Standing on the side of the road waiting for a stranger to let you into their car is something that might seem crazy to some of us. Hitch-hiking is something that is very familiar to me.
My experience started with a 36-hour race from Exeter University, in the UK, to see who could get the farthest without spending any money. In the Channel Tunnel, we were introduced to a network of lorries transporting fish around Europe that took us to Amsterdam. When I heard stories of how easy and enjoyable it was to hitch-hike in New Zealand, I knew that I had to try it.
The opportunity arose when Laila and I had to make our way to the Coromandel for our stay at Wilderland. Under the guidance of a friend, we caught the train to Masterton. This was apparently the easiest place to catch a ride up to Napier, where we planned to stay for our first night. It was Laila’s first time hitch-hiking, so I assured her that if we stood on a long stretch of road where we were visible, and smiled, we would be picked up.
After a short wait, a car slowed down, pounding with rap music, and offered to drive us up to Woodville. Now, this first ride was probably the most questionable of the trip. Speeding along narrow roads, we were grateful the ride only lasted an hour.
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On another wait for a lift, a man pulled over and told us we were in the wrong spot, so he drove us to where we stood a better chance. We waited in the rain and hoped someone would take pity on us. After a drenched few moments, an elderly couple slowed down and told us they were travelling to Napier. Shocked at how easy this day had been, we got into their car and drove off.
We talked at length about their visits to our respective home countries of the US and the UK. They offered us their house for accommodation, however, we had already accepted a couch-surfing stay. We told them our route and they mentioned they had friends who could lodge us in the Coromandel. Having studied history, they talked us through the history of Napier and how it was rebuilt after an earthquake. The couple even offered us a walking tour of the city, but sadly it was getting late, and we didn’t want to keep our host waiting. Dropping us to our door, we took their contact details and bade farewell with hugs.
After a charming stay with a local man and his son, we took his dog for a walk around Napier and then decided to hit the road. A lifesaver on this trip was Hitchwiki, again recommended by my friend. This regularly updated website notes the best hitch-hiking spots around New Zealand. Under this guidance, we headed to a petrol station on the outskirts of Napier, with Taupō in our sights.
Again, the weather was not in our favour. Torrential rain meant cars sprayed past us, interrupting our smiling and waving with winces and cold shivers. The sun began to break through the dense cloud as if predicting our change in fortunes. Waving us over to her car, we were introduced to Jade. Excitedly telling us about her new life in Napier, she had the day off and wanted to explore the area, happily deciding to drive us all the way to Taupō. Stopping in at her house, we chatted and waited for her friend to join us. After a tour of the garden, her friend showed up and we were off on our road trip.
The conversation ranged from our upbringings through to shared enthusiasm for New Zealand’s flora and fauna. Deciding to make the most of their day off, our drivers took us to many scenic spots along our route. Slowing to a halt, our jaws collectively dropped at a scenic waterfall lookout and as it plunged through a sprawling, dense forest we commented on all the different shades of green visible in Aotearoa’s landscape.
Arriving at Taupō we were shown a spot on the lakeshore where a hot spring surfaces. The water heats up the sand and surrounding pools, making for a beautiful natural spa session. After grabbing dinner in town we were taken to Kerosene Creek, a spot where Jade had spent a lot of time as a child. Cold rain soaked our skin as we gazed out at a vast expanse of steaming water. Many lakes in this area are geothermally heated, the absence of wildlife around the pool added to the eerie silence.
Making our way through the dense native bush, it was special to see this landscape through the eyes of Jade, who had not been back since her youth. Telling us stories from her childhood, we found a secluded spot to bathe in the waters. The stream that flows through the woods here is warmed by the Earth’s energy. It was beautifully quiet, interrupted only by birdsong, rainfall and our flowing conversation. After playing a competitive game of Jenga with the riverbed rocks, we headed back to Taupō. Having spent an amazing day with Jade we hugged, said goodbye, and checked into our hostel, taking a newfound friendship in our stride.
We stopped for two nights in Taupō, finding the opportunity to rest and enjoy the mountainous scenery. Our second night was spent on the hot sand by the geothermal spring, our toes in the water, watching one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The next morning we made our move to Rotorua.
Under the guidance of Hitchwiki, we found a spot on the outbound road next to a glassblowing centre. The rain found us once again, but we were swiftly picked up by an electrician driving to Rotorua to pick up parts. This journey was mostly taken up by discussing sports in the US with Laila, and unable to contribute much, I sat and looked out at the rain-soaked countryside.
The rest of our journey was marked by shorter trips, as we left Rotorua for Mt Maunganui. Driven by another girl who had the day off and was looking for something to do, we were taken to the door of our couch-surfing accommodation. Deciding to stay for two nights, days were spent relaxing on the beach and walking around the Mount. Our nights were taken up by watching sunsets and exploring the bars and clubs that the town had to offer.
Once we left Tauranga, we managed to get to Wilderland in just one day. Hitchwiki recommended a spot in Bethlehem, on the road up to the Coromandel. A common theme ran throughout this trip, we were taken to Waihī by a guy who was visiting home and had the day off. After stopping for lunch, we were quickly picked up by a guy who was driving home to Whakatāne. He told us stories about the area he grew up in as we drove through. A highlight was pointing out a hill that it is a tradition to run up on New Year’s Day, he recounted stories of pounding headaches and throwing up.
At the final hurdle in Whakatāne we faced our longest wait, wrapped up in debate of where to move to and just as we were picking up our bags, a man slowed to a halt and offered to drop us to Wilderland. He told us about his love of hiking, how he was planning to walk the Te Araroa trail.
Deciding we had enough time in the day, we were driven to Hot Water Beach. Here, towering pōhutukawa trees perched atop rugged cliff faces. Another hot spring surfaces here, its common practice to dig pools in the sand, bring a packed lunch and spend the day steaming. Having explored the beach thoroughly, we were taken all the way down the turbulent dirt track to Wilderland.
Trips like these are a credit to the people of New Zealand. Folks could not have done more to help us on our way, using their days off to go on adventures with complete strangers. The longest we waited on the side of the road was probably 30 minutes.
We arrived at Wilderland having met a network of amazingly kind people ranging across the spectrum of Aotearoa’s society. It was a wonderful adventure and affirmed my faith in the kindness of strangers, which enabled us to travel 613km without spending a single penny.
Andy Leake is originally from the UK but is travelling around New Zealand as part of a working holiday visa. You can read more about his adventures here.