There's a well-known expression that asserts that it is not the destination, but rather the voyage itself that make travelling worthwhile. The travelling has certainly been fun here in New Zealand. Intercity public transport is absolutely god-awful thanks to a small, dispersed, population that is affluent enough for almost everyone to be able to afford private cars. Even the significant numbers of tourists are almost all obliged to hire cars or camper vans (those that don't generally join tours). As you know, neither option suits my temperament - or my budget - so that left me with hitchhiking. Not that I consider it a bum option. In fact, apart from a couple of occasions where I was standing by the side of the road for three hours slowly getting cramp in my left upper-arm muscles, it has been a fun, varied and quite an adventure.
|I got dropped off at this bus stop on a lonely road in the mountains. There are two buses a week. Luckily I only had to wait 30mins for a ride though.|
Whenever I extol the virtues of hitchhiking I never fail to mention its ability to let you meet a varied cross-section of society that, as a tourist staying in hotels, you would never normally come into contact with. It's also good practice in learning to change the register of your conversation depending on the interlocutor. This has never been so true as here in New Zealand, probably thanks to the fact that language is not a barrier. In addition, thanks to the anonymity of hitching (the likelihood of paths crossing in the future is slim to none) people are surprisingly ready to open up and talk about things they never would were you to meet them in an ordinary social situation. And so it was with my very first ride out of Christchurch, a man a little younger than me picked me up. An erstwhile farm-hand, now a tradesman, fond of gambling, especially poker and Oriental women. In a slight lull in the conversation, apropos of nothing, he told me that the night before that he had had the strangest sex with his girlfriend. Not really sure how to respond to that I just made a few understanding noises and soon changed the subject. Not that everyone is so forthcoming, but it's still a great way of learning about the country and hot current affairs issues. In the south many of the people who offered me rides were workers in the agricultural sector and constant refrain was dismay and anger at the conversion of sheep farms to more environmentally-damaging dairy, the power of Fonterra and the negligent, laissez-faire attitude of the current government that seems more wedded to big business and short-term profit than to the stewardship of the country.
Others may tell you about local beauty spots or points of interest that you would never hear about otherwise and are well under the tourist radar. Or yet go out of their way to help you out. On my way to Dunedin I wanted to stop at Moeraki beach to check out its curious boulders - perfectly round rocks formed by accretion over millions of years that are slowly deposited on the beach from the sandstone cliffs. My ride (a local man who had just returned home after several years working in the UAE) offered to come and see them with me and then take me further, rather than me having to find a new ride. Or there are those kind souls who, as well as giving you a ride, treat you as well: "I've got a few brewskis in the back, just help yourself," was a line I was given on three separate occasions over a two-day period whilst hitching in Northland.
Then there are the foreigners. Firstly the immigrants of various flavours. The British seeking a better quality of life on less crowded islands. And they are legion: rarely a day would go by when I didn't hear a British accent of some sort, the Yorkshire electrician, Midlands retirees, Scottish shop clerk, or the young couple from the home counties. Pacific islander migrant workers sending remittances back home: once I was picked up by a Fijian who was working as a milker on a dairy farm. And the refugees: a couple of Afghan Hazaras gave me a ride to Auckland, which gave me the rare opportunity to practice my Farsi*. (Which just goes to show that you never know when a random skill or piece of information may come in handy, such as when I was picked up by a Kiwi lady who mentioned that she was Baha'i and I could impress her not just by knowing what it is, but that I had visited the main Baha'i shrine in Haifa.) And then there are the foreign tourists, either those who are younger and are on working holiday visas and buy themselves a beat up car whilst here, or the more well-to-do who are "real" tourists. Often they hire huge campervans and are fully self-sufficient, in which case, for some reason, they won't pick up hitchers, or just a standard car. Brits there for a wedding (on two occasions), a French couple on their honeymoon, a trio of Colombians (the first time I had ever met Colombians on holiday, and with perfect timing, as it is my next destination, so I pumped them for information) and a young Polish couple. The latter introduced me to a concept that I had heard of but never tried myself: relocation.
|My trusty steed with a cloudy Ruapehu in the background.|
Car rental agencies often allow you to hire a car in one place and drop it off somewhere else. This can sometimes lead to a glut of cars in one location and a dearth in another. Employing someone to move them from one place to another is a costly proposition, so the companies provide special deals whereby you get to to hire a car for a nominal sum - sometimes even for free - as long as you drop it off at a specified location within a given, limited time. The times are rather constraining, so it's not suited to those wanting to see the sights, but if you simply want to get from A to B, and if A and B happen to coincide with the relocation spots then it is a very cheap and practical way of getting around. I was lucky to find a couple of relocation deals. One got me the 340km from Christchurch to the tip of the South Island for less than £1, and the second allowed me to visit Tongariro quickly and hassle-free for only the price of a tank of petrol. Having had this experience it's certainly an option I'll be keeping in mind in future.
|Jason doing the involved dad thing with little Keanu.|
Talking of relocations I have another friend couple who have decided to emigrate to New Zealand. Like Liam and Eila I met Nicky and Jase whilst travelling in South America (most of my friends seem to be from my various voyages). For several years they were living and working in London before they decided to move permanently to New Zealand, and have settled near the coastal town of Mount Maunganui. Culturally it may be a step down from the delights on offer in the West End, and a London salary is substantial, but there are limits to the quality of life that can be measured solely in pounds and pence. Not only is their house more spacious and comfortable than anything they could hope to get in the UK, but there are a host of walking and cycling trails nearby, the wide, sandy beach is just a short walk away, or they can get the kayak out and go for a paddle on the sea. Spending a few days with them and their kids allowed me not just to catch up with old friends, but also to appreciate the pace and rhythm of life that they've carved out for themselves. Not that I can see myself in their place; I know deep down that I am European and would probably not feel completely at ease settling down anywhere but (though luckily it's a big and varied place). Though I can certainly be happy for them having found a niche for themselves, and wonder whether I will too.
*The non-Pashtun half of Afghanistan mainly speak Dari, which is a dialect of Farsi, though it sounds very old-fashioned to Iranians, which is interesting, since according to my Hazara ride they love the Tehran accent because it sounds so cool and modern.