Hitchhiker’s Guide to New Zealand

IMG_1206 When it comes to saving and not spending money, I’ve got issues. Second-hand clothing stores are my go-to. I push the limits on expiration dates, and I take the definition of leftovers to the extreme. “Don’t pour that half a mug of tea out! I can microwave it tonight!” I’ve even been known to snag leftover food off of other people’s plates after they leave a restaurant. Call it penny pinching, call it ridiculous (a lot of the time it is), call it downright cheap… I’d rather my primary expenses be on plane flights and sightseeing.

But since touching down in New Zealand last week, even my willingness to spend money on transportation has been challenged. Welcome to hitchhiker country. I was not in my new home of Christchurch more than 24 hours before I pulled my backpacking gear together out of the 99 pounds of belongings I brought over to go on my first adventure: the crystal waters and sunny skies of Abel Tasman National Park, a top destination and home to one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks.

Based off a friend’s suggestion, I knew that was where I wanted to go before school started, but my game plan was skeletal at best. Beyond reserving my campsites and doing some initial research on kayak rental companies, I was winging all the other details. Which seemed in spirit with the typical kiwi “She’ll be right mate” idiom. They have an attitude here of not worrying about how something wrong is going to right itself. It will down the line.

I’ll get to the hitchhiking, but, trying to be safe and independent, I began with a rental car. Last Wednesday morning I found the cheapest company that services both Christchurch and Nelson (it’s Apex, and they’re awesome). I rolled in and the receptionist asked what my reservation number was.

“Oh, I haven’t booked anything, but I did some research this morning. I just need to do a day-long rental to get up to Nelson. The cheapest thing you’ve got. And a GPS, too, please.”

For a moment, the woman could not hide her moderate surprise. I had no idea how preposterous my request was. Summer tourist season is at its peak, and though I knew this, I did not piece together the correlation that rental cars are, therefore, also at their highest demand.IMG_1204 By the blessing of God and newbie New Zealand luck, I held the keys to a cute, compact car fifteen minutes later. Since it was my first time driving on the left hand side of the road, I went ahead and got full insurance coverage. The attendant kindly threw in the GPS with it.

I was off! Much like California, New Zealand has its own Coastal Highway 1. I took the scenic route and wound my way through seal colonies and golden hillsides that have been cleared for herding and agriculture. I also pulled over every ten minutes to take another picture. At a remote rest area, I did that whole “Jessica’s Random Outbursts of Joy” thing my sisters make fun of me for, leaps and twirls included. Because even on an overcast day, everything here is just so daggum beautiful, and I cannot believe this is my home now.


About an hour away from Nelson, I picked up two hitchhikers within ten minutes of each other. I’ve always liked the idea of hitchhiking, of helping someone out since you’re on the way anyway, of meeting someone you would not have otherwise. In the States, though, I’ve only stuck my thumb out myself once. Apart from being illegal, the dangers are real: both the driver and the hitcher are making themselves incredibly vulnerable. Especially as a female, real life scenarios of Taken flash through my mind, and I think my caution is wise.

But this is New Zealand, which somehow gives license for my wariness to let down its guard. When my parents backpacked here in 1991, they said they felt like they had stepped back in time thirty years. The same is still true today. In contrast to America, a murder is a rare and shocking headline. There is a tongue-in-cheek joke here that penguins dying out in the South is the biggest news to report. Especially when you get out of the city, everything seems to slow down. Life feels simpler and safe. It has that same innocent security of the fictitious Hobbiton, and I, too, have the sensation that I am experiencing an era decades before my own birth.

The radio only works in the city, so after five hours of driving in silence, I welcome my new company, even if these two are a little smelly. Xander is a car-less college student from Christchurch who is making his way up for his best friend’s birthday. Ed is a French backpacker who has wandered around the world the last few years and never knows what tomorrow may hold. “I’d stay here forever if it wasn’t for this damn travel visa. I only have a few months left.”

Nelson is the closest big city to the Abel Tasman, but it’s still a solid hour away from the trailhead. A normal person would have rented a car for the entirety of the weekend. No worries about getting to and from, go at your own pace…definitely the more practical, albeit slightly more expensive, option. But being the cheap person I am, there was no way I was about to pay to have a car parked in lot for three days just eating up my money. Yeah, zero percent chance of that happening. So at 7:30 pm, I return the car to the Nelson center. My only goal: ideally, make it to the campsite I booked tonight. But if not, at least get to the kayak place for my reservation tomorrow by 8:30 am. Ed was meeting up with friends, so he thanked me and left. After dropping the keys in the after-hours box, I became a hitchhiker with Xander. I wasn’t too keen on hitchhiking alone, but having a guy with me put me more at ease – even if I did just meet him.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 10.46.17 AM
Mapua, Motueka, Marahau…All those “M” words are confusing!

We are headed the same way, so we decide to stick together. It is relatively ambitious to try to hitchhike over 60 kilometers with less than two hours of daylight left. Still, we made a cardboard sign at a petrol station, and try we did. Xander kindly turned down our first offer. “That guy seemed pretty drunk. If I make up some BS excuse, just go with it. You still have to use your head.” At this point, I am so thankful to be with Xander. Common sense is not always a forte of mine. Fifteen minutes later, a man who had sailed in the harbor that afternoon is on his way home to Mapua, and he picks us up, getting me about halfway to my destination.

We stick our thumbs out in Mapua again, but at 9 pm, dusk is setting in, and the only person that stops is someone that turned around to make sure we were okay. This whole time, I’m maintaining my Hakuna Matata mindset pretty well. If we don’t make it, I have a tent. We camp and press on in the morning. We’re fine, no worries.

Plan B is pretty much what happens. Walking 5K to a different campsite isn’t ideal, but we fall asleep to the peaceful waves rolling in on the shore twenty meters away. In the morning, the only game plan is to get to our respective destinations, and I have 90 minutes to do so. We pack up and flag down a van leaving the campsite. They are going to Motueka. Perfect! That’s where I need to be! The whole back of the van has been converted into sleeping quarters, so we jump in and awkwardly sit on their mattresses for the twenty minute ride. As Xander studies Google Maps, he realizes that Motueka is not my final destination… Marahau is – another thirty minutes up the road. Internally, I am kicking myself.

Jessica! Really? HOW could you mess that up?
But it’s all these Māori “M” words, they all sound the same. I don’t know what I’m doing!!

In Motueka, Xander and I split. I have 45 minutes left. I know there are a lot of people that should be headed up to the park, so I stop by the backpacker hostel and ask if any shuttles are leaving soon. No, I have not arranged a shuttle with the kayak company.

The receptionist points to the left. “Your best bet is to walk that way with your thumb out. Best of luck to ya.”

Without Xander, I am a little nervous. But I’m on a time crunch, and I have no other option. So here I go. I ramp up my Jessica walking pace to full speed. I raise my sign high, I give my best Southern smile, I maybe even dance a little bit. This is not a really intense situation, but my heart quickens and adrenaline pumps through me nonetheless. Within ten minutes, someone offers to take me to the Marahau turnoff. From there, I quickly pick up another ride straight to Kahu Kayaks. It is 8:30 on the dot. PRAISE the good Lord!

To make what is becoming a long story a little shorter, I spent three days in utter New Zealand paradise. Even though I was alone, the park is so heavily visited right now that I met lots of great people. After each day of tramping (the kiwi word for hiking), I relaxed on the beach, cooled off in remote forest waterfalls, and explored secret glow worm caves at low tide. Toward the end, I had to figure out how the heck I was going to get back to town.

A water taxi services the coastline and regularly takes people to the bottom of the track. In last minute fashion, I talked to a taxi man the day before and put my name down for the earliest 11:30 am ride back… which would be $45 when I got back to the office. You know I wasn’t happy about that, but it’s a tourist monopoly here; they can charge whatever they want.

The next day, I am sitting on the beach at 9:30 am just whiling away my time, and a boat comes up to drop off a set of kayaks. For fifteen minutes I watch him unload, wrestling with my timidity. The worst that can happen is that he says no. As he reels in the anchor to leave, I run down into the water.

“Hey! Are you heading South?”
He nods.
“Could I…maybe…catch a ride with you?”
He nods. While my heart melts with gratitude, I wonder how often he deals with cheap hitchhikers like me. “Where do you need to go?”
“Anywhere South, wherever you’re going. I just need to get to Motueka by the end of the day.”
“Grab your stuff and hop in. Just be quick about it.”


I heave my pack over, and off we go. He drives me all the way back down to Marahau, and I have a free, private boat ride to soak up the coastal views of Tasman Bay. I soak it in, glad I mustered the courage to ask. And also a little proud that I’m not a full-paying customer like everybody else. I rest in a coffeeshop for a couple hours and investigate the possibility of a shuttle back to Motueka. $10.

$10 is a perfectly reasonable shuttle price. But I’m in hitching mode now. I already got a ride from Motueka. Why would I spend money on one back? At the very same time the shuttle is leaving, I decide to hitch instead. I wonder if my $10 frugality could be compromising my life, and my stomach still squeezes up a little bit as I stick my thumb out. A truck pulls over; my ride-giver ends up being a seasoned park ranger, and he is delightful. He takes me back into town, where I meet up with family friends, Louis and Dave, who graciously host me that night.

To get back to Christchurch, I assumed I would rent a car again. I search online and make several phone calls. Everything is booked. Google maps public transport shows a 22 hour transit. I feel like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. I toy with the idea of hitching, but once again, I am on a time crunch. I have to get back tomorrow; school starts on Monday, and that seems a little too audacious (and still a little scary too). Shoot (or slightly crasser forms of that word). I should’ve just rented the car the whole time. What am I going to do?

 I confess to Louis that I’ve messed up. We pray. She suggests I look up Intercity Busses, which evidently Google maps does not know about. They have a bus leaving at 9:15 tomorrow morning. It cuts our time together short, but it will get me back by the evening, and our prayer is quickly answered. The next night I make it back to Christchurch, and I am ready to start school in the morning.

Aside from letting me be cheap, hitchhiking allowed me to take each challenge as it came and not worry too much. It showed me that planning is beneficial, but even when it is lacking, usually everything does indeed work out. It forced me to be dependent on others and trust their kindness, and it definitely made for a more memorable experience.

Yesterday I bought a car, so I doubt I’ll be doing too much more hitchhiking in New Zealand. Over the next year, I am excited to settle in and make some roots here; I look forward to that stability and familiarity. But I’m also glad I got a little taste of the solo backpacker’s life right on touchdown in New Zealand. Someday, I’m sure I’ll be at it again.


One thought on “Hitchhiker’s Guide to New Zealand

  1. Hi Jessica! It was nice meeting you in Abel Tasman. Too bad we didn’t have enough time in Christchurch to try to meet up before we left, but it’s cool to read more about your travels on here. My website is avanhouten.com if you’re interested in seeing some of my writing. I’m a bit behind on the travel writing (most of it’s more professional clips), but I’m hoping to get some more up soon, once I have time to process my time in New Zealand. Best of luck with everything!


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