I have always been fascinated by hitchhiking. But always much too timid to give it a try. I’m female, I’m not overly strong, and lets face it – Hitchhiking can be portrayed in an awfully frightful way in the media. If TV were to be believed, then pretty much everyone who picks up a hitchhiker is probably a serial killer. Or a rapist. Or BOTH!!!
That’s not the case. In New Zealand I have hitchhiked 5076 kms (thanks Google Maps) and have not once been murdered.
My love for spreadsheets has caused me to look up the distances to everywhere I have travelled so far in New Zealand, organize those journeys by mode of travel, and also figure out the average price for taking the bus. I broke the journeys into three categories: Ride shares (obtained through couch surfing), Hitchhiking, and Bus journeys. I looked up prices on the two main bus companies in New Zealand, Intercity and Naked Bus.
Based on this formula, I have been shocked to find that I have travelled 7930.8 km’s in New Zealand! 5076 by hitching, 1931.5 through rideshares, and only 923.3 by bus! If I had paid for all those journeys through the public transportation network, it would have cost me around $1349 NZD, and two of my destinations I would have been unable to reach unless I signed up for a special tour. In contrast, I managed to spend only $150 on bus fare, which is a saving of $1199! Not to mention that by hitch hiking we often got to take a more direct route to our destination which might not have been possible with the bus since there are limited route options.
So, from a budget travel perspective, hitch hiking is definitely an option to consider!
There are other worthwhile reasons to consider hitchhiking as well. Hitchhiking allows you to meet the local people. If you are just backpacking through a place, then hitchhiking may be your only opportunity to meet the ‘genuine’ locals – the ones who are not in the tourist industry. You will meet people who you would never have met otherwise, and you will be in a situation where you are forced to get to know them.
Most drivers pick up hitchhikers so that they have someone to talk to during their long drive. The things you can learn from people is astounding. During our travels around the south island of New Zealand we managed to learn about almost every facet of the logging industry from the drivers who picked us up.
We rode from Blenheim to Kaikoura with a Maori man who worked as a tree planter, and continued to do so even after he was paralyzed by a tree falling on his back. Over several years he managed to learn to walk again, built his muscles back up, and now he is back on the job. The man was built just like the trees that he plants. From Westport to Nelson we rode with a man who inspected the timber processing plants, and who in his spare time was working his way through the ’1001 albums to listen to before you die’ book. And from Nelson to Blenheim we rode with a forestry scientist who was investigating the adverse environmental impacts of poor logging processes.
Other amazing encounters during hitchhiking included the man who gave us a list from just outside Dunedin to Omaru. He had gone to the same college as James to be in the merchant navy. He was just one of four ex-merchant seamen. The girl who took us from the lonely road between Napier and Taupo all the way to Tauranga workes on the film ‘The Hobbit’ and swerved to avoid every bird which flew onto the road. Another women was a lawyer who campaigned for social justice cases.
We also experienced some amazing acts of kindness and generosity on the road. Thrice we were unable to reach our destination in just one day, so the people who had stopped for us offered to let us stay at their homes. We ended up camping in the backyard of a retired couples holiday home, in a kiwi orchard, and even staying in the spare room of some lovely farmers.
We would have met none of these people on the bus.
As a result of my experiences hitching around New Zealand I have complied a list of my top tips. These are not just applicable in the land of the long white cloud, but will help you no matter where your destination is.
- Make a sign! We were advised by some of the people that picked us up that they only pick up people with a sign, even if they are not able to read it. Having a sign indicates that you have a destination, and are not just a drifter.
- Have your backpack visible. This is related to the previous point, as it shows you are a traveller. People are more likely to stop for travellers it seems – as we are perceived as not much of a potential threat.
- Have a map. Often the ride who stops for you will only be going part way, and its good to be able to quickly refer to your map to know just where they are going.
- Stand in a place where you are visible from a distance (so as to give them time to slow down and have a look at you and your sign) and try to stand in a place where the cars have enough space to pull over. This is especially important if you want to hitch a ride in semi-trucks, as they have restrictions as to where they can stop. Standing near petrol stations is great for catching rides in trucks. Standing just before the sign which allows traffic to speed up when entering the highway is great if you want to catch a ride in a car. This is because they will have their attention caught by the sign, and then will notice you, and because they will be going slow enough to stop for you.
- Make eye contact with the drivers! This is not always the case. Sometimes if you start doing something awkward, like making a sandwich, that will be the time that people stop for you.
- When you are getting dropped off, try to get dropped off at the far end of any urban centres so that you don’t have to navigate the city by foot/ public transport. Also, if you get dropped off before the urban centre, most of the traffic will be going to the centre and no further, so it will seem like no one is stopping for you.
- Try not to give yourself strict deadlines! If you NEED to be somewhere by a certain time, then consider booking a bus for peace of minds sake.
Once you do get picked up, it is important to remember that it is your duty to the collective of hitchhikers around the world to make a great impression on the driver. Make conversation and ask lots of questions. This is one of the greatest opportunities you will have as a traveller to really get to know some locals.
So I know what you are thinking… “well these tips are all fine and good, but what about safety!” Safety is definitely a priority, and by exposing yourself to more situations you are also exposing yourself to more potential dangers. The best advice regarding safety is to use your common sense and trust your instincts. If you don’t feel comfortable accepting a ride from someone, then don’t! You are not obliged to ride with everyone who stops for you. Travelling with another person will definitely be a much safer option, and some drivers are actually more likely to stop for two people than just one. Especially if you are a couple. Couples are seem as the most non threatening it seems – because the drivers are concerned for their safety as well!
The first time I hitchhiked I did it alone. I was in Leigh, about an hour away from Auckland and there wasn’t a public transport option. I was feeling really self conscious and silly holding up my “AUCKLAND” sign scribbled on the back of a beer box. The second driver stopped for me. The guy who drove me to Auckland was friendly and chatty and was on his way home from a day out surfing. He dropped me off near my house, and from that moment on I was hooked.
Since then I have hitchhiked with dozens more people and I cherish the experiences. From chatting to the Maori mom who wanted to speak with an adult after driving an hour with her three young kids in the back, to the artist from Dunedin who was on her way for her first gallery show -all the people I met who were so kind as to pick me up, have enriched my experience of New Zealand.