Hitchhiking low risk, but stay wary

STACEY KNOTT
Last updated 12:00 05/04/2014
European backpackers from left to right Claire Minguet, Joris Van Der Schalie and Romane Lelay
HITCHING: European backpackers from left to right Claire Minguet, Joris Van Der Schalie and Romane Lelay

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Tasman district commander Superintendent Richard Chambers spent much of his 20s hitching rides around New Zealand and the world.

The police chief says hitching is a "low risk" way to see our country, and people are always going to do it.

Chambers is often driving around Marlborough, the West Coast and Nelson Bays for work, clocking more than 1000km a week.

"I see how many hitchhikers there are out there - there are thousands travelling around our region.

"When you consider the number hitching in New Zealand and the number of incidents there are, there's actually, in my view, a low risk, but there's still risk. This incident on the West Coast should never had happened, it's an example of that low risk actually happening."

But risks attached to hitching are not new, he says.

As someone who hitched in his 20s, both here and overseas, he sees the benefits of it, but was also aware of the risks.

In his years of hitching, the worst that happened was a driver speeding so much it made him uncomfortable. So the driver let him out at the next town.

"The reality is, I have done lots on my own and with friends . . . at the end of the day hitching is a personal choice and there will continue to be thousands of people exploring the world and New Zealand, and their chosen mode of transport is to hitchhike. That won't change but the risk won't either - it is still there like it has been there for decades."

He says there are ways to mitigate the likelihood of something happening to hitchhikers though - it's about using common sense.

"If the situation or person offering the ride doesn't feel right, don't do it. It's advisable to travel with someone else and ensure friends and family know what your travel plans are."

The majority of New Zealanders want travellers to feel safe in our country.

Chambers works to do that, both as a policeman, and as a traveller.

"I have picked up hitchhikers because I have been one. I know the world a hitchhiker lives in, standing on the side of the road with your thumb out for hours. I have picked them up myself and often done it, because I want to ensure they get to where they want to get to safely."

And "there's an awful lot of good" in hitching. It's budget-friendly, and a great way to meet locals.

Chambers is still in touch with a woman who picked him up when he was hitching in Ireland many years ago.

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He visited her 10 years after they had met - "that's how you get to meet the people."

West Coast Tasman MP Damien O'Connor agrees. He is also no stranger to hitching. He's done it, and would also pick up hitchhikers when he could.

While he was shocked by the incident, and it was a "sad blow to the region" he said it was not a common occurrence at all.

"‘I hope people still feel confident they can still hitch through our region . . . it's a wonderful way for people to travel, they should always feel safe."

He regularly picked up hitchhikers and sees it as a "great way of them interacting with us, it's a great way for them to interact with our country and them finding out about what happens in the lives of everyday Kiwis."

Likewise local backpackers have many of their guests hitchhike in the region.

Otto Barron who owns Otto's Backpackers on Haven Rd encourages his guests to go hitching and will also pick up hitchhikers which will often lead them to stay at his backpackers.

"I tell guests that people who pick you up are generally nice people, it's the a...holes who don't pick you up - they generally don't give a crap.

"They give you the finger. But people who pull over generally have a kinder heart and are nice people. I always say to people travelling the South Island that all you have to do is start a conversation with some Kiwis they will probably invite you to dinner."

Dave Enting, owner of the Palace Backpackers, advises his guests who want to hitchhike to make sure they text the number plate of the vehicle they get into to someone they know.

It's a tactic local woman Jamara Ferguson used to use when she spent her late teens and early 20s hitching rides around the region.

She called it the "buddy system."

"When I hitched I developed a system where I had a reliable text buddy who was responsive and kept an eye on their phone. When the car pulled up I said ‘hey thanks mate, do you mind I am just going to text your licence plate number, pick up and destination points to my friend?' Once in the car I would follow it up with a car and passenger description. Everyone was pretty impressed with this system."

She even had a driver let her use his phone as she was out of cellphone credit.

She said it was not fool-proof. Those you text need to be reliable and sensible. If the journey was to visit someone then texting that person was the best bet.

Chief executive of Nelson Tasman Tourism, Lynda Keene, has been in the tourism industry for over 30 years and says incidents like that on the West Coast are not common, though she would not recommend people hitchhike.

She says there are enough public transport options as well as rental car companies.

If a tourist asked her about hitching, she said she would tell them in most instances it is safe, but there are a range of good transport options she would recommend they explore.

She hoped the West Coast attack would make people stop and think about risks.

"I think it's timely for people to think from a commonsense point of view, if there is a situation how they could deal with if it was going to eventuate."

"When it comes down to it, ours is a beautiful part of the world and attracts about 650,000 people each year, 35 per cent of those from overseas, and of that 35 per cent, 60 per cent are backpackers. Many would discover, through hitchhiking our region, and country is full of genuine, caring people.

"But there will always be bad eggs."

While New Zealand is safe - ranked third safest to live in, there are risks in every way we travel.

SAFETY TIPS

Common sense is key – try to travel with someone else. Don't feel obliged to get into a car with someone if you don't think they will offer a good experience. Text their number plate to a reliable friend. Tell the driver you are doing that. If they respect that, good. If not, wait for a different ride. Be clear and exact about where you want to go. Look at a map beforehand, so you will have an idea of the direction you should be going. If worst comes to worst, bail. Forget about your bags – your life is more important. 

- The Nelson Mail

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