I leave Henry's at about eight in the morning, then walk an hour to the train station. A fifteen-minute wait, then an hour-long train ride, and I'm in Paraparaumu and on my way.
Paraparaumu to Waikanae (7km)
John and Liam pick me up, shoving all their gear across the back seat into the child's car-seat to the left. ‘We'll take you just up the road to Waikanae, it'll be easier to get picked up out there.’ So I sit crammed into the back while they talk about locals (‘That fat cunt Richie’) and recreation (‘Let's go ten-pin bowling’ ‘What about go-carts?’ ‘You into go-carts?’ ‘Yeah, they're pretty fun.’)
There's not much as bland as a conversation you're obliged to be interested in.
Waikanae to Bulls (90km)
I hold out my big vivid-marker ‘HAM.’ sign, but then I figure it's probably not helping at this point. A few people appear to get a good chuckle from the sight of a dude holding up a big blue ‘HAM’ on the side of the road, but this early in the journey anywhere will do; no need to specify an end destination yet.
Shane is a semi-retired plasterer heading back to Wanganui; he'll take me, he says, as far as the turn-off at Bulls. He'd driven to Wellington then flown to Christchurch for a wedding, only in Christchurch discovering that his return flight booking had been botched. So he's hitched back up from Christchurch to Picton, catching the ferry to his van in Wellington.
(It's a universal law, apparently, that ninety percent of a hitchhiker's rides are going to be in crappy old vans.)
He's into motorcycling and volunteer-work building schools in the third world, so we have plenty to talk about. I'm slightly disappointed when we reach Bulls.
Bulls to Hunterville (30km)
Walking your way to the edge of town all the time is pretty tedious; it feels so excruciatingly slow, and every car that shoots past is a missed potential ride.
Jamie picks me up on the outskirts of Bulls after twenty minutes' wait. I squeeze into his very small, very old car. He's a fifty- or sixty-something who works by himself on a farm out in the wops near Hunterville. He's not a farmer, I am a little surprised to discover, but a research scientist, working in the field (I manage to extract from him) of communicable diseases and human immune systems.
Hunterville to Taihape (46km)
It's funny how the most unpleasant part of hitchhiking – watching car after car drive straight past – doesn't stick in the memory at all after a while. Even now, only a day later, my recollection has blurred enough to almost eliminate the prolonged waiting from my memories; if I were to believe it, I was always picked up immediately, by the first vehicle that came past.
So after ten or fifteen minutes (I guess) waiting by the BP station, Blair (quite possibly not his real name; it's a bit fuzzy) pulls up in his Falcon and tells me to jump in. Blair looks a few years younger than me.
My first thought is: ‘that doesn't smell like a cigarette.’ My driver is smoking a blunt. My next realisation is that the energy-drink can he's drinking from has the word ‘Bourbon’ prominently on the side. Uh-oh.
He doesn't seem to notice the very loud nu-metal CD skipping terribly.
‘Who are we listening to?’ I ask. He still doesn't register the skipping.
‘I dunno… it was in the car when I bought it.’ Then, unprompted: ‘I bought this car for five hundred. Got it a WOF and reg, I can sell it for another thousand I reckon. You going to the V8 show in Whangamata?’
‘Gotta get to Taihape first though… I dislocated my arm a month ago, gotta see a doctor. Look.’ He pulls his t-shirt back off his shoulder. Sure, enough, there's a collarbone or something sticking up under the skin where it definitely shouldn't be.
The rest of the ride is a series of stressful moments – pressing my foot hard against an imaginary brake pedal on the floor – thinking ‘is this how I die?’ as Blair seems to periodically forget about the existence of brakes, yellow centre-lines, and other traffic. I'm relieved when we hit Taihape.
Taihape to Waiouru (30km)
Connor picks me up in his Cruiser – the nicest ride of the day. He drives slowly and talks fast; a nice change from Blair. He asks me a question – something about IT, once we've exchanged names and professions – then before I can answer he's off with some anecdote of his own. Then another question, and I get a word or two in this time before there's another anecdote. The ride's over pretty quickly, and now I'm in Waiouru. I walk up past the turn-off to the National Park, exchange a few words with a guy smoking outside the pub, and wait for my next pickup.
Waiouru to Turangi (62km)
It gets so you can pretty quickly and somewhat reliably pick the vehicles that are going to pick you up. Nice car? They're going straight past. Truck? No chance. SUV? Not in this lifetime. Battered old van? They'll probably stop.
Sure enough, a Dominion Post delivery van pulls to a stop. An aging, pony-tailed Maori guy pushes up his glasses, moves his lighter and the remains of his cigarette to one hand, and leans over to shake my hand and introduce himself. ‘I'm Ash,’ he says.
‘Matt,’ I say, shaking his hand.
There's a pause, and he re-lights the stub of his cigarette and takes a pull. He leans over again and holds out his hand.
‘My name's Ash,’ he says.
Uh. I shake his hand (again) and give him my name (again.) He pulls back out into traffic, and we head onto the desert road. ‘I love this country,’ I say. The desert road crosses a beautiful, harsh landscape, only the broken jagged peaks of mountains sticking out of the rolling tundra, all tussocks and purple scrub.
‘It's so barren,’ Ash says. It's not though; it's covered in life. Inhospitable to humans, sure, but so, so alive. I love it.
Then things go downhill. Ash tells me he's into ‘internet marketing,’ which is how he's going to make himself a multi-millionaire. I tell him, when asked, that I'm a database programmer. It's a half-lie, but for the next fifty minutes I remain relieved I didn't tell him that I build websites. It's almost a cult, the things he's telling me about, the way he's dropping names (‘…and Mack Vincent, he's the real thing…’), and the fact that he's spent eighteen-thousand dollars on videos and podcasts and ebooks and educational material on this stuff, and he's seen maybe a hundred dollars in return.
‘It's just a matter of time and connections,’ he says. ‘Ninety-five percent of people never break even on it, but you just got to keep working at it.’ It makes me sad, but I can't think of anything to say to him. He's chasing the dream, but it's a false dream, and he's being sold up the river. He owns some land out the back of Lake Taupo, ‘but I need to get my business up and running and the money coming in, before I can leave it going and concentrate on the land. We don't have electricity out there.’
He stops for diesel, then realises that he did that at the last town and his tank's already full. He hands me his card as he drops me off – ‘send me an email if you have any questions about internet marketing; everyone bumps into problems, and I've been doing this long enough I can probably help you out on most anything.’ I make appropriately vague noises and leave.
Turangi to Taupo (50km)
Some fresh bread and cheese makes a wonderful lunch; exactly what I needed. I can't find any public toilets here in Turangi, so I duck into some bushes to relieve myself, then it's back to the main road to wait for a ride.
It's quarter to four in the afternoon, and traffic is worrisomely thin. I'm waiting for a full hour before I finally get picked up.
They're two gorgeous brown-skinned people – he looks a little older than me, and she's a little younger. I never get their names, but I fall in love with them instantly. The back of their van has been converted into a bed, so I throw my pack in and sprawl. I feel a bit unsafe – there's no seat-belt for me, and if they hit anything I'm either going through the windscreen or (more likely) getting hurled up through – and probably decapitated by – the open sunroof.
They don't talk much; they've been on the road since seven in the morning, and they're pretty tired. They have to be in Napier by tomorrow, to start apple-picking. They live in the van. They turn up the reggae and drive.
The van is decorated with shells, little flax sculptures, photos of sunsets, and hand-woven curtains. He's a really nice guy with the friendliest gray eyes, looks like he should be in a dub band, and she looks the most natural thing I've ever seen, the daughter of Mother Nature. To call her a hippie would be, I feel, a disservice; ‘getting back to nature’ would require having left it in the first place. And oh man, those eyes. I go a little bit melty.
They drop me in Taupo after too few Radiodread songs, and I take a long hike up the hill out of town before I finally get picked up.
Taupo to SH1/SH5 turn-off (8km)
Stephen's a nice guy, just heading home from work, but he's going to Rotorua, so he can only take me five minutes up the road to the turn-off. It's cool, five minutes is better than no minutes, and that's probably an hour if I had to walk.
SH1/SH5 turn-off to Cambridge (124km)
Fortunately, it's only another five minutes before Mana (pronounced mung-uh) picks me up in his work ute. He has plenty of life stories – government hunter in the sixties, electrician, arborist, manager. He's my ninth ride for the day, and the first to take me more than one hundred kilometres. I'm a little tired. He's surprisingly energetic for mid-way through a five or six hour commute, but I guess he's used to it by now.
Strangely, it doesn't feel like I've spent as much time driving today as I have. The bits I remember most here are the waiting and the walking.
Cambridge to Hamilton (22km)
When Mana drops me in Cambridge the sun is getting low, and everything's lit up a beautiful diffuse orange and green. I'm walking into the sun up the main road, and traffic is light. I hold my thumb out as a police car goes past; they wave and grin.
A van pulls up, three young guys across the front bench. ‘There should be room in the back,’ one of them says. ‘Jump in.’
I pull open the side door, and there's… well, a cave, a small hole in the stacks of plastic signs and boxes of stuff. There's a girl sitting there eating KFC, cross-legged on the floor of the van, amidst the piles of junk, and she shuffles over to let me squeeze in. I throw my pack up onto the pile of stuff and fold myself into the gap. It's a tight fit.
They're funny, although not quite as ‘quirky’ as they clearly consider themselves. I've met far stranger people today. They've been in Wellington doing some kind of advertising promotion for cellphones (the conversation is punctuated by Christine shoving a promotional hat on my head and a similarly branded bright-orange towel into my hands), and they're heading back to Auckland. They're quite excited – ‘this is the first time we've picked up a hitch-hiker! Aren't you scared you'll get murdered or something?’
(‘Or forcibly dressed up in hat and sunnies?’ I say, only half-joking through the big yellow glasses I now have on. Christine is wearing a long electric-pink wig.)
Then they're bored with me, and Christine pulls out a pad and starts sketching out her advertising-studies homework. They miss the turn to the town centre and drop me on the main road about a kilometre from the city. I call Jim for directions, and meet him halfway back to his house, only a short walk thankfully, and then I'm there and my journey is done and oh man are my legs sore.
Here's a map of my journey.