The safest thing to do, hands down, is: DON'T HITCH HIKE! If you have any serious concerns about hitch hiking in New Zealand, don't do it. The New Zealand Police advises, accurately, that "Hitch hiking can be dangerous". Indeed. Of course, driving yourself around in a campervan can be dangerous too - our roads are narrow, often very windy and hilly, and of course we drive on the left hand side of the road. So hitch hiking may not be for you.
Not so long ago, you could stick out your thumb and get a ride just about anywhere in the world, secure in the knowledge that the worst that would realistically happen would be that you didn't get where you were going as quickly as you wanted. People hitch hiked all over the US, all over Europe, even in Asia, Africa... and, of course, in Australia and New Zealand.
Now most Western societies are more careful than they used to be. People will often strongly advise you not to hitch hike, because of the risk of being picked up by undesirable elements who might wish to do you harm. Indeed, it's now illegal to hitch hike in many countries, and certainly, in many cases, a little ill advised.
New Zealand is, in general, a pretty safe place to hitch (and it’s still legal). Just find a stretch of road that gives drivers time to see you, has a safe area for them to pull over, and stick out your thumb. If you're an international traveller, i.e. you have a foreign accent of some kind and that indefinable hint of exotica that comes with being "not from around here", you'll almost certainly find hitch hiking in New Zealand to be safe, efficient – ok, free - and, in many cases, wildly adventurous.
It is by no means unheard of for Kiwi drivers to invite you home for dinner, or to stay in their homes for a night, or a week. You might get offered some work out of it. You might get the scenic detour, travelling down roads known only to locals that showcase New Zealand's extraordinary range of stunning scenery. You'll certainly get to meet "real Kiwis", and, for sure, you'll be "off the beaten path".
This isn't to say that hitch hiking in New Zealand is absolutely safe. Because you are, by definition, putting yourself in a situation where you are, literally, trusting your life to the good character and safe driving of a stranger, there is always a chance that things could go wrong.
If you DO want to try hitch hiking in New Zealand, some basic precautions are in order:
- If you can, hitch hike in pairs. This *may* mean it's harder to snag a ride, but obviously two of you are safer than one.
- Engage the driver in a little conversation before getting in. If your instincts tell you not to get in the car, guess what - DON'T GET IN THE CAR! Statistically, you've probably just turned down a perfectly good ride, and even offended someone - but that's a better outcome than getting into trouble. We can't emphasize this enough - there's no law, other than an unenforceable social contract, that says you must get in a car that has stopped for you while you're hitch hiking.
- If for any reason you start to feel uncomfortable once you're in the car, just ask politely to be let out immediately. Make up any reason you like.
Now, the important stuff - if you want to succeed in picking up rides, the best methods, field-tested by Active New Zealand staff over the last two decades are:
1. Be a girl. It's the thermonuclear weapon of hitch hiking. Most decent law abiding drivers are as concerned about picking up dodgy hitch hikers as decent law abiding hitch hikers are about being picked up by dodgy drivers. And there's a deeply founded belief, whether accurate or not we don't need to judge, that women are safer than men. So - if you possibly can, in order to get a smooth series of delightful rides with friendly kiwis, delivering you right to the door of your destination, then its simple - just be female. If you can't do that, try:
Plan B - look like a girl! Not as hard as it sounds. Long hair and a close shave that morning always helps. We don't recommend cross-dressing though - transvestite hitchhikers are not a particularly successful species in New Zealand. If you can't do that, try:
Plan C - use a girl! If you're a couple, have the man sit down, unobtrusively without being dishonest, and have the woman do the "hitch". You'll be amazed how well this works.
2. DO use a sign. A BIG cardboard sign with your destination written on it. It may not always help, but it can't hurt. Some humour can be a huge help too - of even just a little info about yourself "Two Germans to Dunedin, please" works wonders. If you're German. And if you're going to Dunedin.
3. SMILE!!! It helps people see that you're an innocuous, chilled out, happy traveller. So you've been stuck in Omarama for six hours, and you're wondering if you'll EVER get over the Lindis Pass and into Queenstown? Well, if you allow that anxiety to show on your face, you're doomed. You may as well go and check out the Omarama Real Estate office. Oh. There isn't one. Too small a town. Huh. Then smile :)
4. If really desperate, carry a fuel can or a spare tire. Either of these techniques will increase the stop-rate by about 1000%. You don't need to lie. When they ask you where your car is, just smile and tell them you don't have one. That's why you're hitch hiking! Never fails.
5. Relax, and enjoy wherever the journey takes you. In our extensive experience, 99% of all rides are positive experiences. The worse you'll generally do is get stuck in a car with some lonely, bored and desperately boring person. More likely, you'll meet all sorts of characters, see a side of New Zealand you'll never have otherwise got to see, and, quite likely, have some extra experiences that you'll never forget.
But, sigh, yes, ok, the New Zealand police says "hitch hiking CAN be dangerous". Yup. So can horse riding.
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