Hitch Hiking New Zealand: The Adventure

Gisborne is the most easterly city in the world, meaning it’s the first city to welcome the sun every day, and the New Year every year!

From Wellington, Gisborne is about a seven hour drive. Hitch-hiking, though, turned this journey into more of an adventure. My friend, Gabriel, and I, on our way to the Rhythm and Vines music festival, set out to explore the north island and meet fellow travelers, locals and festival-goers along the way.

Hitch-hiking can be dangerous, but in New Zealand it’s a reliable mode of transportation! When living in Queenstown, I stuck my thumb out almost daily and never had much of an issue. Sometimes you end up in the passenger seat with a slightly crazy person behind the wheel, but there’s always a new story to tell.

  • Like the guy I rode with who was obsessed with conspiracy theories and invited me to his weekly meetings.
  • Or the very angry fellow who had just gotten into a fight and needed to blow off some steam. I’m just glad I was there. He really needed to vent.

You never know who you’ll end up with, and at times this can be nerve-racking. But it’s fun, and I like to live on the edge.

It took us three rides to get from Wellington to Gisborne on New Zealand’s north island, and six to make the journey back. There are heaps of people who have hitch-hiked the whole country, and many people even include this on their bucket list. Gavriel and I decided that a five-day adventure would be suitable enough for us.

Ride Number One

I received a text message the night before we were meant to leave from a man who had seen a notice I posted on a message board:


As luck would have it, no, we did not, so this was a Godsend. He was going half as far as we were but there would be plenty of other festival-goers on their way to Gisborne who would pick us up and take us the rest of the way.

Getting there wasn’t the issue.

After meeting this man at 8am the next morning and discovering him to be an incredibly friendly 40-something year-old Kiwi, we jumped in the dilapidated old Nissan ready for an adventure. The second thing out of his mouth: “So uhhh…do you guys smoke weed?”

“Oh brother,” I thought, as I replied “no.” My friend shook his head ambivalently.

He downed his can of Red Bull with an incredible enthusiasm and determination, crushed one end of the tin and started poking holes in it. It’s 8am and this man is keen for a wake-and-bake in front of two strangers before a five-hour road trip. Perfect.

Chris was an extremely neurotic, only slightly-educated, older-generation Kiwi party boy who had a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that we had only had four hours of sleep the night before. We were not in the mood to chat about nonsense. But, despite us, he did plenty of it on his own.

Seemingly in his own world, this man had continual conversations with himself, rambling off on generally nonsensical tangents, stringing thoughts together that would beckon any red-blooded human to question what might possibly be wrong with this man.

Never cracking 80kmh (50mph), we moved at a slow and steady pace, stopping frequently for smoke breaks and bakeries. Though the trip had taken two hours longer than it was supposed to, I was happy to finally stumble out of this peculiar man’s car and hold, high over my head, our sign reading “GISBORNE.”

Ride Number Two

An elderly woman in a Lexus with a backseat full of fresh produce drove us about 15 minutes up the road. She was a lovely old woman who seemed to know a little bit too much about music festivals. We stopped for petrol, she pumped, I washed the windshield. My friend and I chuckled as she walked barefoot into the petrol station to pay.

Ride Number Three

Good old boy Tim, on his way to the festival, pulled over to pick us up. In his mid-twenties, with three cases of beer and a bottle of tequila next to his bed in the back of his campervan, we knew he was headed up to Gizzy for a good time. Also a resident of Wellington, we’ve shared a few beers with each other since then. An all-around good lad who spoke of music, women and life. Having just departed a ten-year relationship, Tim had a lot on his mind.

There’s something about the company of strangers that provokes deep conversation.

Rhythm and Vines came and went. On our way up we found the Kiwis to be generally quite friendly and helpful, recognizing that we were only trying to get from point A to B. It wasn’t until the mission home from the festival, however, that we truly unearthed the Kiwi hospitality.

Ride Numbers Four and Five

Walking out of the festival, covered in mud, with the mid-day sun shining exceedingly bright, the two of us were left in quite a state. The majority of people had already left that morning and we were to be the stragglers, left on a vineyard in the-middle-of-nowhere-New Zealand. A friendly couple in a wonderfully clean Volvo had no problem with us soiling their leather seats. Another festival-goer kicked his sleeping friends out of the car so he could drive us ten minutes down the road.

It’s frustrating to rely so heavily on others, but the kindness and understanding of these people helped us mission through the day.

Ride Number Six

After a quick wash in the water at the Gisborne beach, the most lovely Maori lady, with a motherly guidance and strong moral compass, offered us relief from the sweltering sun. She obviously had a big heart, sharing her stories of other hitch-hikers and how she rescued two other girls from the night as they huddled together, hobbling down the street, very, very far from home. This woman was the epitome of Kiwi hospitality. Her demeanor was endearing, and she was well-versed in the idea that “we’re all just doing the best we can.” She was a true believer in helping others and she obviously lived this way on a daily basis.

She dropped us off outside her house, a small cottage next to a magnificent corn field. She offered us a cold drink, which we graciously declined, and told us to pop in if we needed anything. Enough time in the sun persuaded us, so we grabbed our bags and headed down their overgrown driveway. We were greeted by three slightly drunk Maori men, smiles wide, enjoying life in the shade. Their toothless grins indicated we were more than welcome. They loved how American we were and cracked some jokes when we mentioned our hunt for sun cream. Our poor, pale skin!

We refilled our water bottles, grabbed our bags and headed back out to the street. We weren’t standing there for more than a few minutes when these two boys, just some little eight year-old rugrats, came running to our rescue. “Hey you guys!” We turned to find their arms outstretched. “You want some ice pops?”

These little guys put smiles on our faces. They offered us ice pops, drinks, even a swim in their pool! As much as we would have wanted to, we had an agenda. Their mother joined us a few minutes later, fondly stroking both of her sons’ heads as if to let us know just how proud she was of her children.

Her smile put me at ease, reminding me of my own mother. “Do you want some food? How about a swim? Do you need anything else?” She even texted her mates who often drove that road to see if they could pick up some random hitch-hikers. The level of hospitality that this woman and her family showed to us was beyond any I’ve encountered elsewhere. Truly, a top lady.

Ride Number Seven

A man, his son and a dog. Highway 2 just outside of Gisborne is curvy and hilly, leaving many cars on the side of the road. Including theirs. As we watched the temperature gauge, all of us rooting in positive anticipation, “you can make it!”, we heard a pop. And then a hiss. And then we smelled it–the engine had overheated. This man, well-prepared for situations like this, hopped in the back, grabbed a towel and big bottle of water, then got to work on the engine. Proving his thrift he guided his son through it. “Well, there’s only one thing we can do now!” Clambering through the backseat he cracked open the case of Steinlager Pure and handed one to each of us.

“Cheers boys!”

We finished our drinks and got back on the road where we came across another man fervently trying to cool down his engine. With no level of hesitation, we pulled over to help him. It was like these Kiwis couldn’t NOT help.

Eventually, two more rides and one day later, we returned to Wellington, feeling refreshed by the essence of the people and the land. Never in my life have I endured such a hectic and marvelous week. The festival was fun but my remembrance of the journey there and back far eclipses the extraordinary party that was Rhythm and Vines.

Life is about getting out there, journeying and experiencing. And, luckily for me, I’ve been left with an extensive story and a few handfuls of memories.

And I absolutely love it.

READ NEXT: Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier: A Photo Essay

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
  1. I love that your story was all about “the journey, not the destination.”

    I’ve heard plenty of great stories about hitchhiking in NZ, so it’s nice to hear yet another that highlights Kiwi hospitality!

    1. It was one heck of a journey, that’s for sure! I was shocked at the level of kindness the Kiwis showed us. It’s a trip I’ll never forget!

  2. Guess what? By then end of our trip, I got brave enough to pick up a hitch hiker! Lol. Thought of you. 😉

  3. I’d love to backpack/hitch-hike my way around a country sometime, but I’m not sure I’d be brave enough.

    Good on you for trying it!

    1. It’s just a matter of taking a couple of risks, then you realize how easy it is! It’s the risks in life that bring us joy 🙂

  4. This is truly a Kiwi story. I remember after going cave diving in Waitomo we were driving back to the center of town (used loosely) with a full van of people who had just spent hours in a freezing cave. We saw a couple walking along the side of the road and our guide quickly remarked to the other guide that these guys were far from anything (about half hour driving). They pulled over with not a hint of hesitation and told them to hop in. Everyone in the van scooted around to make room in the packed space.

    There were so many reasons for these guys to not stop. We had just spent hours freezing and were eager to get back to the warm lodge. Our van was packed with people and equipment. And these guys were on the job!

    I loved it. Just all around good people-loving people.

    1. Great story, Kyle! That kind of thing happens all the time in New Zealand. In fact, I used to use hitch-hiking as an actual form of transportation to get to and from work each day! The Kiwis are such kind people!

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