Yeti’s Thumb: Hitchhiking in New Zealand

Before going to New Zealand, we talked about trying to hitch our way around. By all accounts, it’s the best country in the world to hitchhike. And as both a good way to meet people and a cheap way to get around, it’s kind of ideal.

Refined Hitchiking

Refined Hitchiking

And then we got to New Zealand, and hemmed and hawwed a bit. What if no one picked us up? What if it rained? What if it took all day to get 50 k? In the end, we went with the Naked Bus as our primary transportation. (Reading and listening to music are both important to us on long trips).

And then fate intervened. We scheduled our bus from the wrong part of town, and by the time we realized it wasn’t just late (a common enough occurrence), it was half-an-hour gone. We could have stayed in the hostel another night, but Rachel’s sister was expecting us. And we had another bus to catch the next morning.

No, the answer was clear. At long last, our day of hitchhiking had arrived.

It was a sunny, clear, hot day: not at all the typical NZ summer day. We waited about 20 minutes and the first ride came along. They were just back from vacation in London and were down to cut wood for their winter getaway. A nice older couple that discussed traveling, NZ politics, and Gangnam style with us. The woman said they never picked up hitchhikers and joked about hoping we didn’t have a knife.

We didn’t. They let us off about 20 minutes down the road, but in a much more strategic location (outside a small town whose name I was barely cognizant of.) Rachel scrambled up the woods and had a pee while I unsuccessfully hitched. (It does seem ideal to hitch as a couple. Everyone in the world wants to pick up a nice, smiley girl. No one really wants to pick up a big, beardy guy. But no one will mess with a smiley girl that has a smelly guy with her. It’s win-win!)

In Between Rides

In Between Rides

It didn’t take more than 15 minutes for a St. Johns volunteer named David to pick us up. He lived a small town of 100 people, with his family, and subscribed to the one-world order of conspiracy theory. (The ruling powers meant to turn NZ into a timber industry, but they had outsmarted them and made too much money with dairy). He was a genuinely nice fellow and even drove a little extra to help us out.

Now were on the proverbial side of the road. Rachel joked that she wanted a big truck to stop. “I’m pretty sure that only happens in movies,” I told her. It was hot, and we waited for a while here. All the traffic passing us was going our way, but the problem was there wasn’t much traffic.

At last a group of three cars stuck behind a big truck showed up on the horizon. “One of these is going to pick us up,” I predicted confidently.

They didn’t. The big truck did. “Only in movies, eh?” Rachel’s eyes said to me. We climbed up into the high cab. “She’ll have to sit in your lap—don’t think you’ll mind too much,” were the driver’s first words.

He had been all over the islands, driving his big rig and had a wealth of stories. Originally from Wellington, he left because of all the “eye-ties.” He took us north for an hour: much further than we asked. This was our longest ride of the trip.

It was sad to climb down from his cab. Now it was after 5:00 and we were outside another town. Lots of people heading home passed us, but it was less than ten minutes before a shy livestock-transporter picked us up and drove us to the road that led to Cambridge. Unlike the previous three, he was content not to talk and we didn’t exchange too many pleasantries.

He dropped us off 15 minutes later and we were still taking our packs off when a Welshman picked us up. He had come to NZ 23 years ago on a working holiday and had never left. He also hadn’t been to the South Island. He was great, and the easiest of all five to talk to with lots of tramping stories and such.

We arrived in Cambridge presently, and, thanking him, jumped out. We were in the center of town, waiting to hear from Rach’s sister. Three minutes after we arrived, we saw the Naked Bus rolling in. Despite ceding it a half-hour start, and waiting for more than an hour in various places, we had beat it into town!

Bonus Beach #1

Bonus Beach #1

We felt our hitchhiking couldn’t have gone any more smoothly, so it was a natural to try again in the Coromandel. We had taken the bus to Whitianga, a great little town I wish we’d spent more time in. But there was no more public transportation to get around the peninsula.

We had a couchsurfing date (a whole ‘nother story) across the island so we set off bright and early one morning. On our way to the highway, still walking and no thumbs out, a guy pulled over: “Hop in, guys.” We did, and had a merry time with him. He was late for work, late enough that his boss was phoning him, so his taking the time to pick us up was pretty cool.

He let us off at the Coroglen junction. From here, it was a one-shot across the peninsula. What we hadn’t realized from our maps was that it was an unsealed road, and not a very popular one at that. However, we had been there less than two minutes when a 16 year old kid in a battered jalopy drove past.

No way he’d pick us up, we both thought (probably). He did, of course. And it was one of our best rides. He told us about growing up in a small beach town, of joining his father in the mines of Australia, of building a single-rider airplane with his class, and lots more.

The road was nearly deserted and he said he hadn’t seen other traffic on it during the day, ever. We might have waited there all day, if he hadn’t come along. Phew. I bought him a coke when he dropped us off at the Tapu store.

We walked to our couchsurfing gig, and that’s another story, but the next day we walked back out to Tapu and hitched our way up to Coromandel Town. It only took one ride (once Rachel started hitching with me) and it was another guy who was a wealth of information about the area. He hit on Rach a bit, but he also played Bob Marley so overall it was a positive experience.

A few days later, it was time to leave Coromandel Town and head back to Whitianga to catch our bus the next day. It was a Sunday, and we only had 45 K to go. I had hopes of making it back in time to revisit Hot Water Beach. But we were due some bad hitching luck, and we both knew it.

Standing on the highway that led directly from Coromandel Town to Whitianga, we waited two hours, watching car after car drive past us. Now, those drivers didn’t owe us anything, but so many were fancy new cars with only one person that it just reinforced the fact that people with lots of money pay with a corresponding loss in humanity.

Bonus Beach #2

Bonus Beach #2

At last, though, a black SUV with a single lady and her son stopped. This broke all the rules, (single men, old vehicles) and it was great to chat with her. She even stopped a scenic viewpoint and showed us Auckland.

She wasn’t going as far as we were. She had a second home in a town that has less than 100 full-time residents but over 5000 around Christmas time. We actually went into town with her and checked out the beach and made some pb&js.

We walked back out to the highway and waited for another hour. Less traffic passed us now, but plenty still did. Then another exception to the rule: a 20-something lady who drove us another 15k down the road. We thanked her and realized that we were at a beautiful beach. This was nice, but frustrating. It would be so nice to go swimming, but being all wet and sandy wouldn’t improve our chances much of more rides.

Bonus Beach #3

Bonus Beach #3

We got into this weird habit of hitching for about 20 minutes, then moving ahead to the next likely spot. We did this for about 2 hours. For the first time, we saw other hitchers (their motorcycle had stopped working) and had to go past them to find another good spot.

It was hot and our water was running low. We’d been hitching for 5 hours and had only come 32k. But at least we’d ended up next to some manic sheep who entertained us with some frenetic bleating, along with a guy who sold plums and knives out of his yard.

A lot of cars passed us. One stopped and offered us water. It was a day of exceptions, and two Canadian doctors who studied nearby at last stopped for us and took us back into Whitianga. We passed some German bikers who had set off just before us from Coromandel town and waved.

Six-and-a-half hours after we set out, we arrived in Whitianga. And, of course, we headed straight to the beach.

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