A Guide to Hitchhiking: 4) The Ride after a Long Wait is the Best Ride of All, despite the Rottweillers

There were many times on this trip when I accepted a ride that didn’t drop me off in town and I walked a while to avoid boredom. When I look back on the trip and think about how much of New Zealand I saw, I think of the walks between rides. It sounds odd in the abstract – the walks between the rides was where I saw New Zealand.

When I look back it makes sense. I was walking where nobody ever walks – along a remote stretch of highway a long way from the nearest town. I was seeing New Zealand that wasn’t cleaned up for people. I was on my own, so I had nothing else to focus on except the country around me. I was silent; no talking, no iPod. In that solitude I would have felt more a part of the countryside than if I was with others.

One time a geothermal power plant worker gave me a ride on his way in to work. Obvious in hindsight it might be, but in the morning everyone drives towards the power plant and they don’t leave until late afternoon. I spent an hour walking through the forest near the power plant waiting for a ride out. I still remember the green of the trees and the wet feel of the air.

Another time I was walking out of Blenheim and as the city faded into countryside I passed a kiwifruit farm and loaded up on a big bag of fruit for a dollar. I walked down the road eating kiwifruit with my thumb sticking out and big red station wagon stopped and gave me a ride. It was a surfer with a board in the back. He was a friendly chap and he took me down Highway. About halfway to Kaikoura he pulled over and parked right by a remote and unpopulated beach. It was a gorgeous place. If I had been smart I would have stopped too and gone for a swim and spent the day reading, but I was in a hurry to get to Dunedin to visit my cousin before I ran out of vacation time. So I walked down the road.

This day was warm where just a few days earlier I had been freezing on the road to Napier. The road curved along the coastline with the railway line running beside it. That part of the South Island has large mountains coming down to the sea with only a narrow flat strip at the bottom where Highway 1 and the train line run.

The first hour of walking was a joy. I felt the fresh salty air and thought of the surfer dude having a blast out on his own. I looked up at the mountains. A couple of cars came past at high speed without stopping.

The second hour was like the first, but hotter and sweatier. As it was getting close to noon the sun was getting stronger and I was getting grumpier. A couple more cars came by, but no stopping. I started focussing on the road surface – the stones, the hot tarmac, the culverts that allowed the streams that ran off the mountains to flow into to the sea.

Looking back, I think I had hit two separate problems. First, the road gets a rush of cars with each ferry from the North Island that dumps its load. It was a few hours until the next ferry so I was getting local traffic only. Second, it is hard to get the motivation to stop when you’re doing 100kmh, you are halfway between towns, in the flow of driving and just dying to get to your destination. Nobody stopped.

In the third hour I was hungry and ate more fruit. I had eaten so many of the acidic kiwifruit that my belly was feeling an ache. It was the lowest point of the day, maybe of the whole trip. Then a car pulled over to give me a ride, an old brown Cortina driven by a guy in his late 20s who beckoned me inside. I hopped in and put my pack in the back seat next to the two drooling Rottweillers sitting back there.

“It’s ok,” said the driver. “They won’t bite.”

I sat back down and faced the front. I could hear the dogs panting in the heat and feel their hot breath on my ear. We took off down Highway 1. I put my foot on a glass bottle so I moved it around to get a better position. More bottles. I looked down to see the passenger footwell was awash with big brown Speights beer bottles. I pushed through to the floor. Under the bottles was so rusted that I could see the roadway speeding past inches below. I let the bottles fall back.

I spent one of the happiest rides of my life trying to keep my feet on the side of the footwell, where there was less rust. The rest of the car matched the floor – the window did not wind down, the seat was all torn exposing the yellow foam and the engine was having a hard time coping with the load of two adults and two large dogs. I was noticing my driver’s interesting kiwi accent when I realised he was slurring. He was drunk, maybe residual effects from a huge binge the night before. Part of my mind was saying, “Get out,” but it was overruled by the bit that said, “Ah yeah, I don’t have to walk” and I sat with a smile on my face watching the twenty kilometers speed by.

He dropped me off in the middle of Kaikoura. As he put the car into gear to leave, the engine stalled and I had to give him a push start. It was the least I could do.


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