Murders, rapes and people on P. I was warned: stop hitchhiking or there’s a good chance it will go wrong. But would I listen?
When I first got to New Zealand, I realised that public transport was going to be pretty expensive when the half an hour journey from the airport to the city centre cost me $16. In all fairness, I had just come from Ecuador where buses cost $1 per hour, and in many respects it’s unfair to compare New Zealand with South America. Nonetheless, it was a bit of a shock. So when the Sunday bus connection to Raglan didn’t work out, I thought it was time to start sticking out my thumb.
This first dalliance with hitchhiking was indeed pretty safe: I was with three other guys who I’d met in the hostel in Auckland. With so many of us we were lucky to catch a lift, but standing on Whatawhata Road in Hamilton was a winner. Within ten minutes we had a ride. All good.
In Raglan itself, I realised that if I wanted to go surfing I was going to need to hitch to the beach. And on all occasions it was fine. People picked me up, even with an 8 foot board in tow. All decent people, who on a couple of occasions even lent me a wetsuit. Can’t complain.
So when a lift to Auckland airport to meet a friend fell through at the last moment, it was a no brainer: hitchhike.
My first pickup was a warm, smiley man who dropped me at a better spot. It started to rain.
A woman stopped when she saw me standing alone, starting to get a bit soggy. ‘You really must be careful’, she said as she drove me a few miles up the road, ‘follow your gut instinct and if it feels dodgy, don’t get in. There are some bad people on P and there’s no reasoning with them’.
I later read that in the past ten years there have been two hitchhiking murders in New Zealand, that of 17-year-old Jennifer Hargreaves and 28-year-old Birgit Brauer. Both young women travelling solo. I thought about where I had packed my penknife and remembered that it was in a little section right at the bottom of my bag. Next time I hitched, I told myself, I would have it to hand.
Another time a sweet girl in her early twenties picked me up. She was really worried about me hitchhiking alone as a female. What did surprise me was that she picked me up with her young child in tow. It made me wonder: what about the opposite? – What if the hitcher was a bit of a psycho? The assumption is that a solo female traveller = safe.
A few days later I stayed with a family up north of Whangerei and I got chatting with the mother, Nellie. ‘When I see a female hitchhiking, I’ll always pick her up and then give her a telling off’ she said, ‘Women shouldn’t hitchhike alone.’ And hitchhiking full stop? In twos its fine, but alone, no.’
So what to do now?
Hitchhiking brings with it a real sense of freedom and adventure – who knows who you will meet? What conversations you will have? It is undoubtedly a great way to meet people, in many cases locals who are keen to share stories and history of their area. It In New Zealand, it has been a fairly common way of getting around. The most recent figures that I could find were from 2005 that showed nearly 16,000 visitors were hitching their way around the country, and although there was a predicted downward trend, these numbers should still be balanced against any negative statistics. Hitching is also sometimes more convenient than catching public transport and clearly there is the benefit of saving some cash, although it’s good etiquette to offer a bit of petrol money.
I was totally fine, but then I guess that I was also lucky. For now I’ll knock it on the head. If I start to travel with someone else, then fine, I’ll go for it again.