You’re Wellington’s bit of rough, Somes
Home to countless, do you feel used?
A shelter, confinement, protector,
Story keeper of those who walked your back
Trod your surface, changed your skin
Ruffled your hair
– Robin Naylor, “Somes,” 1999
Ever since starting work at the restaurant, I watched through the windows of Vercelli’s as crowds of people embarked and disembarked small, bright blue and white passenger ferries that landed on Queen’s Wharf. In the morning and evening hours, there was a mass of office workers, men and women in suits, bearing briefcases and Blackberries. There were a few known to frequent the restaurant just before the ferry arrived, having a quick beer at the end of the work day before heading home. During more off-peak commuting hours, scores of uniformed schoolchildren and their teachers or Boy Scouts troops ran along the dock, tossing rugby balls to each other before beginning their field trip. As I counted the crowds day in and day out, I finally asked a colleague – just where were they going?
Eastbourne, it turned out – hailed as a quaint village with a bay and a few cafés, almost directly across the harbor from Wellington. The ferries – clearly labeled with the Dominion Post in a not-so-subtle marketing scheme – are run by a company called East by West and I thought it the perfect option for my next day off. As I looked into the company’s website, though, I noticed another stop on the ferry’s route around the harbor – Matiu/Somes Island. Now we’re talking, I said to myself.
But of course, I awoke that Saturday, my sole day off of the week, to a grey and overcast sky, rain only minutes away. Disappointed, feeling let down by the weather yet again, I resigned myself to a quiet day in a coffee shop. The next Saturday I pulled back my curtains, breath held, fingers crossed. My hopes didn’t drop immediately as I had half-expected they would – they sort of wavered, hovering for a moment as I assessed the situation. The sky wasn’t necessarily the clear, unclouded shade of robin’s egg blue I’d envisioned, but it wasn’t raining either. There were heavy clouds, but they weren’t grey. It’ll have to do, I said in the way in which one accepts the unchangeable.
And so I walked briskly along the harbor, glad the day off wouldn’t be wasted, but as the ferry office just happens to be located immediately next door to Vercelli’s, it was a bit of an odd feeling, walking the exact route I take every day and not quite feeling like the adventure had yet begun. I rounded the last corner only to be greeted by a queue as if at the box office before a long-awaited midnight showing of an expected summer blockbuster. Figures, I grumbled, taking my place at the end.
The line was comprised of a throng of white-haired men and women bustling around the office bearing white name tags that read “Historic Places Trust.” Clearly they were volunteers, having found the perfect means by which to busy themselves in their days of retirement, so why, I begged of them, could they have not chosen some less-trafficked window of time for this organized group trip. Couldn’t they have left Saturday morning for the less fortunate of the working class? Leaders of the tour walked around announcing, “All those with the H.P.T. please proceed to the ferry to board. Anyone with H.P.T…” What I wouldn’t have done for one of those white tags…
But such is life, isn’t it? And there’s nothing quite like standing in front of a family in a long line to hear your every worry and thought vocalized…again and again. “I thought there’d be about ten people,” said a dad to his family. His especially insightful wife replied, “Well, if we get on it, we get on it. If we don’t, we don’t.” She then proceeded to entertain their toddler-aged son. “Did you send in your sun request today, Dominic? “Sun, sun, Mr. Golden Sun,” she sang before extending the medley: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…that’s a silly song isn’t it, Dominic?” And always when an unexpected delay occurs, you begin to dream of the ten other things you could’ve accomplished in the time you’ve now lost, as one woman lamented, “I would’ve had time to do my hair if I’d known.”
Despite the later start than expected, though, I was on the ferry soon enough and joined several families on the top deck, where the wind whipped my hair as the ferry sped first from Seatoun to Eastbourne and finally to Matiu/Somes Island. From a distance the island was as dark as the secrets it is purported to hold, and small, such a seemingly unlikely place for all that is said to have taken place there. A sign on the ferry from the Department of Conservation instructed all passengers to “please proceed to the Whare Kiore (RAT HOUSE) on arrival.” I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
* * *
Wildlife first, then Ngai Tara, Ngati Ira,
Pa builders spiked your ridges like old tuatara
Followed by village builders Te Atiawa,
You’ve been bartered and sold, all water off your back
Prison for innocents among the wartime suspect
Debugging, delousing, degaussing station
Set you apart, you quarantine rock
Time now takes care to cover your bald patches
New seedlings take root, fingering down,
Stretching up, island hair-restorer
As we walked down the gangplank – not dissimilar, I imagined, to the one early settlers might’ve been forced to use as well – each passenger was led from the ferry straight into the infamous Rat House. Once we’d all been gathered, a volunteer forest ranger named Janet locked both doors of the building before briefing us – as if on the brink of some high-security, classified mission – on the rules of the island. “Now if you could all please check your bags for any rats, mice, ants, or seeds,” she instructed like a schoolteacher. I’d read before arrival that we would have to check our bags, but perhaps a little too much air travel over the past few years led me to assume we’d be checking our bags, as in, turning them over during the time we spent on the island. However, once in the Rat House I realized the volunteer meant for us to literally check our bags, as in, rummage through them.
I found this situation comical for a number of reasons. How on earth, I wondered, could we have just spent fifty minutes on the ferry and yet somehow been able to miss the fact that there was a rat in our bag? I didn’t quite know whether or not to take this “checking” process seriously. The man sitting across from me, however – adorable, white-haired gentleman that he was – dutifully unfurled an entire lined blanket that had been tied into a roll, gave it a good shake and rolled it back up. Young Dominic and his parents were quite enthusiastic in their search, digging through bananas and juice boxes for any stray rodents. Call me a poor sport, but I feigned any effort, half-heartedly shoving my hand in my oversized purse all for the sake of show, really. But as we ourselves were responsible for this investigation and Janet never once checked up on us – which I suppose makes her more like a substitute teacher in that respect – do you not wonder, as I did, that if some especially malicious soul did intend to release rats on the island, he or she could have easily kept them concealed?
But if anything, the time spent hunting for these pesty predators certainly lent a good deal of gravity to the situation. As much humor as I may have found in the Rat House, Janet wasn’t laughing. This was something she – and myriad other people – care deeply about. Since the late 1980s, Somes Island has been pest-free – no ferrets, no weasels, no dogs, and certainly no rats. As a sort of recreated Eden, it means that the world’s smallest penguins, the little blue penguin, can raise their young in safety. It means that the tuatara, New Zealand’s famed ancient reptile, can once again inhabit the island, the original population there having been eradicated in the mid-1800s. It means that such native birds as the kakariki, the red-crowned parakeet, can spread their wings over a wildlife sanctuary designed specifically to see them not only survive, but to thrive. Standing in front of her class, Janet held up 8”x11” photographs of some of the creatures we could hope to see during the day – common geckos, copper skinks, and the Cook Strait giant weta were among the ones I more hoped I wouldn’t run into. “This is the North Island robin, which isn’t doing as well as we’d hoped at the moment,” Janet said, her voice growing softer.
Additionally, conservation efforts have focused on the flora of the island, not only the fauna. With their work having begun in 1981, Forest and Bird and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries lead a vision to restore the island to its native vegetation, all of which was destroyed to make room for livestock paddocks once European ships arrived in the 1800s. As I walked along the first paths of the island, I noticed little pink ties on tree branches, numbered, only increasing the feeling that this is an island under observation. This is an island on which no species goes unmarked, or their changes and growth unrecorded. But every five steps or so, I heard a shuffling, a rustling among the leaves. It caught my attention, not only for the noise, but at how systematic it seemed to be. I slowed, treading softly and came upon what a brochure told me was a common skink, its slinking body glistening in the sun like a twisted piece of metal. As I stared at one, I could see more stretching out in front of me, each right on the border between path and brush. They were spaced so evenly, so diligently, as if sentinel on guard. But just what were they hiding?
And while the present conservation work taking place on the island would be remarkable enough, meriting a visit in and of its own right, that’s not where the island’s story begins or ends; it’s merely the current chapter of a long and complicated narrative. If that was the case, Somes Island might be just another Kapiti Island, the renowned nature reserve and bird sanctuary just north of Wellington. Kapiti takes the security ordeal of Somes’ Rat House two steps further, requiring any potential visitors to actually book a permit before even thinking of arriving. But Matiu/Somes is both scientific and historic reserve, its bilingual name – restored in 1997 – attesting to both Maori and European historical involvement in a way that makes sense with the diversity of its past and present roles. Its pest-free existence is only one part of its story. Indeed, the island’s true intrigue is found further back; its mystery – like so many – lies in the past.
* * *
You define that pond space.
Like an iceberg in temperate camouflage
There’s more to you than meets the eye
Stage set for all our dreaming
An eye magnet, a drawing in
Point for our
I’d begun reading a book from the central library on Matiu/Somes Island, appropriately titled Island of Secrets by David McGill. McGill took a logical approach to discussing the island’s history, proceeding chronologically from its first Maori explorers over a thousand years ago to its ultimate reopening to the public in 1995. But when I arrived on the island, I found there was a circuit walk that rearranged what I considered to be the chief aspects of its history – high Maori and European significance, key to WWII defense strategy, and home to human and animal quarantine stations. Although said to take forty-five minutes to complete, I myself took nearly my entire four hours on the island to circle around, letting each rest along the way illuminate yet another piece of the island’s past. I appreciated the logic of McGill’s work, but I let the island tell its own story.
From the Rat House, the circuit began on the north end of the island, taking you along a path that, while easy-going physically, was lined by thick brush on either side. It gave no indication as to what lay beyond it, feeling more like the way had been cut through the vegetation than as if you were passing through it naturally. Immediately upon starting the circuit, I came to a monument to those who had died on the island. It was the 1872 arrival of the immigrant ship England, which sailed into the Wellington Harbor with sixteen passengers dead from disease, that sparked the practice of human quarantine on Somes Island. For forty-seven years, a quarantine station built on the island seemed to function as New Zealand’s own Ellis Island, the receiving point for many of the settlers and immigrants. From whooping cough to smallpox, from measles to mumps, from scarlet fever to typhoid fever, a range of diseases were all at one time or another reasons for a ship’s captain to wave the yellow quarantine flag and call into Somes Island. As websites and writers alike say, the island was the first and last many new arrivals saw of New Zealand. In the 1970s, the island’s cemetery was removed and the stone memorial cairn I viewed was constructed to remember those who never made it to the country for which they’d sailed so far. The cairn and a single white marble cross, in memory of George Stanley, twenty-six years of age, are all that remain of this time.
But the history of containment on the island grows darker. Although the influenza epidemic in 1919 marked the last time the barracks would be used for human quarantine, the new era of world wars brought yet another evolution in the island’s story: internment camp. Many of the 300 or so men held on the island in the first World War were thought of as prisoners of war, but during World War Two international authorities made clear these men were internees, not POWs, and so in 1940 the Prime Minister accordingly promised them “kind treatment.” The group of “enemy aliens” on Somes, which McGill describes as an “eclectic, volatile mix,” included Italians, Japanese, Nazi Germans and German Jaws…the only place in the world reputed to imprison Nazis and Jews in the same place. While the complexities behind New Zealand’s containment of nationals from places it happened to be at war against reach beyond the breadth and scope of my writing at this time, it’s still one worth mentioning. As I walked the paths of the island and looked through the windows of the only barracks that remain, I thought of the Japanese internment camps set up in the States of which I’d read, piling thousands into old racetracks and stadiums. Somes Island certainly didn’t rival those living conditions, but a prison’s a prison, no?
The circuit then wound along the western side of the island, passing a lookout to Shag Rock, to the Somes Island lighthouse. Between the trees of the path, all I could discern was a white building. It wasn’t until I’d come closer that I realized what I stood before. It was shorter than I’d expected, but I didn’t let its size diminish its impressiveness as the nation’s first inner harbor lighthouse. Its forerunner had been built in 1865, but by 1895, the light needed to be stronger. The beam of the new house, letting its light shine since the 21st of February, 1900, is visible for sixteen miles in the Cook Strait. Having been automated in 1924, today the whitewashed walls have long since cracked and grayed, rust has taken over curved ironwork, a clump of sea grass grows in the gutter, and a singular seagull sat atop a metal gate – yet still the light shines.
Just past the southern lookout point, a path veered off from the circuit up a steep slope on which wooden stairs were in the process of being constructed. The land leveled off at the top of the climb and gave way to the island’s summit, where five concrete gun emplacements sat built into the hills. This military defense station was home to anti-aircraft artillery installed during World War II when the war in the Pacific was yet undetermined. One bunker had functioned as a command center and the rest each held one 3.7 inch anti-aircraft gun, capable of sending a shell up to 10,000 feet in fourteen seconds. Although built and installed in 1942, after the bombings of both Pearl Harbor and Darwin, Australia, the guns were never fired. Nowadays, a different kind of guard stands to attention on the summit – seagulls, on every fence post and flying overhead. I, too, found my own use for the flat roofs of the emplacements which leveled nicely into the grass. Legs swinging over the ledge, I spread a sweater beneath me and laid out beneath a marvelously warm sun to work on getting a bit of summer color.
Down the other side of the summit lay a collection of empty, unused buildings, site of what used to be an animal quarantine station. I’d only ever heard the words “maximum security” applied to the likes of federal prisons and high-profile criminals before, but here it was being used to describe a place to keep such seemingly innocent animals as dogs, cattle, sheep and deer. Since the early days, the agricultural industry has clearly been vital to the nation’s economy, but what grew equally as important to such a small country was importing “exotic” breeds from places other than Australia, Britain and Canada to diversify existing stocks. Any new arrivals were held on Somes Island, all in the name of protecting the agricultural economy from any potential health issues. As I walked through the deserted buildings, looking through the bars of holding pens and the criss-crossing of wire fences, I couldn’t help but feel for the llamas and alpacas and elk forced to call these enclosures home until getting the green light from health officials. The station was eventually closed in 1995 due to the development of in-vitro fertilization technology, but it seemed to be just a forerunner to the intense biosecurity checks that take place today in the country’s airports and ferry terminals.
But the buildings had long ago been emptied of their former inhabitants, much like the lighthouse and the military emplacements and the internment barracks. It seemed to be a recurring theme on the island and I wondered how many ghosts I had walked among that sunny Saturday afternoon. For as fervent as the present efforts may be to restore the island’s native vegetation and inhabitants, it seemed almost as if DoC volunteers and conservationists have kept themselves busy trying to fill an insatiable void. But dark history aside, could you imagine any other plot of sixty-odd acres filling so many roles, wearing so many hats?
* * *
Your number two lighthouse is pushing a hundred
It’s a millennium birthday baby
Guzzling paraffin oil, gas, electricity
A very bright switched on birthday baby
Warning ship shapes shore and city
With its one-hundred year old lighthouse viewed, the animal quarantine quarters investigated, and sun-bathing on the roof of an old military bunker complete, there wasn’t much left on the island to see except the visitors center, which was essentially just a room with several DoC boards and a few odds and ends on display. A newspaper article titled “Mini Planet Earth” had been clipped out and tacked to the wall. It featured the work of Matt Sidaway and Jo Greenman, two DoC rangers who live permanently on Matiu/Somes Island and are responsible not only for its biosecurity, but simply for the day-to-day needs of the island, whether it be a blocked toilet or runaway sheep. The schedule they keep throughout the year is ten days on duty, four days off. Of their visits back to “civilization,” Greenman remarked, “It is crazy if you’ve been on here for a week in the winter and no visitors have come, and even sometimes the boats don’t come and you get off and you walk into town and you think, ‘they haven’t got a clue what I’ve been up to’. And yet they’re so close. It’s 20 minutes from here and it’s just a completely different world.”
I could sense what she was saying within minutes of being on the island. As I walked along the first paths, I could look out from the island across the harbor to the skyline of Wellington, which now seemed remarkably insignificant. It was exactly what I had felt years ago during a summer spent in Boston while in university. As much as I loved the new taste of city life, the small room I rented on the third floor of a brownstone on Newbury Street, the walk to work each morning through the skyscraper-lined streets, a few weeks into the summer I went with some friends to a park called Ocean Lawn about forty-five minutes north of the city. It was exactly what it sounds like, a wide expanse of the greenest lawn stretching down to the rocky coast of the sea. As we climbed over rocks and kicked a soccer ball around, I looked across the water to the city in which I lived. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, that moment of distance from the city was what I needed to carry me through the rest of my time there.
In a similar way, seated on a bench on Somes Island, basking in the glory of warm sunlight, I looked out to Wellington, thankful for the reprieve, for the moment of remoteness. I could discern three sounds only in the stillness of the air – that of the water lapping against the shore, birds whistling and calling to each other, and leaves rustling as skinks and geckos disappeared into the bush. From my seat in the sun, I pulled out a book to read and watched as a group of Historic Places Trust volunteers went marching by, followed by a DoC ranger. She smiled down at me and said, “Got a good spot, eh?”
A good spot indeed, but little did I realize at the start of the day that my step back from the city would be such a step back into the history of New Zealand; little did I know that a seemingly carefree day in the sun would lead to the discovery of an island with a history as varied and complex as the country itself. When the ferry docked at Queen’s Wharf at the end of the day, I walked past Vercelli’s only to see Aimee and another friend sitting outside. “How was the island?” they asked when I joined them, “What did you do?” I tried to explain that it wasn’t so much that I “did” anything, but rather that I experienced Matiu/Somes, experienced the history and the environment and the mystery. As a Mr. Blumsky from Upper Hutt had written in the guestbook, “We seem to have stepped back in time,” or another who wrote, “This is the real NZ.”
And again I grew grateful for the size of this small country, that while the treasures it holds may be many, their close proximity means they’re never far apart; that as different as the cities and the islands may be, they’re never too distant to explore. It took just twenty minutes for a ferry to transport me from the city streets of Wellington to an island whose history took a while to crack. I struggled to piece together the threads of its past, until it occurred to me there was a common theme. In each episode of its history, the role Somes has played has been one of keeping New Zealand at large safe – from disease, from enemy aircraft and aliens, even from common yet potentially dangerous livestock animals. If, as many say, Somes is a pearl in the Wellington harbor, perhaps that is the case…
A pearl of protection.
Wellington-watcher, your grandstand view
Is a world-beater under this old sun
And when you hide in the mists over there
Nothing’s really changed. Whether you’re
Sitting on a rock and roll sea
Or on a shining mirror, the city lights
Wink at you seductively
You old bit of rough, you