I love hitchhiking; I think it’s a brilliant way to travel. Not only do you travel for free, you get to meet fellow travelers and locals alike – swapping stories while discovering new places to see and things to do. Hitchhiking carries some risk, but hey that’s half the fun, and most people who pick up a hitcher are generally good at heart. I can’t even count how many coffees, lunches, dinners, and stories I have shared with friends made along the way. My first time hitchhiking I was 19 years old in Wyoming, and a friend and I were rafting the river; we dropped off my car at the end point and thumbed it to the start in the back of a pickup truck. Sitting in the bed of that truck, wind tousled hair and sun-kissed skin, I felt alive. Even though it was a short 20 minute ride, and we were just going to the river in familiar Wyoming, I felt a freedom and a sudden desire to pick up and just go. Go somewhere, anywhere, it didn’t matter where. Adventure called. It’s no surprise that by the time I got to New Zealand I quickly and easily talked my roommate Erin into hitchhiking around the country with me. We spent an entire month hitchhiking through New Zealand, and I loved every single second of it!
Well, I now love every second of it, but there were moments that were admittedly less than pleasant at the time. As long as you aren’t scarred enough to laugh about them later, the beauty of those unpleasant moments lies in the fact that they sometimes make the best memories. You usually learn a lesson or two from them as well. It is somewhat surprising that Erin and I lasted a whole month, considering day two brought us one of our early encounters with stranger danger on the road.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: LISTEN. We had been making our way to the east coast to take highway 2 up to Mahia, and multiple people had given us warning. A large concentration of the country’s Maori population inhabits the eastern cape of northern New Zealand, and there is more than the average amount of gang activity coupled with plenty of poor neighborhoods and towns along the way.
That highway can be dangerous, if you do decide to go that route, make sure you get all the way to Mahia. Don’t stop anywhere before.
Watch out for the young guys, don’t get in a car if it’s just men, you could run into some serious trouble up there.
I can’t say we weren’t warned, but I’ll be honest enough to say we weren’t listening.
We got dropped at the Napier-Mahia split on highway 2 and got ourselves situated on the side of the road. A kind old gentleman stood across the street waiting to meet his daughter. To our chagrin he couldn’t give us a ride because he was soon leaving so they could fix her car, it had broken down on the way to Napier, but he also issued a warning about our impending journey, get a straight shot ride to Mahia, and DON’T stop in Wairoa. Within minutes a large, paint chipped and beat up white van that might as well have had ‘free candy’ written on the side of it pulled over. We walked up and found ourselves face to face with a fierce looking Maori woman, moko scrawled down her chin and a cigarette hanging from her black tattooed lips. “Where you headed?” she rasped as she took a drag. “Mahia?” We innocently and hopefully offered through the cloud of smoke. “I can get you to Raupunga.” Erin and I had no idea where Raupunga was, but it wasn’t Wairoa and it was on the way. How bad could it really be? As we grab our packs and throw them in the van, that now very concerned gentleman across the road double checked, “Did you get a ride all the way to Mahia?!” he yelled. “Yep!” we lied, and with one final wave we jumped into the van. That was mistake number one. The trip to Raupunga was awful enough; the van lurched and swayed with every curve in the road (and there were a lot of them) and the blanket of cigarette smoke was making both of us a little ill (no open windows, rough). She finally pulls the van over and drops us off. We found ourselves standing in front of a graffiti covered public bathroom, and that was it. What a town. After sitting on this deserted highway for about 30 minutes, we hear a buzz in the distance and presently see a Maori guy pull up on a four wheeler. He asks where were headed and when we tell him, he enthusiastically replies with, “Mahia! My dad’s beach house is in Mahia!”Well isn’t that just dandy! We didn’t know what everyone else was talking about, these people are nice. He had to finish work, and if we were still there then he would give us a ride. High in spirits, we waited, and still no other cars drove by. No matter, we had a ride. Some time later, two Maori guys a little older than us pulled up and asked if we wanted to “get on the piss” (get drunk). Unfortunately, their accent was a bit strong and we had to ask what they were saying about 4 times because we kept hearing “get on the puss” and were a little offended. The guy we had met earlier finally came back, but this time he wasn’t alone. Since we were apparently on a deserted highway and running out of both daylight and options, we made mistake number two and got in the car with two young Maori men. We now found ourselves crammed in the backseat of this tiny, two door car, my bag in our laps and Erin’s in the trunk, speakers that looked way too expensive to have been bought by these people blaring in our ears. Instead of hitting the highway as expected, our driver turned down a side road that led into a neighborhood I didn’t even know existed. We arrive at this house to get some “stuff” (we didn’t know what the stuff was) and pull up to a guy operating a massive digger in his front yard. He walks over and our driver looks at him and tells him were going to his dad’s beach house in Mahia. The digger man looked confused, so he repeated again and elaborates, “You know, my dad’s beach house…” head nod in our direction, “I’ve got some girls..” to which the other guy replies with a not so convincing, “Oooh yeah, Mahia…the beach house…” That tiny little ‘bad news’ gut feeling that I had shoved down when we got in the car now came flying back and was threatening to pound out of my chest. Maybe the locals were onto something when they said don’t stop until Mahia. We pulled out of the driveway and again, instead of hitting the main road, we backtracked past where we started and into a little driveway I hadn’t noticed. I SWEAR as we went down that driveway we passed the same white van that dropped us off there in the first place parked by the house, it’s like that lady dropped us off and set us up. We parked in the backyard and the driver got out to get something from inside, while the other guy in the front seat remained in the car with us. More and more of these rough looking guys kept walking out the house and scattered themselves around the yard, surrounding us. The one who initially picked us up finally re-appeared and offered us pre-opened beers. We might have been stupid enough to get in that car in the first place, but we most definitely were not going to drink something that was most likely roofied. We remained stuck in that car for about two hours while we waited for their “stuff”, which turned out to be marijuana, amongst other things. They kept promising to take us to Mahia soon, we could party at the beach house, etc etc. Erin and I kept telling them we had friends expecting us, we were already booked in at a hostel, our boyfriends would be wondering where we were, etc etc. It was one great big lying game and I had no idea who would win. Finally, after about two and a half hours of attempts to separate us from our bags, give us various drugs and opened drinks, and invitations to stay at the house and party with them instead of going to Mahia, we struck a deal. Erin and I would go wait for a ride on the side of the road, and if we were still there when their massive shipment of marijuana arrived then we would still hitch a ride into Mahia with them. Since refusing would be nothing short of kidnapping us, he agreed. As we got out of the car, grabbed our bags, and began to walk away one of the guys yelled, “Oi! You’re letting them go?” What kind of wording is that?! We practically ran to the highway. So there we were, back on that damned, deserted highway with the sun setting and a Black Power gang of young men on our tails. After what felt like forever and a half, a car finally came! We stuck out our thumbs and walked forward, but they drove past without even slowing down. I nearly cried. Erin and I began plotting our next move since there was no way on God’s green earth we were getting back in that car. We were midway through debating whether or not to put up our tent when we camped in the woods because we would be easier to find when a car pulled over and two wonderful girls picked us up…and dropped us off in Wairoa.
Fortunately Wairoa was uneventful and we got a ride out of there quickly and made it safely to Mahia. For the record, Mahia is tiny.There were no hostels, just one hotel and a campground, and if that guy‘s dad actually had a beach house in Mahia he would have known we were lying. For a while I wondered if we were just scared little sheltered white girls and Raupunga actually wasn’t that bad, but it was. The girls who picked us up told us they would normally never stop there but we looked desperate, and others have said that locals don’t even stop there to use the restroom because their cars will get broken into. I actually hitched a ride with the president of the Black Power chapter in Rotorua a few months ago, and he said despite the fact that most residents of Raupunga are predominantly part of Black Power, he still never stops there without his gun on him. The more I think about it, the more I realize how incredibly lucky we actually were to get out of that town in the shape that we did. Fortunately, I have had enough overwhelmingly positive experiences since to not scare me off the hitchhiking idea, but I most certainly have learned to listen and trust my instincts. I also let friends know where I am and where I end up when the day is over. Like I said, it’s a risk, but it’s definitely a risk worth taking.