Australians don’t deal well with hitchhikers. It’s generally accepted wisdom in this country that hitchhiking is for people who are either a) missing a few screws or b) keen to wind up in someone else’s car boot.
It’s fair enough really. Australia is a big country, it takes days to cross and hitchhiking can mean long stints in cars with complete strangers. Plus the whole Ivan Milat thing wasn’t exactly good PR for standing on the side of a highway with nothing but an outstretched thumb for protection.
Regardless, it’s a shame that hitchhiking is looked down on here. One of my favourite travel experiences in South America was hitchhiking between Punta Del Diablo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Of course I didn’t tell my mum at the time, but it resulted in heaps of enjoyable adventures. Despite a distinct lack of conversational Spanish, my friend and I were invited to eat Parilla (grilled meats) on a beach, smoke cigarettes and chat rugby with a suave Argentine and (bizarrely) inspect real estate with some prospective buyers.
But if Australia has closed its doors to this wonderful pastime, then New Zealand has very much kept them open. Hitchhiking is common practice for many travellers in New Zealand, including locals and the international visitors.
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On my recent trip to the land of the long white cloud, I preferred to play the enabler to the drifter’s form of transport. I hired a car — a ’98 Nissan Sunny — to drive around the South Island over the period of a couple of weeks. My planned route was to do a complete loop of the island while checking out some of the sights and sounds.
My first trip took me north from Christchurch to the whale-watching town of Kaikoura. It was there that I encountered my first hitchhiker.
His name was Fred and he was from Milwaukee. Fred told me he was a teacher back home, but he preferred to be called a vagabond. Over the next few days he would refer to himself by that term on more than one occasion.
And Fred was right. I have never met a person so well-travelled. He told me he had been to around 100 countries and hitchhiked in many of them. He said he was planning to thumb his way around the South Island, across the Tasman Sea and up to Auckland. After telling Fred that I had a car to myself and that I was planning on driving north to check out the Marlborough wine region, he propositioned me for a ride. Figuring he would make better company than the Sunny’s dodgy AM/FM radio, I accepted.
Fred was good company. On the two hour drive north we proceeded to learn about each other’s lives. I told him I was a journalist who enjoyed travelling alone because it gave me the chance to meet new people. He said every time he returned home he would immediately plan to leave again. We made it to the sun-drenched Marlborough by midday and proceeded to hire some decidedly rusty bikes for the ride out to the region’s famous wineries. It was a thoroughly enjoyable time. One which I had expected to be doing alone, but was made all the better by Fred’s company.
Citing our lovely day and common interests, Fred asked if he could join me again for the next leg of my journey. Far from feeling he was a freeloader, I said yes. We saddled up for the drive to the town of Nelson. He was a talkative bloke, regaling five stories to my one. Not that I minded. He had experienced ten times the things I had, so I was happy to listen.
We made it to Nelson, one of the loveliest places I have been in the South Island. Apparently, it receives the most sunshine in all of New Zealand (not a high water mark, I’ll admit).
From there I told my companion I was keen on visiting the nearby Abel Tasman National Park. I had heard it was one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. Unsurprisingly, Fred wanted to join me. Feeling the strain of our brief roadside relationship building, I said it might be best if we go our seperate ways. Clearly experienced in such rejection, Fred said he understood. And so we split. With radio turned up to 11, I hit the road for the scenic West Coast.
But the radio didn’t do it for me. I needed another hit. Within an hour I had picked up another hitchhiker, an ice climber from Canada. And so on it went.
So next time you see someone with their arm out thumb extended backward think about giving them ride. Who knows, you might even enjoy it. And they probably won’t murder you.
This blog is inspired by Blog4NZ, a grassroots group of New Zealand bloggers encouraging travel blogs to write about New Zealand from March 21-23. It’s all part of a movement to encourage travellers to book flights to New Zealand and help the badly-hit tourist industry get back on its feet after the devastating Christchurch quake. Crikey doesn’t normally participate in these types of things, but figured New Zealand could do with a bit of publicity. And Japan, and Queensland and northern Victoria and the rest of them.