment.
Ferries provide a regular service to the island from central Wellington and Days Bay. On arrival, visitors are asked to check their bags for small stowaways (rodents) in the quarantine shed. The loop track takes about 40 minutes to walk.