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March 26, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Te Wai Pounamu

Hitchhiking: Saves you money! Gains you new friends and free buds! Also good for that thing we call the planet.


I, like many of you, my dear readers, do not own a car. I have never learnt to drive anything that needs a clutch so instead I hitchhike all around my home, the South Island, Te Wai Pounamu.

Now, there are three good reasons to resist buying that cute VW and instead rely upon the kindness of strangers to pick you up by the thumb. The first is economy – petrol is just too bloody expensive, and since it’s all imported, guzzling gas is not only bad for your pocket, but for the trade balance of the entire nation. Second on our list is saving the planet. However, if everyone decided to cut their carbon footprint by hitching a lift to work, there would be no one left to pick us up, and we would all be left feeling cold and stupid by the side of the road. But while we hitchhikers are so few, hitching remains a good way to reduce our share of emissions. Finally, hitchhiking is a great opportunity to meet strange and wonderful people with many a tale to tell. Let me share some of these tales with you. Before we begin, I stress that everything written here is perfectly factual, even though some parts may seem a little far-fetched and others too clichéd. But hey, the South Island is a weird place. We shall discuss the habit of hitching in this fair land, listen to some famous hitchhikers, and mention some of hitching’s highs and lows. But we begin with one particular journey I took this January.

One Day in Summer

Since I spend my summers working on an apple orchard just out of Nelson and I do not drive, I have to rely upon the friendly folk of this region to give me lifts whenever I stick out my thumb – usually this takes about five minutes. And this summer, something like one-third of my rides wanted to get me stoned. Bogan chicks in Slayer T-shirts, Danish tourists, random dance-party aficionados…you get the picture.

But what makes this all worth telling are the two strangest rides I got – one after another on the same journey. On Saturday 20 January, I wanted to hitchhike from Mapua (famed for its nudist camp and DDT- infested former pesticide factory) to Nelson. After walking around to the pub on the highway corner, I came across a fisherman sitting on a log. He asked if I toked before gifting me half a joint since he had toked enough. A car then pulled up to give me a lift – a fairly dodgy-looking driver rolling his cigarettes as he drove up the hill. The driver then stared at an old car for sale by the side of the road:

Him: He’s asking $200 for that crapped out piece of junk?
Me: Huh?
Him: I know the guy who owned that. Totalled it a couple times, speeding pissed, you know. Ran over and killed a girl on the switchbacks.
Me: Oh… (fidgets)… that’s awful, he must feel pretty terrible.
Him: Huh, he’ll be in jail now. That’s him for the next seven years.
Me: (repeating by rote my received ‘wisdom’ about jail):And then emerge even more angry and having learnt a few things from hardened crims, no doubt.
Him: Well, it depends on the person. Some people come out of it with their head down to avoid going back inside. Spent some time in there myself. Not a lot of fun.

So I mentioned an article I read the other day about prisoners’ friends filling dead birds with sacks of P and tossing them into the prison yard. Him: Oh yeah. At Tawa we had a tennis court, and we’d tell our families to put ounces in tennis balls and throw them in at such and such a time. The guards are pretty lax, they don’t have the time to deal with it.

I did not ask what he was in for. I was in his car.

I did not wish to fidget awkwardly. He told me horror stories about being locked in a prison van with an angry vegetarian and another con who had (accidentally) eaten the only vegetarian prison-meal the night before.

Then he dropped me off in Richmond, where I was picked up by three rather hot skanks in a black van they had borrowed/stolen from a mate to take them to town. I hope they don’t mind me calling them skanks – which they were – since I acknowledge their hotness. They lusted vocally over all the boy-racers – or, rather, their cars – as they drove by. Since the van’s back door didn’t open, they got me to dive in the side window and curl up next to a spare exhaust-pipe, then dive out again at Stoke, where I walked past a bogan woman with a giant purple bash-welt all over one side of her face, pushing a babe in a pram. A nice respectable couple then drove me to the port hills, over which I walked to town, meeting, on my way, an old man waiting for the comet. He rambled at me about how Nelson is less friendly these days before informing me that he liked to sit and talk to strangers since his wife had died.

Hitchhiking: A Kiwi Tradition in Danger

An informed source – my well-traveled English flatmate – tells me that hitchhiking is far more common in our country than elsewhere in the world. He adds that most of the hitchers he has come across here have been ze Germans (although personal experience tells me that it is still a common pastime among young Kiwi males). German tourists – along with Israelis – are also the drivers most likely to pick you up, presumably because they see our country as safe, friendly and relaxing in comparison with where they come from.

According to Tourism Research Council figures, around 15,700 overseas visitors hitch-hike in New Zealand each year. But these Research Council figures also show that hitching is the seventeenth most trafficked mode of transport (out of 22) – ahead only of walking, helicopter, other, “don’t know” and “refused to answer”. And while hitchhiking may still be popular, it is no longer as common as it once was.

Evolving out of the ‘swag-man’ tradition of hobo migrating workers in nineteenth century Kiwiland, hitchhiking became an institution during the war and depression era (1914-45), when the use of motorized farm trucks became more common and a large number of men who were not tied to the land (either through poverty or enlistment in the army) found themselves in need of lifts.

Canterbury-based author Joe Bennett is a strong supported of ye olde thumb travel – in 2003 he published Land of Two Halves, an entire book devoted to his hitchhiking escapades around Aotearoa. He has likened hitching to “the confessional”, a place to tell random strangers strange things about yourself. He also described standing on the road with your thumb out as the freest feeling one can experience – yet says that hitchhiking will die out in this land within the next decade.

A decline in the popularity of hitchhiking can be linked to increasing fears about its safety, for both hitchers and drivers. The case of Mona Blades, an 18-year-old who disappeared without a trace while hitchhiking between Napier and Taupo back in ’75, remains unsolved after three decades. And in September 2005, the body of 28-year-old German hitchhiker Birgit Brauer was found dumped in a gully in the ‘Naki (the local accused of her murder stands trial this July). Then last winter, a Wanganui man was run over by a car and killed while hitching near Masterton. The more horror stories we hear of the Killer on the Road, the more hostile we become, and the less likely we are to lend a hand. And that is a bloody tragedy, mate.

While these stories are scary, remember that every form of transport is dangerous.

Personally, I’ve found creepy religious-conversion advances far more common than creepy sexual advances (by a ratio of about 4:0). In terms of physical safety, the biggest problem I have encountered is not so much drivers’ aggression towards my person, but to the road – some of these guys are just really bad drivers, and the worst tend to complain loudly about everyone else on the road while swerving wildly. One manic fisherman I hitched with overtook on the left of several cars, missing a Pentecostal billboard by an inch.

So how can you keep yourself safe whilst hitching? One method is to text the number-plates of all your rides to a friend or family member. Of course, this won’t actually stop your ride from murdering you, but at least it means the police will be able to catch him afterwards and return your corpse to your family. And that’s something, isn’t it?

But seriously, less than one in 50 of the rides I have hitched have given me anything to worry about. Hitchhiking has its dangers, but if you keep your wits about you, you’ll be right.

The Author: Hitchhiking ‘cos he’s Too Dumb to Drive

My personal hitching habit comes from growing up in a small town 40 kilometres from Nelson, and baulking at the cost of buying a car, maintaining it, and paying ten bucks in petrol for every single trip into town. This left me facing a simple choice between hitchhiking to town, or having no social life. I chose the former, and the first ride I ever hitched was with a shaven-headed lesbian couple driving to the Gathering on the morning of 1 January 2000, when my considerably hungover friend and I had to return to our village after a night of revelry.

Since then, I’ve hitched some 300 rides (a loose estimate, since us hitchhikers generally aren’t anal enough to count things like that). From the humble beginnings of my regular hour-long Mapua to Nelson ride, I began hitching over to Golden Bay dance parties in hippy vans and on the back of utes. A group of young guys once stuck one of their party in the boot just to give me a seat.

Later, while attending uni in Dunedin, I hitched up and down Te Wai Pounamu, from Picton to Wanaka, from West Coast to East. Some areas are friendlier than others – in Nelson, it rarely takes more than five minutes to get a lift. On the other hand, the south-bound highway from Dunedin and the north-bound one from Christchurch have nowhere decent to stop, so it can take a couple of hours – don’t forget your iPods, kids. Blenheim and Timaru are just plain dodgy, so it’s always good luck when you find a lift passing straight on through these holes. The West Coast is fairly easy going, and it’s beautiful. Do try.

The best thing about hitching is meeting folk. Maori Party MP Hone Harawira has described hitchhiking as a great way to meet his constituents. In October 2005 he told The Press that becoming a politician made hitchhiking a lot easier: “Now I’m an MP, every man and his dog wants to pick me up.” He added: “These are people who might never come to a meeting, most aren’t members of the Maori Party, but they see an MP and think `how cool is this, I’m going to have a chat to him.’”

In my experience, Nelsonians – and especially rides through Golden Bay – tend to shout you free weed, although sometimes people pick up hitchhikers in the hope that we can shout them, so it’s best to take a wee bit in your pocket to pay the drivers when on a long journey (a mate of mine always holds up a bag of lollies beside his thumb). The conversations vary wildly, from boring old guys who want to offer you fairly haggard life advice, to those German and Israeli tourists who always have a few tales to tell. I have had a number of philosophical conversations with Christians who wanted to lure me over to their side, and sat through half a dozen rants from the mouths of bitter men who wanted Helen Clark to die out of the cancer. I once hitched into town so I could go to WINZ and get a job, only to be picked up by a bearded guy who built houses in the shape of boots (and used to stand for the McGillycuddy Serious Party), and who offered me a job on his vineyard.

Nelsonians tend to talk about the weather and housing prices. Mainly housing prices, actually, because while “yup it’s pretty sunny” always gets thrown into the conversation, it doesn’t provide much room for elaboration, now does it? West Coasters talk about the Coast, which is kind of like a big,wet, beautiful monster. Dunedinites talk about all sorts of things, from the best ways to genetically engineer immortal humans, to the best places to go for a pint. Blenheim folk talk about their cars, and Christchurch folk tend to talk about their jobs (plus, of course, the Crusaders. You would too if your team was that good).

The people you will meet while hitching can also serve as a great destroyer of stereotypes. When I was a skinny little 17-year-old nerd, I hitched a ride home in a beat up station wagon driven by four great hulking Maori guys: Wiremu, Wiremu, Kingi and Rangi. They were wearing denim jackets with gang patches and they were covered in tats and piercings. I sat down in the back between two of them and they said “Hey, you know we’re gonna kill you, right?” I sidled nervously and said “Errr… no you’re not.” Then they burst out giggling. They shouted me a joint and tried to make me eat fried chicken, but, despite my ingrained fears, they were good blokes.

The worst thing about hitching is the fear, and the waiting. Waiting for up to two hours while the drivers who pass by make these inane hand signals, as if they’re trying to tell me why they aren’t stopping.

Now look, if you’re not going to pick me up, I don’t care why and I’m not going to begrudge you for it. You are under no obligation to give me a lift. But please, just stop with the hand signals. Of course, what’s really annoying are the retards who wave their thumbs at me. Them I do begrudge, as well as the boy racers who like to slow down so that I think they’ll pick me up – and then speed off again.

But it’s the fear that really sucks. I have never been in any serious danger, but you have to worry just to keep yourself safe. So unless I get picked up by friendly hippies, I tend to put on working class airs in an effort to hide my queer side. Being in someone’s car gives them power over you; this is fair enough, but it’s uncomfortable. So hitchhiking is a mixed bag – I do recommend it, but be careful. Now I’ll leave you with a couple of tales: the best ride I have ever hitched, and the worst.

Bricks and Christmas Spliffs

The worst ride I ever hitched picked me up in Timaru, on one of my frequent Dunedin to Nelson journeys (these tend to take about ten lifts from end to end). I was trying to hitch while tramping up a hill out of town, and this tiny beat up car stopped. The raggedy and irate-looking man moved around some scuba gear to let me in. He said he’d take me most of the way, but when on the road he began his erratic tailgating and road rage manoeuvers – after bitching about how slow everyone was driving, he would tailgate each vehicle he came across, before overtaking it, cutting it off and repeating with the next vehicle. He then regaled me with his woe-is-me life story, from the Family Court taking his kid away, to his son’s girlfriend ripping him off. And then, he told me why he was going up to Nelson: to put a brick through his son’s girlfriend’s window. He proceeded to explain to me why she deserved this particular action. Now, I didn’t feel in much danger myself. I have gotten pretty good at those working class airs. But he was still a scary fuck, so I said I had to get out for a shit at Ashburton. He replied that he couldn’t wait for me, so he dropped me off and I hitched to Christchurch with a friendly Polynesian ice-cream maker returning from a Destiny Church meeting down south.

My second worst hitchhiking experience came when I tried to hitch home to my village from town at 2am one morning. Cars do not stop at 2am – they generally cannot see guys in black coats stumbling beside the road. Of a 20 kilometer journey, I walked 15 before the sun came up. The first car to pass me after it became light took me the last five kilometres.

So, when a year later I again tried to make the same journey with my thumb at 2am, I dreaded the worst. This time it was Christmas Eve, and it was beginning to rain. There were almost no cars on the road – one looked hopeful, but it passed by before turning aside into a Shell station, and I kept walking, convinced I would have to spend the holy evening under a bridge. And then this same car pulled out of the gas station and stopped. I was ecstatic, even more so when I saw that the car was driven by a sweet cherubic goth boy. As I got talking to him, it turned out that he had been flatting with a friend of mine, and halfway through our journey we pulled into a side street beside an orchard, where he pulled out a big spliff. By the time I got home, the rain was pelting down so hard that it had flowed out of the gutters to drown the road – but hey, my thumb had saved me. Hitchhiking rules.

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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