Arriving in New Zealand, I felt strange being in a country where I blended into the crowd and even stranger that everyone spoke English. I arrived in Christchurch, the largest city in the south island, without having any plans for my next three months. My goal was to spend as much time outside hiking, camping, and appreciating the beauty of nature.
Being at the end of my time abroad I’ll admit that budgeting my money was more of a concern than before. If I had been traveling with a friend I would have bought a car or van to travel around in. Traveling solo, I didn’t have the cash for a car or the desire to spend so much time alone. I considered getting a motorcycle, but I didn’t feel like having to deal with getting all the other gear as well. This left me with two options. I could take buses with to reach areas along the main road or hitchhike.
Hitchhiking has always seemed the ideal way to travel. It sounds like the best way to embrace adventure and truly let go to see what comes your way. I’ve always wanted to hitchhike my way around the world, but there has been a major shift of perspective on hitchhiking worldwide over the last few decades. No longer a common practice for a number of reasons, there has only been one place in the world where I have repeatedly heard glowing reviews on how easy and safe hitchhiking is – New Zealand. I have hitchhiked a few times in other countries, but I have never purely relied on it to get from one place to another.
I bought a small one-person tent and borrowed a sleeping bag from a friend. It was time to stop wishing I had the courage to hitch and just do it.
I received a ride to the outskirts of Christchurch from friends and walked to an ideal spot to stand. I like a spot where drivers can see me with enough time to slow down, room to pull over, and ideally something I can duck under if it starts raining. Reaching my spot, I unslung my backpack and took a deep breath. I was nervous and a little uncomfortable as I awkwardly stood on the side of road letting cars pass without raising a thumb or even my head. It took a moment for me to gather my thoughts. Finally, I took a deep breath and stood up straight, held my thumb out, and faced the gaze of every driver going past with a smile on my face. Looking back, I must have looked like a maniac with a permanent grin plastered to my face.
The beginning of every hitch starts out full of optimism, but after the first cars go by and time passes something negative can start to eat at the back of your mind. Yet, no matter how long you are standing on the road and how stupid you may feel being out there alone as car after car passes; it all washes away the moment a car pulls over.
After only twenty minutes (not long at all!), I received that mixed feeling of delight and relief as a car pulled over. I half jogged to the front passenger window and waited for the driver to roll down the window so we could chat. Instead, he just leaned over and opened the door.
“Where you headed?”
“I can take you as far as Geraldine, that work”
“Sounds great!” (I had no idea where that was.)
I put my bag in the back seat and sat in the front. I introduced myself and met Kevin. He became the first of a long list of wonderful people who would give me lifts around the country.
Exploring the South Island
I have traveled to many beautiful places around the world, but the ratio of beautiful nature to everything else in New Zealand is unbelievable. Combined with the easy accessibility of the nature, I found myself repeatedly blown away by my surroundings (and taking too many pictures of the same thing from angles I thought looked different). I am pretty sure New Zealand is the reason the panoramic photo was invented. I won’t be able to stress enough the beauty, tranquility, ruggedness, and awe that I felt, but from everywhere I went it was only ten minutes away. In New Zealand, you don’t have to look for nature because it finds you.
Traveling southerly from Christchurch, the only plans I had in mind were to make a clockwise loop around the island. Making my way from car to car and campground to campground, I visited the mountain ranges, east coast, west coast, fiordlands, southern tip, and the northern tip of the island. When I thought stunning views were all New Zealand had to offer, I found myself often at an arms length away from nursing seal pups, roaring sea lions, surfing dolphins, and hopping penguins.
Compared to Asia, the food in New Zealand is not very interesting, however, I did have an adventure the day I pried Pāua (abalone) off the rocks in Jackson Bay for dinner. Most days weren't as exciting and in order to save money I maintained a steady diet of peanuts, carrots, apples, and ham and cheese sandwiches. When it came to mealtime most of the other people I met felt bad for me, but I was perfectly happy with my meals (knowing it was only for a three month period).
New Zealand has a great system of huts throughout the country that provide hikers with a place to sleep, cook, and get water in the middle of wilderness. With over 950 huts around the entire country, there are amazing opportunities to spend days on the trail knowing you have a good place to sleep at the end of the day. I did plenty of day hikes around the country and a few multi-day walks. I honestly don’t enjoy challenging hikes, but the view from the top and sense of accomplishment is always worth it.
Exploring the North Island
After two months of meandering around the south island of New Zealand, I took the ferry from Picton to Wellington to start my travels in the north island. While the north island has some very beautiful areas it cannot be thought of on the same level as the south island. My favorite moments were around the Whangarei Heads, Bay of Islands, and Cape Reinga. When I came to the north island I no longer craved to be immersed in nature. Instead, I found myself looking forward to hitching for the sake of hitching and meeting new people.
Even with my new love of hitchhiking, I still had to have a general plan of where I was heading. I don’t think anyone wants to pick you up and find out you are mainly looking forward to just getting into their car and having a conversation for as far as they are willing to drive you. I decided my route of the north island solely based on the weather. When I arrived it was raining nonstop on the west coast and in the middle of the island. Following the sun, I hitched to the east coast and headed north following the coastlines all the way to Auckland.
From Auckland, I spent my final week traveling up to Cape Reinga, the most northern point of New Zealand. Reaching the lighthouse at Cape Reinga I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meeting. I also felt a sense of accomplishment for making it all around New Zealand solely by hitchhiking. Hitchhiking isn’t difficult when compared to physical accomplishments or overcoming mental challenges, but it has its own unique qualities. It might be the faith you have to have in others or the ability to maintain a positive attitude regardless of the situation. You need to believe that people will stop to help you and that you won’t come to harm. At Cape Reinga, I felt like I had just crossed the finish line and could only think of the numerous people who helped me on my journey.
Coming back to Auckland, I received my final ride from Azu. I had just been dropped off at an onramp to Auckland and was looking around trying to find a good spot to hitch from. In true New Zealand fashion, Azu spotted me and pulled over to the side of the road before I even had a chance to raise my thumb. It was a great last ride and indicative of all the wonderful people who had given me lifts over the last three months.
My Time Hitchhiking
In New Zealand, I received 107 rides from 129 strangers from twenty different countries. From these rides, I traveled approximately four thousands miles between both islands. About seventy percent of my rides were from New Zealanders. France (ten rides) and German (7 rides) made up the majority of the rides from other travelers. I was picked up five times by the very first car (always an awesome feeling). Four times cars pulled over asking me if I needed a ride when they saw me carrying my bag and walking down the side of the road. Twice I was invited into a home and offered amazing food, wonderful company, and a comfy couch or bed. Multiple times I was picked up by other travelers who I ended up spending anywhere from two days to two weeks together.
I received rides from a 17-year-old, 87-year-old, and everything in between. Men, women, and parents with children all pulled over. I received rides in campervans, sedans, old school convertibles, left-hand drive Ford Mustangs (cars drive on the left side in NZ), a seafood delivery truck, a bucket truck (used by arborists), a logging truck, other big wheeled rides, and even held onto dear life to the back of a jeep in the pouring rain as we hurled down gravel roads. Some drivers went well over the speed limit, while others moved at a crawling, torturously slow pace.
All in all, I experienced almost all there was. From the rich to the poor, young and old, big rides and cramped ones, I would ride in anything and have faith in almost anyone who stopped to pick me up. One time I ended up getting a ride from an Australian man tripping on acid. I do draw the line on seeing empty beer cans on the floor or the stench of alcohol, and I never took a ride when I felt unsafe (which happened to be never). Looking back, the acid-tripping Australian man was one of the more road attentive rides I had.
Enjoying the Hitch
As I’ve said before, I was often anxious and nervous standing out on the road waiting for the first ride of the day. Over time my initial hesitations and discomfort of standing alone on the road faded away. By the time I made it to the north island I no longer had any hesitations about hitchhiking. I could stand all day at the same spot with a smile on my face and have an enjoyable time rain or shine. I must admit that the most difficult thing I faced while hitching in New Zealand was keeping my arm raised for a long period of time. Looking back I never waited more than an hour for a ride and on average only waited about 25 minutes. I was never in a rush to be anywhere and I think that helps to not feel frustrated when you don’t get rides. I am never angry when someone doesn’t stop to pick me up. That just means that we weren’t supposed to ride together. I want to get rides from the people who want to stop, simple as that.
In the beginning, I hitched to get somewhere. In the end, I hitched to meet new people. I don't know why, but I loved never knowing who was going to pick up that day. Who would I meet? Back home it is actually rare to meet someone new and really enjoy a conversation together. There may be those lucky days where your mood, chattiness, and openness to conversation match that of your neighbor on a bus or flight and you get to meet someone new. I used to take the bus every day to work and I know those moments are rare. I realized that I began to look forward to hitchhiking simply for the opportunity it gave me to meet someone new and have a conversation.
Being in a car must be one of the best places ever to have a conversation with a total stranger. To start, a car is often an extension of one's home. A place where we feel safe from others, the weather, and can isolate ourselves from the world if needed. You’re not awkwardly facing one another as if you were on a date, hopefully managing to keep the conversation moving from one topic to another. You already share a similar goal of reaching a destination and it is easy to speak about any topic that comes to mind as you speed along the road. Worst comes to worst you can just enjoy the scenery. There is nothing wrong with a little silence here and there.
Not everyone who picks you up may be looking for conversation or even company. Maybe they just felt sorry for you on the road or decided to be a good Samaritan and save you from the oncoming storm. Regardless of what caused them to pull over, I found that I could find something of mutual interest to connect with my drivers about. Even the most reserved of drivers are happy to talk if you find the right topic or show that you are a keen listener.
I wasn’t hopping in a car expecting to be amazed by our topics of conversation. I knew it wouldn’t be as interesting as learning about tribal practices in Myanmar or headhunters in India. Instead, I learned to appreciate the story of every person I met, mundane as they might be. It was invigorating to meet new people every day and in the comfortable setting of their own vehicle, receive their stories in a rush or bit by bit. I often felt like a bartender listening to the stories of strangers or, on the flip side, an entertainer weaving my own stories and sharing my history for those interested in my life. I heard a range of stories about buying wool for 60 years, painting the dotted lines on roads, flying helicopters, finding love with that fourth husband, and more. I found that there was always something interesting to hear even if it may just be a plain old good story.
New Zealand was the first country I have ever spent an extended amount of time in that spoke English. It allowed me to have discussions on a range of topics and to a more detailed degree than ever before while traveling. I am not saying you cannot have incredible and meaningful communicative experiences between two people who don’t speak the same language. However, being able to speak English and really engage with almost everyone who picked me up was an experience I enjoyed and wasn't accustomed to.
Lastly, hitchhiking gave me an opportunity to meet New Zealanders. I was able to learn about New Zealand’s history, different foods, Maori culture and traditions, volcanoes, nature, and wildlife all from the passenger seat in the car. If it were not for hitchhiking, my experience with locals, especially Maori, would have been extremely limited.
To every single person who picked me up, gave me a wave or smile as they drove by, or took an interest in my well-being in New Zealand – Thank You. It was truly a wonderful experience full of hospitality I will never forget.
The End of an Adventure and a New Beginning
Returning from a trip abroad I know people will ask me if I think I have changed or grown in some way. I don’t think so. The changes, if they are present, are subtle. I like to think that I just happened to be part of a very long interactive documentary on the discovery or history channel. As I wrote in my one-year reflection post, I have strong feelings about who and how I spend my time. Most importantly, I am ready to return home and begin something new.
After moving from one place to another for so long you may think that I would look forward to being settled somewhere. Instead, I have an inexplicable urge to stay mobile. I am caught between wanting to be part of a community, which takes time to cultivate, and retaining the freedom to move. I have learned from my travels that moving from one unknown place to another around the world is a comforting and enjoyable state of being. Maybe one day I will be sick of it, but not yet!
Returning home, none of my goals revolve around work and I am, perhaps naively, under the impression that I will be able to find a solution that allows me to travel between friends and family in the US as I see fit. I am excited for the new challenge of supporting myself as I try to continue a vagabond lifestyle back home. I must admit that receiving a paycheck again will be a bit of a relief. After 19 months abroad it's time to come home!