The first time I ever hitchhiked was to get to work. I had landed a job waitressing in a local Vineyard on the incredible Waiheke Island, just off the coast of Auckland, New Zealand. The walk there was almost an hour uphill, in humid air, for a 7am start. Everyone insisted that hitchhiking was the best way to get there. Reliable, quick, and if they did so happen to murder you, there’s an accurate list of everyone living on, or visiting the island. The hostel-owner waved down my first ever hitch – a red jeep – and the driver dropped me off so quickly that I arrived half an hour early. From then I hitchhiked to work almost every day for half a year. I was never late.
I was 18 and fearless, and from then on, I hitchhiked the length and breadth of New Zealand. With a few exceptions, it was totally unnecessary to pay for any kind of public transport, to book anything, or to take one of the dreaded backpacker busses.
When I began hitchhiking with a friend (@TravelBlagger) we began making up all sorts of rules for Hitching:
• You won’t get picked up in City centres;
• You won’t get picked up by people with kids or pets;
• You won’t get picked up by people with nice cars or boats;
• You won’t get picked up on the highway.
All of these were proven wrong over time. Once, leaving a town we had struggled to get to, we reminded ourselves of our rules, thinking we could be there all day. Just then, a man with his two year old, and a puppy, in a flashy sports car, complete with a boat, pulled up beside us. He drove us to the door of our next hostel.
The longest it ever took us to get picked up was leaving Rotorua. This was either because we happened to pick a bad spot, or because the people of Rotorua are very bored of hitch-hikers. It took us three hours, and, when we eventually did get a lift, our driver began to take us into the middle of wood country, in the wrong direction. We tried to explain the mistake but, annoyed by the confusion, the driver kicked us out at the nearest gas station, and we sat for another hour and a half watching huge logging trucks blast down the country road at an unstoppable speed. Finally, a lady in a little blue car stopped for petrol, and we had the time to plead with her to give us a lift, at least to the nearest highway. She did us a deal. She would not take us to our destination, but to another nearby town, and we could try our luck from there. We eagerly accepted, and, by just going with the flow, ended a wild day with a random Skydiving trip. A day hitching is what your make of it.
If you want company, you can pick up hitchhiking buddies in hostels all across NZ. Sometimes the other person is just negative; whines, complains, and forgets that you’re literally begging for help on the side of the road. But, usually, you feel safer, the wait is more fun, and it feels less like a waste of the day. It’s a great way to make close friends quickly, I hitchhiked for a month with a girl I met in a hostel, just by taking it day by day.
There is a lot of debate between hitchhikers about whether it is easier to be picked up in a pair or alone. In general, gender stereotypes prevail. Women are picked up more frequently, whether alone or in a pair. Men I hitchhiked with were surprised at how the speed of the pick-up changes with a female traveller, and even hung back and let me stand on the roadside alone to be less “intimidating.” Sometimes male drivers are less willing to pick up girls travelling alone – or at least that’s what they say when they stop for you. They’re “worried they’ll look creepy.” Older women, or mothers, stop much more frequently when you are girl travelling alone.
I travelled in a three for a time, and we easily got lifts, but this was in the South Island, where many people are driving larger cars or trucks, or other travellers will let you in the back of their caravans. We had all met in hostels down the west coast, and finally we met up with another couple who were also looking for a lift. Standing by the side of the road in a five was originally kind of a joke, and after a while of laughing about it, we discussed splitting up our turf in order to get a better chance. Suddenly, a guy in a campervan pulled over, let us all and our backpacks pour in, and asked us if we wanted to hit up a bird sanctuary on the way.
I still feel like five of us getting a lift together was kind of blind luck.
The only place in New Zealand I was told not to hitchhike, was the north-west of the North Island. Around Auckland, up to 10 mile beach and across to Tauranga. (Getting down from the Coromandel Penninsula to Tauranga is fine.) These areas were associated with the most crime on the Island, with some gang-affiliated routes. These are literally the only areas in the whole of New Zealand where I didn’t give it a shot. Especially because I was by myself. A great way to move about for cheap in these areas is to check hostel notice boards for other travellers with cars who want to share gas prices.
I would also not risk it if you have something booked in and special, because Hitchhiking can never be 100% reliable. For example, we bought a bus ticket to make sure we got to Hobbiton on time, and in the north east of the north island I hired a car – the roads up there are so empty and I was constrained for time.
Administratively, the best thing about Hitchhiking in NZ is that you can go nearly anywhere and see anything, without having to pay. But really, the best thing is connecting to the people that live and travel there. You have conversations with people you would otherwise never meet, and form a weird instant bond of trust.
Kiwis are passionate about their country, and they want to show it off. For example, a guy picked me up around the lakes of the South Island. I told him I was headed to Hokitika, but I would love to see the Pancake Rocks. He thought for a minute. He was on his way to a meeting in Hokitika, going via Punakaiki and the Pancake rocks would add an hour and a half to his journey.
“You know what?” he said, “If we go to Punakaiki can we stop at a lake on the way?” I eagerly agreed, and off we went. He pulled over at a random lake and, to my surprise, pulled out his togs (swimming costume), changed, and threw himself in. He assured me I did not have to join him, but I had a swim with a stranger, teasing each other about snakes in the water. We stopped at Punakaiki, and he bought me a coffee, he wasn’t interested in walking the tourist path but if I was back before he finished his, he would take me on to Hokitika. He had a muffin waiting for me when I got back to the car. It wasn’t even weird.
This was pretty typical. Several lifts bought me coffee or a snack, and nearly all took different routes than they were planning. They’d stop to point out features on the horizon; to drive on beaches rather than the highway; to pause for a minute at national monuments, or to look out for whales. One woman stopped the car and told us to run out to the lighthouse on the peninsula, because then we would have touched the most southerly point on the island. An old farmer suggested a change in destination – he told us the secret of Porpoise bay, how the penguins came out at sunset, and that if you walked into the sea and clicked your fingers, Dolphins would swim up to you and nudge your legs. Some of the most incredible travelling experiences I’ve had, I’ve shared with strangers.
• Never get in to a car if you feel in any way uncomfortable, and don’t let travel companions talk you into it. I once talked a friend into getting into a car and, though his khaki fatigues, rope and literal chainsaw were actually only there because he was a woodsman, it’s maybe not something I would do now that I’ve listened to a few more true-crime podcasts.
• Try and sit in the front if possible, in case the car has child locks in the back
• If you’re travelling in a pair, have a safe-word for getting the hell out. @TravelBlagger and I developed one after one driver wouldn’t stop talking about how he liked to kill animals with a machete.
Before you get in, tell the driver you just quickly have to send a photo of the number plate (licence plate) to a friend/your mum/your dad, and, if you can, include the driver in the picture from the front of the car.
I would go through these actions even if I didn’t have any signal. 100% of the time, the drivers were thrilled, they told me what a good idea it was. If anyone had ever been uncomfortable with it, I wouldn’t have got in the car.
It’s performative, I know, and does nothing to fully protect you from an attack, or a particularly smart psychopath, but it gives you an extra gage of the person. It lets the driver know you are taking actions to ensure your own safety, and that people know where you are and who you’re with. It cuts the opportunist out of the situation.
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