There are a few ways to traverse the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand – catching buses, renting a car, or hitchhiking. If you’re like me, you’ve never considered hitchhiking an option. My friend tutted disapprovingly, muttering about safety, when I told her I was thinking about it. So why would you risk it?
I wanted to keep my options wide open during my solo trip to New Zealand, which meant I didn’t want to be tied to a bus schedule. I was on a budget, which made the thought of buying tanks of petrol unappealing to me. Plus, New Zealand is relatively safe, and I was up for something new.
What followed was absolutely one of the best two and a bit weeks of my life. I also think it made me kinder, braver and more appreciative of other people. So if you’re ready to throw bus schedules in the bin, put your faith in others, and go where the traffic and the wind takes you, how do you hitchhike in New Zealand?
The first time I attempted to hitchhike in New Zealand, I was nervous as hell. I stood by a road leading out of Picton and stuck my thumb out awkwardly, sure that the people walking by were secretly laughing at my clear lack of nous. Every time a car drove past, I thought about giving up and renting a car.
Ten minutes in, an elderly man stopped and gestured to a spot further up the road. “You’re not giving them any room to slow down to a stop,” he advised. Sure enough, after I’d walked a few hundred metres up the road and tried again, a car pulled up.
Hitchhiking goes against everything we’re taught as kids – mostly, DON’T TRUST STRANGERS. But be brave: it’s totally doable, and not only that, it’s fun.
Now the less fun stuff. I never felt unsafe trying to hitchhike in New Zealand, but at the same time, you are voluntarily getting into an enclosed space with a stranger. So be safe: if you get offered a lift but get a bad vibe, it’s okay to say no. The easiest way is to ask where they’re going, and tell them you’re going a different way.
If you want to be extra careful, you can ask to take a photo of the car’s licence plate, and text it to a friend (or at least pretend to). Most drivers understand that hitchhiking can be risky, and will be fine with it. It also pays to be aware (and conscious) during your shared journey. Not only is it a bit rude to catch a ride then snooze the whole way, you’ll be more able to notice when things aren’t right.
Hitchhiking is not for Type A folk. Shit happens, even when you hitchhike New Zealand, a country well suited to it: it starts raining and suddenly no one wants a wet backpacker on their leather seats; you hitch a lift into a tiny town and but then can’t figure out which road leads out when you’re trying to catch a ride out; or, for no reason at all, you just can’t get a lift.
I never waited more than 30 minutes or so for a lift, but that can add up. Don’t over-schedule – it’s much less stressful, and gives you time to take detours if something interesting comes up.
While one of the joys of hitchhiking is its unpredictability, it pays to have backup plans. One day, I hitchhiked from Wanaka to Aoraki, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. I hitched lifts from a lot of great people, but by the time I got to Aoraki, it was looking grim and stormy, and after an hour, it started to rain.
I wanted to do one of the trails, but the weather wasn’t in my favour. On top of that, all accommodation on the mountain was booked out. I started panicking: what if I got stranded on Aoraki with no shelter except a yellow raincoat? I decided to head back to the road, and after a tense 20 minutes, caught a lift back out. I got lucky, but it could’ve turned out a lot worse – always have a Plan B: a hostel booking, an AirBnB, bus route, or even a tent.
If you give them a chance, most people are surprisingly great. I hitched lifts from a retired farmer, an environmental scientist, and a blacksmith and his puppy, Jack. Other hitchhikers helped me out, and I even crashed with a fellow hitchhiker when I impulsively decided to detour to Kaikoura, a gorgeous beachside town, only to find out there was literally zero accommodation.
Hitchhiking only works because people go out of their way to help others, so I think it’s so important to pass that on and be kind to everyone you meet on the road. It’s good practice for life, too.
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(All images: Unsplash)