How to hitch a ride in New Zealand

We love New Zealand’s South Island, but – how can we put this nicely? – the public transport is rubbish. Obviously if everything goes to plan for your through-tramp, you don’t need to worry about it. You just walk blissfully from one end of the island to the other. Easy.

But in the likelihood that you decide to skip some of the long road walking sections, or (and this is almost guaranteed) the changeable weather causes you to turn back from a particularly gnarly section, don’t rely on network of buses or trains to save you. Instead, prepare to give your thumb a workout on the side of the road.

This is exactly what happened on our Nelson Lakes section of the Te Araroa. Warnings of gale force winds turned us away from the notorious Waiau Pass, reputed to be the toughest day of the whole trail, and back to the teeny tiny village of St Arnaud.

That’s okay, we thought, we’ll just hitchhike to nearby Murchison to resupply and then head onto the next section beginning at Hanmer Pass.


But the hitchhiking gods had other ideas. For almost three hours in the heat of the day, our thumbs went unrewarded. We waited and waited, watching car after car after car sail pass with drivers giving little more than an apologetic shrug. Or, worse, ignoring our existence.

Back in the cool comfort of the cafe, we pondered desperately about what we were doing wrong. Every other time we have hitched, it’s taken less than 15 minutes to get a ride. Why should this time be any different?

So, to save other people from our fate, we’ve picked some travellers’ brains and put together 10 essential tips for hitchhiking success:

1. BE A GIRL. Girls have more success. End of story. There’s a urban TA legend of a girl named Sarah who only needs to think about sticking her thumb out and three cars will pull up alongside her.

2. SMILE. A smile goes a long way. Nobody wants Mr. Miserable in their car moaning for the next hour about how long they waited for a ride and how many sandfly bites they suffered in the process.

3. WEAR SUNSCREEN. In the event that you do have to wait a while, don’t let your skin suffer.

4. BE CONFIDENT. Apparently, one of the things that sets the legendary Sarah apart is the way she puts her thumb out. She sticks that thumb out like its the best thing she could be doing with her time, like any car would be lucky to have her (and her thumb) in their presence.

5. HOLD A SIGN. You might only want to go to the next town, but drivers don’t know that. Their biggest fear is that they’ll be stuck couriering you half way across the country. One guy told us about a couple of hitchers who added a little caveat to their sign: We won’t murder you!


6. LOOK LIKE YOU DON’T SMELL. The thing about cars is that you’re sharing a confined space with other people. So if one of those people happens to smell like they’ve been hiking sans shower for the past eight days, that could be somewhat off-putting. Even if you do smell, try and look like you don’t.

7. BEG. Mat swapped his thumb for the begging position. It didn’t work, but it did get people to respond – mostly by pointing to the kid/suitcases/tools/junk taking up their back seat.

8. PLAY GAMES. Hitching can be dull, so play games to pass the time. Mat and I took turns drawing rapid sketches of each other and writing limericks.

9. BE A GIRL. Seriously, this is the only way to guarantee success.

10. THINK BEYOND THE ROADSIDE. After three hours, Mat had the genius idea of asking at the DOC information centre if any staff commuted to Murchison, our destination. And what do you know, they did! When the lovely Jo finished work at 3pm, she drove us 45 minutes to the door of our backpackers, regaling us with stories about the trails along the way.

Two days later, fed, showered and caffeined to the max, we put all this advice into action to get a ride from Murchison to the trail head for Lake Sumner Forest Park. And after just 30 minutes, two wonderful Brisbane physiotherapists invited us to jump in and took us the whole way!

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