The mystery of Ruby Island

What’s in a name? Ruby Island continues to spark curiosity and inspire stories.

Ruby island has enjoyed a rich and varied history but still a few mysteries remain surrounding the beautiful island on Lake Wanaka’s shores. Most notably, the issue of how the landmass got its name continues to baffle and raise questions. 

The Upper Clutha Historical Records Society (UCHRS) investigated the issue in their newsletter, coming to the conclusion that, “No one knows for sure why it was eventually named Ruby but perhaps its shape like a teardrop-jewel has something to do with it.” Before the island was called Ruby, it had a myriad of other names, from Matakitaki (translates to mean ‘to gaze upon’), Merino Island (other islands in the lake were called Sheep Island and Ram Island), Roys Island (named after one of the earliest settlers) and Eely’s Island.

Ruby’s Cinema advertises ‘The legend of Ruby’ on their site, with two pages of highly detailed information surrounding a Chinese Irish-Catholic maiden born in 1911 whoses “remarkable, enchantingly exotic features and her fiercely determined iron will” captured the attention of the men of Wānaka. Rubys cinema claims she attended the first infamous cabarets on the island after having fled to Central Otago to escape an arranged marriage, alongside an array of other details. 

Ken Allan, Treasurer of UCHRS, questions the legitimacy of the tale, saying “the story simply doesn’t “hold water” and that the name Ruby Island was around as early as 1885, mentioned in the Cromwell Argus despite Ruby supposedly being born in 1911. Wānaka Sun reached out to Ruby’s Cinema about the inconsistencies, who responded by saying “The Legend of Ruby is entirely fictional!” This however, hasn’t stopped the legend from infiltrating common perception with Jo Mills, owner of Rippon winery which directly faces the island, said: “My understanding was [that] Ruby was one of the cabaret dancers but I may well be wrong!”

Ruby Island is infamous amongst locals for its wild cabarets that took place between 1927-1930. John Hunt got a permit to build a dancefloor on the island, which saw up to 200 people party on the island in outlandish fancy dress parties. Strict alcohol laws meant that these parties were technically “dry” but in name only, with patrons bringing their own supplies to the island. Partygoers managed to dodge suspicious police by watching for masthead lights on the water. 

After John Hunt’s departure to Maungawera in 1930, the island reverted to bush and was maimed by the occasional fire in the 1970s and 1990s. UCHRS sums up their findings by saying “an extensive planting project by local residents following the 1990s fire helped the island become what it is today” with working bee projects ongoing to preserve native bushlife. 


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