Have you read On the Road by Jack Kerouac? Of course you have, you little hipster you. If not, it’s a manic love story about life on the highways of America. Jack was the OG travel blogger, and the book will make you fall in love with America, traveling, or both a little. Or at least make you go on a roadtrip.
Either way, in much of the novel, the protagonist is flat broke and manages to get across the country through a series of intense moochings – crashing with ‘friends’ he met once at a party, hopping on and off moving trains, and… hitchhiking.
This was obviously pre-Ted Bundy, when hitchhiking around the US was a common occurrence. But throw in a few serial killers and the modern, sensationalist network news machine, and hitchhiking in America went the way of gluten. Nobody does it anymore.
Hitchhiking was never something that was on my bucket list, nor had I ever really considered it a valid mode of transport. It was from a different time, Jack’s time. When people inherently trusted each other, which is definitely not right now. But somehow I found myself on the side of the road outside Queenstown, New Zealand, holding a cardboard sign that said “Wanaka” while my sister held up her thumb and smiled at every passing car.
And so began a 523 km/325 mile journey up the west coast of the south island of New Zealand without paying a dime for transport. My friends who were living in Queenstown convinced me I needed to at least try it, with even the ‘cheap’ buses that ply the route being super expensive thanks to summer and last minute bookings. And in a total of five trips, we found ourselves in Greymouth, where we had our very first paid drive.
Saving some money was nice, but want to know the best thing about it? The people we met!
Frieda and Emma – Queenstown to Wanaka – 67km/42 mi.
Two Dutch (Swedish?) girls picked us up just outside Queenstown, promptly repacking their campervan to make room for my sister and me and our bags. We made the typical traveler idle chat for a while before we tuned into the iPod as we wound over the mountains. We only spent an hour together, but we reveled in the fact that we were sharing our first hitchhiking experience (theirs as drivers, ours as riders) together!
Day 1: Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier
Allan – Wanaka to Haast – 142km/88 mi.
We owe a huge debt to Mr. Alan – he was by far one of the best people that could have picked us up. A Kiwi in his early sixties, he not only waved off our offers to pay for gas, he actually stopped at popular hikes and waterfalls in the area and let us explore a bit, all while giving us a rundown of the history of the place. It was like being on a guided tour, but without the price tag.
I Can’t Pronouce, Let Alone Spell (2 Israelis) – Haast to Fox Glacier – 121km/75 mi.
These two were Israeli friends from outside Jerusalem who had just finished their turn in the Israeli Army. They loved the fact that we were American (thus I learned firsthand the impact of controversial foreign policy) but weren’t so fond of Obama. Loved Bush, though. We had lots of talks about American films, television, and music, and I told them to YouTube the Hannukah Song by Adam Sandler after we had a long conversation about his films. I kind of wish I could have seen their faces when they listened to it.
Lee – Fox Glacier to Franz Josef Glacier – 23km/14 mi.
The day was getting long and we were worries that we might have missed our chance to catch a ride the short distance between the glaciers, but like a knight in shining armor, DUDE and his cute golden retriever showed up to save the day! He was a construction worker originally from Manchester who had been in NZ for the better part of 20 years, and we squeezed into his tiny two-seater. Beth happily shared the hatchback trunk with NAME, the dog for the quick drive.
Day 2: Franz Josef to Greymouth
Olly and Mom – Franz Josef to Greymouth – 173km/108 mi.
We owe our greatest debt of gratitude to this hilarious pair, a young Maori guy and his chain-smoking, opinionated mother who cursed like a sailor. They happened to live in Greymouth, and had been in Franz to do some painting, which was the family business. Listening to their banter was like listening to a comedy routine, and Olly was an awesome DJ for the stretches between conversations.
New Zealand is probably the last country on earth you can safely hitchhike (that could also be entirely untrue), and I’m glad that we pushed ourselves to give it a try. Not only did it save us nearly $300, but we got to have contact with local Kiwis in ways we never would have otherwise. Afterward, we lamented our failure to take photos with each of the people who drove us, but they will live on in our hearts forever.
Disclaimer: The south island of NZ is safest for hitchhikers; buses or car rental are recommended for the North. As usual, common sense and your intuition are your best guides. Never get in a car with anyone who gives you a creepy vibe, and be especially careful if you are a solo female.