Question: Where in the world does nature’s coldest “sandpaper” yield the bluest river imaginable?
Answer: Hokitika Gorge, New Zealand
When you enter the dramatic Hokitika Gorge on New Zealand’s South Island for the first time, you may think your eyes are playing tricks on you. The river isn’t just blue—it’s intensely so, a turquoise that far outpaces the hue of the sky above and contrasts dramatically with all the surrounding greenery. The only time it’s not vivid blue is after a storm, and even then, it’s still eye-catching, as the water becomes a milky, paler blue that looks like someone has melted marbles. What gives?
The secret lies in the river’s glacial roots in the Southern Alps. The slow movement of glaciers abrades the alpine slopes like sandpaper on wood, yielding not sawdust but rock flour. The melt that flows downward from the Alps to the Hokitika carries the nearly imperceptible rock flour with it into the river. Because rock flour is so fine and ethereally light, it doesn’t sink, but infuses the water. When sunlight hits the Hokitika, the water itself soaks up the red, orange, and yellow long waves, while rock flour attracts the indigo and purple shortwaves, reflecting the blues back at the viewer. With no glacier doing its working of tilling the mountainside, the river would look just like any other.
The stunning beauty of the water might just help distract you from your nerves if you take advantage of the gorge’s other main feature: the swing bridge. The delicate-looking span is composed of a 16-inch-wide wooden path held aloft by a wire suspension system. It can be a bit heart-stopping when the whole thing bounces, as it does if someone runs across it or even walks too heavily. But that motion is built in; it’s part of what keeps the sturdily engineered bridge intact, keeping you safe to enjoy the almost unreal beauty of the river itself.
7 More Unusual Things You’ll Find in Hokitika
- By day, Glow Worm Dell (Kumara Junction Highway, Seaview 7882) looks like a lushly forested mini-canyon, but as the sun goes down, the “lights” come on. The natural luminescence of many thousands of glow worms turns the green glade into a magical, glittering fairyland.
- Kiwi birds hate the sunlight, which means spotting one in the wild can be a challenge. The National Kiwi Centre (64 Tancred St) makes it easier with its eternal nocturnal habitat, where (once your eyes adjust to the dark) you can enjoy views of the quirky national icons at play indoors. (While at the Centre, meet the giant eels too!)
- Should you be visiting Hokitika at the end of New Zealand’s summer, you can join 15,000 revelers with adventurous tastebuds at Wildfoods (Cass Square). This outdoor food festival offers somewhat startling fare like mountain “oysters” (lamb testicles), colostrum “shooters” (of pre-natal cow’s milk), huhu beetle grubs, wasp larvae ice cream, and deer pizzle jerky.
- If you’re going to dedicate an entire shop to only socks—and then christen it Sock World—you might as well go the distance and add a museum in the back, right? That’s what they did at Sock World & Sock Machine Museum (27 Sewell St) which has hundreds of varieties of knit footwear on display, as well as a collection of historical Circular Sock Machines with colorful names like the Quiknit and the Imperia.
- What odd menu item draws in-the-know food bloggers and even world-famous chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi to Hokitika? The bizarre-sounding but delicious whitebait pizza at Fat Pipi’s Pizza (89 Revell St). The one-size-only special pie boasts tiny immature fish tossed in egg batter, with garlic butter, lemon juice, and mozzarella. Once a word-of-mouth sensation, its popularity on Instagram is letting the secret out.
- The founder of Bonz n Stonz (16 Hamilton St) wanted to meaningfully connect people to the ancient Maori arts of carving bone, jade, and paua. Visitors bring (or purchase) their own pieces of material and, with guidance, learn to carve them onsite, experiencing Maori tradition firsthand.
- As humble as the Hollywood sign is grand, the Hokitika Beach sign (72 Beach St), is a beloved local institution. The individual letters are made from pieces of driftwood found on the beach. When nature wipes out the sign, locals diligently create new letters, knowing that the beach entrance rivals the swing bridge for most photographed spot in town.
Discover the unique delights of Hokitika when you join O.A.T. for Australia & New Zealand: An Adventure Down Under.