That represents the timeframe of ancestral lineage for one of the species returned to the island: tuatara are a reptile that has remained virtually unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs 225 million years ago. Despite their form, they are not a true lizard – they have no other living relatives.
And their restoration on Matiu is working. After dying out on the island in the 19th century, they were returned in 1998 – 54 of them from Brothers Island in the Cook Strait and Nga Manu Sanctuary, Waikanae.
I do volunteer duties on Matiu – about once a month over summer. If you know where to look, there is usually one guaranteed to be out – ‘Big Mac’ they call him, sitting out just under a large curved macrocarpa trunk. It’s a buzz pointing out live tuatara to visitors.
But on my duty yesterday, for the first time, I spotted two young tuatara. One was a ‘baby’, just 10 cm long, sitting outside a large burrow, a metre off the path. The other was somewhat older: about 25 cm long, though it kept its tail in the burrow. From its location, I think it was Ngake or Whataitai, one of two incubated and hatched on the mainland in 2007, after their eggs were found laid on the island.
The island is special in so many ways – and there are always more discoveries to be made in just 25 hectares. For me, it is a microcosm of New Zealand: past, present – and possibly its future. I wrote on this theme in 2003 – it’s still apt today, so here it is, with some editing, and an update.
Tussles for Control – from the top of Matiu/Somes
From the highest point, I look across a microcosm of a nation: sheep-cropped slopes, macrocarpa, cabbage trees, brick and wooden buildings, an industrial complex. In the distance lies a darker, solid patch of bush. Where the ground levels out at the base of the hill, a stone wall keeps faith with an older rural past. Snaking up to meet it from the wharf is a sealed road, with disused streetlamps. Out of my sight, past the cemetery, is a field of jonquils and daffodils – in spring.
Even the lone macrocarpa at the summit reminds me of Auckland’s (former) One Tree Hill: the trig is the angular memorial. Raked eastward by the wind, the pine proffers two scraggly arms to the sky, symbolising the tenacity and dominance of European settlers.
Elsewhere on the island, the ubiquitous rural pine competes for attention with pohutukawa, but ecological purists would not have our homegrown Christmas tree here. No one actually knows how Matiu should be clothed, so long has she been under human occupation. However Forest and Bird planters have taken their cue from similar landscapes around Wellington: species such as taupata, tarata, horopito – natives struggling to regain control of territory once in their ‘full, exclusive and undisturbed possession’.
Most of the plantings are lower down. Here at the summit, only a few clumps of misshapen olive-green muelenbeckia (pohuehue) poke their way through the closely grazed grass. Browsed into submission by the sheep, the shrubs protrude like bits of brain matter from Matiu’s near-bald head.
And Matiu’s head is exposed. It’s last seven metres erased in 1942 to make way for four anti-aircraft guns to protect the land from the Japanese.
(Later, a friend says, ‘It’s kind of been decapitated, hasn’t it,’ not realising that a Maori woman’s headless body had been cremated and buried on the island, shortly before the last resident Maori population – Ngati Mutunga – fled for the safer shores of the Chathams. Taranaki migrants Te Atiawa gained control in 1835 before handing the island on to British settlers in the 1839 purchase of Wellington.)
Since then – 170 years later (in 2009), the island was officially returned to the Taranaki Whanui (incorporating Te Atiawa) as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement.
Walking down from the summit at the south end, I see the East-West ferry providing passengers with a roller-coaster ride – exhilarating, but safe. I pass an untamed pinus radiata that has found a place here. It spreads its branches carefree everywhere, unseen by its strait-laced mainland cousins. Matiu seems a place for growing mildly wild.
Matiu – daughter of Kupe, or Somes Island after the New Zealand Company deputy: it depends on your point of view. Either way, it’s a strange place for a sanctuary, this city-encircled island with a harbour moat for protection, home to our most ancient creature.