New Zealand From The Road-Side

There are few modes of transport that offer the traveler a better view into the fabric of a nation than that of hitch hiking. From Jaguar-driving CEO’s to poultry-farmers in run-down trucks, I have had (and still have) the pleasure of being chauffeured from A to B by people from all walks of life. These experiences have led me to conclude that there are good people everywhere! The following is an account of my hitch from Auckland to Rotorua, a journey covering a mere 230 km.

Hitch 1

Rather than taking a bus about 45 minutes out of town to find a good spot on the motorway, I decide to take a gamble and try out a semi-dodgy spot right in the center of Auckland. I’m standing right in front of a sign illustrating the illegality of my activity with a fat line over a stick man in a circle. At least the drivers won’t see that so well then…

After 4 different cop cars have passed me, however, I realize that the Auckland Police probably have more pressing issues at hand. Nearly 40 minutes pass before a sporty old black Nissan pulls up. Young man, chatty, paying back his dues: “You see I lost my licence there for a while, nothing serious just a few speeding tickets, but that’s when I started hitching. Used to be a meek little man but that sure got me talking”.

He takes me even further than he was going himself, still only about 10 km but he sure knows his good spots. Drops me off at a perfect ramp with lots of space to pull over. In the 20 minutes I spent his car I get to hear about his latest dilemma: “My missus invited this incredibly good-looking Estonian to come stay with us and she is a stunner, I mean she is an 11 on the 10 scale, prancing around my house and hanging her g-strings in my yard and on top of that my wife only told me 2 weeks ago that she’s pregnant!”

Now where did that image go?

If only the picture was taken on this day, but no, rain, rain and more rain…

Hitch 2

As I walk to the spacious ramp I see a really old, beat-up ute parked there with the driver attending something in the cabin. Anxious to get a move on I swear under my breath and hope he’ll pull away soon. Hard to get anyone to stop when someone did already. Too bad it wasn’t for me, but then the driver sees me in his mirror, honks his horn and waves me over. My irritation turns to a big smile, how often do you go hitch-hiking and the next ride is already there waiting for you!

Willi from the pacific island kingdom of Tonga is a mechanic, but you couldn’t tell by looking at his ramshackle car. Only a box of wrenches on the floor gives his profession away, the ute itself feels like it could fall apart if I did a fart and he is struggling to keep it on 80 km/h. Nonetheless, Willi is great company and in one of those random “coincidences” it turns out that he once shook the hand of one of my heroes, an incredibly intelligent Danish engineer who got out of the rat race in the 50’s. Long before the hippies even grew a beard, he went travelling the world. Teaching himself how to navigate by the stars, he built a boat in California and set out for a pacific adventure.

In Tonga, however, he earned the Royal family’s trust and over the next three decades “Tavi”, as he was fondly called, became the chief engineer of Tonga, designing and overseeing the construction of countless schools, churches and houses all over the kingdom. Eventually he was given his own island where he lived by himself like another Robinson Crusoe only accompanied by a handful of wild pigs which he hand fed with the vegetables he grew, he himself being a vegetarian. Meeting Willy who, as a child met this mysterious character, only makes my longing for the pacific islands even bigger.

Willi drops me off after another 10 km and it seems I still haven’t left the geographically immense city of Auckland. I have to walk for a bit to get to the next ramp and as I pass a gang of three juvenile Maoris, eking out a living by washing windscreens at a traffic light, I get cheered on as they notice my bag and my card board sign with “Rotorua” written on it: “It’s over that way if you’re going south! Backpacking ey? Do this if you get stuck!”, one of them encourages me and waves his sponge and sweeper. Not a bad idea I think to myself and give them the thumbs up.

Hitch 3

A bright orange Ford-something-flashy saves the day. It is a hairy one that ramp. Not only is it clearly in paranoid suburbia with every driver either looking at me with contempt or deliberately ignoring me, it also starts bucketing down with rain. In the usual style of a hitch-hiker going loopy from the waiting and the weather, I am progressing from making up songs about my predicament to finally shouting out “help me god!” as the rain intensifies and starts lashing my face something brutal.

Then Jack comes to the rescue. If it wasn’t for the children seat in the back and Jack explaining that he’d just dropped off his boy at school, I definitely thought him to be as gay as it gets. Not that I mind of course, just one of those stereo-types with very long fingernails, high-pitched voice, moisturizer-saturated skin and extra long eye-lashes.

Turns out he is in fact gay, although he only lets that on when he starts talking about his partner who is a truck-driver from England. By that time I have already gratefully accepted his offer to get me out of the rain and into his house for a quick cup of tea before he will drop me off at a better spot. Jack is no doubt after a different kind of quickie than a cuppa, but I politely decline his suggestion.

I do take the cup of tea though, and we end up having a fairly pleasant chat in his partner’s über-designed house in the burbs of Auckland. Only Jack’s eyes with their mixture of sadness and desire give the situation an air of awkwardness. After declining his third and last subtle hint that he might be able to give me more than a regular ride, he promptly exclaims that it is time to get going.

Much as I am enjoyed getting out of the rain and having a hot cup of tea, I do feel very relieved to hear those words. He leaves me at an alright spot about 5 km from where he picked me up. At least the rain has stopped…

Now where did that image go?

I heard that New Zealand was a hitch hiker’s paradise but even so this is pretty special; a waiting place for hitchers!

Hitch 4

As far as big guys go, Karl is humongous. Kiwi-born and bred, Karl had moved to the states in his younger years and it comes as no surprise that he played American Football at a professional level. Except for that though, Karl is one surprise after the next. He is a Mormon for a start, hence his many years in Utah.

Fortunately, he is not the preaching kind of Mormon, but the compassionate and down-to-earth type. In fact, he is the nicest Mormon I have had the pleasure of conversing with, and as he drives a little more than half way to Rotorua, he tells me many a good story from his interesting life. Presently, he is on his way to deliver some drilling gear to “his boys” at a work-site somewhere out in the sticks.

Karl runs a company that prepares building sites with all manners of pipes for the building to get on the mains, that is; gas, water, electricity etc.. Pretty grubby work, and yet Karl is a journalist by trade. Looking at his massive frame and bald head, I think that this guy would be the most intimidating reporter to put in front of any politician, but perhaps he was even more intimidating doing what he did most in the States: managing hock-shops.

Hock-shops (or pawn-shops) offer a window into the most desperate layer of society, Karl explains. Being religious and thus obliged to follow a high moral standard, Karl says he never took in any goods that he suspected were stolen. Of course, he notes, one can never be sure, but to the best of his abilities he did what he could to be an honest pawn-broker – a bit of an oxymoron if you ask me – but I believe him. He’s seen it all; from needle infested teenagers with top-dollar diamond rings to wailing moms with hungry kids in their skirts pleading for a quick deal only to turn around the corner and blow it all in the nearest McDonald.

“It wore me out in the end”, Karl says with a distant look. Clearly not his favorite job. Now, back in New Zealand with his American wife and their 2 kids, Karl is drilling holes and doing the right thing it seems. At least he did for me. On saying goodbye, he gives me his business card and tells me that if I ever get in trouble he will help me out; “just give me a call, I know people all over New Zealand”. I believe him and stick it in my pocket for a rainy day…

Hitch 5

Karl leaves me at a roundabout in the middle of nowhere but promises to tell one of his guys to pick me up if I am still there by the end of the day. 15 minutes later that promise becomes obsolete as 78-year-old Philip from Holland pulls over and tells me to throw my bags in the boot with his rollator walker and ride all the way with him to Rotorua. Saved by an ancient bell!

Philip came to New Zealand in the 1950’s but still has as thick a Dutch accent as ever. Bent over the wheel, liver-spotted and overtaking any and every car he can, he tells me snippets of a life story almost quintessential of New Zealand’s massive immigrant population. He has been a plumber for most of his life although he never did do any formal training as such. His 3 daughters have settled on the North Island and he now spends many hours every week driving up and down the island to visit them. Wife died a few years ago and he is still marked by that he says. I grow very fond of this funny old man over the next hours time.

I tell him about my radio documentary that I am making and immediately he launched into a long praise of the radio media. Turns out Philip’s passion is listening to radio. Not just any old radio program, mind you, the more obscure and far away the better. Only last night, he tells me with much pride, he caught a local station broadcasting all the way across the pacific from the States. I doubt that the hill-billy radio host talking to his country-listeners imagined she had a Dutch listener in New Zealand. People never fail to surprise me with their quirky interests.

As we drive through some woodland, the conversation turns to one of New Zealand’s endemic species – the possum. Just across the ditch, as Kiwi’s say about Australia, the possum is a protected species, but here the possum is a much loathed creature with a permanent death-warrant hanging over his head. Anyone can kill possum and sell the skin while the government turns a blind eye to the – otherwise taxable – high income made from it. Of course I instantly have a vision of myself, deep in the Kiwi bush, with a possum-skin hat, a gun and a gutsy knife, on the prowl for possum.

Being the kind man he is, Philip drives out of his way to drop me off in downtown Rotorua. Approaching the centre from the suburbs, I begin to sense what the fuss is all about – this place is special. Steam is rising out of sewers at a rate that would leave any film-noir connoisseur dizzy, not least because it smells exactly like rotten eggs, or to be more exact: sulphur. This town is one big stinking thermal lakeside and I can’t wait to get out and see why 67.000 people think it’s so great to live right in the middle of a planetary stinker…


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