The first time I stood on the side of a highway with my thumb out in New Zealand was back in a tiny town called Otorohanga, on my way to Waitomo. It wasn't planned. I'd told the Intercity bus employee in Auckland that I wanted to go to the Waitomo caves. She'd said there was no direct bus, but that I could get their bus to Otorohanga and there would definitely be a shuttle to Waitomo. I came back to get on my bus and told the driver where I was headed, he gave me a sideways look and said the last shuttle usually left within five minutes of our scheduled arrival. Then he volunteered to call ahead and arrange matters.When we got into town and I got off, he told me that the last shuttle had left, but suggested that I stay in the town's hostel, just around the corner, and catch the next morning's shuttle. I walked around the corner as he drove off. No hostel. A little investigation revealed that it had shut down two years ago.
It was starting to drizzle. I walked into a filling station and asked about hitchhiking, having been told this was possibly the safest country left in the world to do it. I was expecting an opinion on how safe it was. Instead, I got a explanation of which way I wanted to go, as if I'd been asking driving directions. Clearly this was a question they fielded all the time.
So, feeling pretty sheepish, I walked a ways out of town, near a spot where someone could pull over, and stuck up my thumb. Cars went by, more or less as I expected. I got less shy as more passed and I got a bit discouraged. It wasn't until a girl gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up back that it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't doing something right. I went back to the filling station and came away with a cardboard sign that said “Waitomo please.” The very first car that saw me pulled over.
A few minutes later, I was bumping along the road listening to my driver go on and on about his dream motorcycle in the thickest New Zealand accent I ever got two out of five words from. He dropped me off near a hostel with a smile and the typical small-town kiwi good-bye, “Maybe I'll see you around. Not such a big place, after all.”
Since then, I've hitched other rides, once even at the clandestine advice of a tourist info center employee (“honestly, you'll get there before the first bus will”) and gotten not only to meet more people, but to see a lot more stuff. If I'd been busing, would've gone more or less straight from the ferry dock into the nearest national park via the big inland highway. Instead, I got a scenic drive through the mountains, a stop at a gorgeous bay for a swim, and a Saturday night in a small town dancing with the ladies from a local “hen party” (I think they're just called bachlorette parties in the states).
So that's been my life for the last few days. Hike for five hours through the woods of giagantic ferns along beautiful beaches, and hitch to my next destination across mountain passes, and learn all about the local water taxi business, a local campaign aiming to make cigarettes illegal in NZ except for small amounts issued to serious addicts by the government, and a “storm chasing,” which seems to be more or less exactly what it sounds like, trying to get good photographs.
And, because the public transportation on the west coast is so scarce, it's thanks to hitching that I've arrived where I am now: Paparoa national park, on the west coast of the South island, with the most dramatic coastline I've ever seen in my life-- massive limestone cliffs covered in lush ferns, trees, and bush getting smashed into by lines and lines of waves. I've never seen rows of waves rising all at once like that before-- all in the face of sunbreaks through the clouds just so you can see that actual rays hitting the sea. If only I'd given myself a bit more time until my flight out, I'd stay here for days.
Working on the pictures still. The move from Picasa to Flickr isn't going quite the way I expected. They're there, comments aren't yet, and neither is the system I was trying to put in to make them browsable by entry. Once I don't have to pay for wireless with data caps, things will improve. (UPDATE, 3/18/09- all entries now have photos attached! order is screwy and I think a few might have escaped, but they're there now.)
--Check out this entry's Photos.