Hitchhiking in New Zealand: 6 Lessons from 20 Rides (QTN to AKL)

I had this idea that all backpackers hitchhike in New Zealand. They throw a coin and if it’s heads they go North to South, if it’s tails they go South to North.

I did the next best thing: I checked the flights to Auckland and Queenstown and picked the cheaper. In my case Queenstown. Then I hitchhiked more than 1600 km north to Auckland in the next 2 weeks.

This is all about that journey. The rides I got, the rules I followed, and the tips I can give you for hitchhiking in New Zealand.

Can you Hitchhike in New Zealand?

Hitchhiking is legal in New Zealand.

While not all backpackers do it (as I for some reason thought), it’s still somewhat popular.

The pandemic and New Zealand’s strict closure and quarantine policies affected hitchhiking severely. Fewer people hitchhike today. As a matter of fact, I didn’t see any other hitchhikers during my 2 weeks there.

Yet, I got 20 rides over 1600 km.

So if you’re asking whether you’ll be picked up: Yes, hitchhiking remains popular enough among Kiwi drivers.

hitchhiker's thumb
The thumb is the preferred method of hitchhiking in New Zealand. Photo by Matt Lemmon [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Is Hitchhiking in New Zealand safe?

The New Zealand Tourism website strongly discourages you from doing it. I disagree with their judgment.

Hitchhiking carries certain risks but they are LESS pronounced in New Zealand than other countries. Shall we stop driving cars altogether because there are car accidents? Moot point.

New Zealand is safer than most other countries and general safety correlates hitchhiking safety.

Scientific data is hard to come by but take a look at this risk evaluation of hitchhiking in the US showing that hitchhiking contributed 0.63% to the overall crime rate.

The conclusion was that hitchhiking is not more dangerous than any other activity in the country. I hope we can agree that New Zealand is far safer than the US.

This article also provides a real-world look into why hitchhiking is not as dangerous as it’s made out to be and what the real dangers are.

So if your risk-taking allows for hitchhiking anywhere, then doing it in New Zealand should not worry you more.

Hitchhiker sticking his thumb out.
I don’t have a single pic of me hitchhiking in New Zealand so take this generic one from the public domain.

Quick Tips about Hitchhiking

These are general tips, not specific only to New Zealand. Most may seem common knowledge and I’d like to think they are but it doesn’t hurt to repeat what’s smart and useful.

  • Don’t hitchhike at night. Bad vibes after dark.
  • Look presentable. Clean-shaven, neat and tidy. One of the ladies who picked me up said she only stopped because I looked fresh (i.e. not dangerous).
  • Choose a good hitching location. Check HitchWiki for first-hand information about great waiting spots. If cars can’t stop safely, they won’t stop.
  • A sign is not mandatory but helps. Bonus points if you write something funny.
  • Be polite. Need I say anything? “Thank you for stopping”, “I appreciate the ride”, “Please…”, this kind of stuff.

Some travelers add more tips like not wearing sunglasses, hitchhiking with a friend, not looking like you have a lot of luggage, taking a picture of the license plate, phoning a friend once inside, etc.

These all seem reasonable but I haven’t personally done either. Do what would make you feel safe.

My most important hitchhiking tip: Manifest reality.

Positive thinking and a happy attitude help. If it’s been an hour and nobody has stopped, tell yourself that all you need is 1 car to stop. It will.

My Experience Riding in Strangers’ Cars from Queenstown to Auckland

Next to each “Ride”, I include:

  • Waiting Time (WT)
  • Safety (1-10)
  • Fun (1-10)

Queenstown to Glenorchy and Back (3 rides)

My first attempt at hitchhiking in New Zealand was trying to get to Glenorchy. I stood right after the first roundabout leaving Queenstown at 8:15 and stuck my thumb out.

An hour went by. I had read that hitchhiking in New Zealand was “incredibly easy”. What’s happening, I thought….

Ride 1 (WT 1:15, Safety 10, Fun 6)

…I had almost given up when a German guy in his late 50s stopped to give me a ride halfway. He was picking up his daughter and son-in-law from their honeymoon villa.

He dropped me in what I thought was the middle of nowhere. In reality, that’s how the road to Glenorchy feels – very few people live there. I was already committed and it was another 20 minutes before…

Ride 2 (WT 0:20, Safety 9, Fun 7)

…a French couple picked me up in their JUCY campervan rental. You will see many JUCYs in New Zealand – they’re quite a popular choice for campervan-ers.

I got to Glenorchy, walked around, soaked in the scenery, went to Mrs Woolly’s for lunch, and when it was time to go back, walked down Oban Street hitching the few vehicles going back to Queenstown.

Lesson 1: This is a good opportunity to give you a quick tip about walking and hitchhiking. While it’s obvious that you won’t walk to your next destination, there’s a psychological effect at play: It’s like saying “I’m prepared to walk but it’ll be nice if you gave me a ride“, subtly increasing your chances.

View in Glenorchy

Ride 3 (WT 0:15, Safety 10, Fun 9)

A local Kiwi took me all the way back to Queenstown. I learned a lot about the flora and fauna of New Zealand from him, from the fact that there are no native mammals except for two species of bats to the fact that all tall trees are European imports.

Queenstown to Wānaka (1 ride)

You can get out of Queenstown on the 1, 2, or 5 buses. The best one is #5 as it gets you near this spot, which is probably the best one to hitchhike.

View of the mountains and Lake Wakatipu
Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown

I walked there as I enjoyed walking near the lake. I tried hitching before the spot above, on the spot above, and after the spot above. I went as far as the Shotover River Bridge looking for more suitable spots. None.

I went back to the ‘best spot’ from above where the shoulder is still small but bigger than anywhere else. It waited for more than 2.5 hours in total…

a sign that reads "Welcome to the shit show".
That’s what I thought after the second-hour mark

Ride 4 (WT 2:30, Safety 8, Fun 9)

…then one minivan’s driver shook his head at first as if to say that there was no space to stop. Then he abruptly stopped and picked me up (ostensibly he figured he was wrong).

A guy from the UK on a working holiday visa. Doing deliveries between Queenstown and Wanaka. Top lad.

This was the longest I waited for a ride in New Zealand and to this day the longest I’ve ever waited anywhere I’ve hitchhiked.

The famous That Wanaka Tree in the middle of Wanaka Lake
That Wanaka Tree

Wānaka to Lake Tekapo (3 rides)

There’s no public transportation in Wanaka, so I walked to the first roundabout going out of Wanaka and stopped around here.

Ride 5 (WT 0:30, Safety 9, Fun 6)

A campervan carrying a small group of tourists stopped. They were back going to their camp to pick up a forgotten shoe. Didn’t spend much with them but they were a cool bunch.

Ride 6 (WT 0:40, Safety 10, Fun 7)

They dropped me off beside Red Bridge Campground. Not a lot of traffic passed by but at least everyone turning would be going at least until Tarras on the main road to Lake Tekapo.

So I opened a bag of almonds and started waving at the few cars that turned after the Red Bridge.

An elderly lady picked me up saying she only did it because I was clean-shaven and didn’t look like I’d mug her. Case in point – tidy looks win rides.

I assured her I had no intentions of doing that and we had a short conversation about why Kiwis have stopped taking hitchhikers.

She told me about the stranger-danger perception of hitchhikers and what she said was “a relatively recent case” of murdered Swedish hitchhikers. I checked; she was probably referring to this case from 1989. Nothing more recent fits the description.

You may find more cases online from before 2010. But no recent hitchhiker-related crime in New Zealand to my knowledge.

She added that the Pandemic and quarantine restrictions also made hitchhiking rare. I believe this one has a lot more to do with why hitchhiking is on the decline in New Zealand.

Ride 7 (WT 0:05, Safety 10, Fun 10)

After the lady dropped me in front of Tarras Gas Station, I was optimistic about my chances of reaching Lake Tekapo early.

And not even 5 minutes later a jolly, energetic middle-aged mother of 3 picked me up as she was driving to Lake Tekapo to officiate a wedding.

She had her own company now, officiating between 35 and 45 weddings per year from a gay couple who bungee jumped after saying yes, to a romantic ceremony under the stars at Lake Tekapo.

We stopped for pictures at Lake Pukaki and it wasn’t long before we reached Tekapo afterward. It was one of the best rides I’ve ever taken.

Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook in the distance
Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook in the distance

Lake Tekapo to Christchurch (1 ride)

You don’t have to walk far from Lake Tekapo to hitchhike. Anywhere on State Highway 8 after the bridge works. I waited around this spot.

Lake Tekapo - a notable stop when hitchhiking in New Zealand's South Island.
Lake Tekapo

Ride 8 (WT 1:30, Safety 8, Fun 8)

Another long wait. Traffic was good, there was a place to stop but for some reason, nobody was stopping.

Lesson 2: Backup plans are important when hitchhiking. If I had waited, say 4 hours and still hadn’t gotten a ride, I’d’ve just gone back to spend one more night in around Lake Tekapo and tried again the next day. It’s a very pretty area anyway.

Lady Luck smiled at me around the 90-minute mark and a lovely gentleman who liked to drive a bit as if in NASCAR took me as his convo partner all the way to Christchurch. He was a good driver and I didn’t feel massively unsafe though. And always kept it under the limit.

We stopped in Geraldine for some meat pies, the food Kiwis are most proud of for some reason.

Inside the main campus of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch
University of Canterbury, Christchurch

Christchurch to Picton (1 ride)

You can take bus 95 to Woodend and wait in front of the Methodist Church as suggested by Hitchwiki.

I had a lovely Couchsurfing host who insisted on giving me a ride to a good hitching location. He dropped me off somewhere on Highway 1 just before Woodend but with enough shoulder for cars to stop.

Ride 9 (WT 0:10, Safety 9, Fun 9)

I very quickly got a ride in a fancy Maserati. The owner drove from Wellington to the nearest repair shop for Maseratis in Christchurch and was now going back.

At first, it was quite fun learning about his work as a digital security expert and a private investigator on the Internet.

As time went by, he turned out to also be deep into conspiracy theories (or were they?) about the deep state, mass surveillance ala China-style, not having any digital trace, using cash only, TOR browser, encryption, legal tax evasion, etc.

We had a nice latte in Kaikōura, saw the free-roaming seals after and he got just in time for his ferry to Wellington as I decided to spend the night in Picton and catch the ferry the next day.

Seals on rocks near Kaikoura
How many seals can you count?

Lesson 3: You can hitch a ride in a car on the ferry to Wellington but you will still have to pay as the fee is per person (+vehicle fee).

Wellington to Napier (6 rides)

From Wellington, take the train to Upper Hutt and walk down Fergusson Drive to reach this hitchhiking location.

Ride 10 (WT 0:15, Safety 10, Fun 10)

Didn’t have to wait long to get a ride here. Cars stop at 2 traffic lights in front of you and have plenty of time to judge you and decide to stop.

A horse trainer, a former avid hitchhiker, decided to pay back to the hitching community by giving me a ride for a few kilometers.

We picked up her friends from a nearby village about which she informed me in advance. That’s how it should be done.

She was also quite fun.

Ride 11 (WT 0:15, Safety 6, Fun 6)

I got dropped off at Featherston and quickly picked up by what Kiwis call a “bogan”. He meant well, and was trying to be friendly, but was also a bit creepy.

The seatbelt didn’t work and I’d’ve asked to get out had the journey not been so short – only 20 km. to Carterton.

Ride 12 (WT 0:05, Safety 10, Fun 5)

At Carterton, I almost immediately got a ride to Masterton and got dropped off at the beginning of it for lunch. The driver was a certified nurse going home after work (it was around 1 PM at this point)

Ride 13 (WT 1:00, unplanned pick up by the same guy from ride 11)

I had lunch and after unsuccessfully trying to hitch in the beginning of Masterton decided to walk on the other side for better car selection.

Midway in town, the dodgy bogan from Ride 11 saw me again! He was in a different car and looked markedly better. He only wanted to drive me to the end of town for a good spot, so I somewhat reluctantly agreed.

Lesson 4: It’s, of course, good to use your judgment when it comes to who you get in a car with. If you don’t feel right about it, don’t get in. You don’t need to take every offered ride. In this case, I did, but you may decide not to.

Ride 14 (WT 1:15, Safety 10, Fun 10)

After a long wait during which I kept telling myself all it takes is 1 car to stop and contemplating staying the night in Masterton, I finally got a ride with a water polo referee.

Avid host on Couchsurfing and a very fun ride. We had a long conversation about the Couchsurfing and hitchhiking communities in New Zealand. He confirmed that the latter is definitely on the decline.

He dropped me off in Hastings, on the main road to Napier.

Ride 15 (WT 0:01, Safety 10, Fun 7)

Two Taiwanese girls on a working holiday picked me up not even a minute after I stuck my thumb out.

It was a short ride to Napier where they got out of their way to drop me off exactly where I wanted to go. Very nice girls!

An Art Deco building in Napier from 1933.
Napier’s famous Art Deco style

Napier to Rotorua (2 rides)

From Napier Center take bus #15 to the BP just before Bay View. This is the best spot to hitchhike out of Napier.

Ride 16 (WT 0:25, Safety 10, Fun 6)

A middle-aged dog-groomer called for me to come join her as she traveled towards Auckland and could give me a ride to Taupo.

She was a bit on the unsophisticated side, only talking about her love for sitting beside water and not doing much. She was quite friendly though.

Ride 17 (WT 0:10, Safety 10, Fun 2)

Very soon after getting off at the Waikarei Junction, I got picked up by a Filipino couple going toward Rotorua.

Apart from the initial pleasantries, they kept quiet for the whole 90 minutes and my attempts to start a conversation proved inadequate.

The government gardens on Rotorua
Rotorua Government Gardens and Museum

Lesson 5: Some rides expect you to be their conversation partner all the way, others expect to be entertained by you, and there are those happy to just give you a lift, literally no questions asked.

Rotorua to Auckland (3 rides)

State Highway 5 passes within walking distance of Rotorua city center so there’s no need to get a bus.

The closest suitable spot for hitchhiking is at Mobil Sunset.

Ride 18 (WT technically 0, Safety 9, Fun 9)

As I was walking to the gas station, a car stopped ahead of me and waited. The young lad inside offered me a ride to the turn towards Mamako on Highway 5 and because this was going to filter the traffic massively, I accepted.

Ride 19 (WT 0:30, Safety 10, Fun 4)

I got picked up just as it started raining heavily. They didn’t call me Mr Lucky in high school for nothing!

The young Maori man was super kind but I could barely understand what he was saying 3/4 of the time because of the thick accent that I was unaccustomed to. He dropped me off in Hamilton.

Ride 20 (WT 0:40, Safety ??, Fun 10)

My last ride in New Zealand was also the most bizarre.

A yellow car stopped, the Maori man inside asked me where I was headed, and when I said Auckland he hit the gas as if I had said I was contagious.

Five minutes later the same guy stops again! He explained that since I was going to Auckland he thought I would mug him or something. How is that an explanation at all, I thought to myself.

But the weird things about this 20-something guy were only just starting to be revealed to me.

He volunteered a lot of information about his history of drug use (he was sober behind the wheel), his affiliation with the Maori underground, and the international mafia in Auckland. He swore was that in the past for him and he has turned a new page in his life now.

“What do you do for a living?”, I asked. “I’m security”.

“Guarding what?”. “Prostitutes”.

No comment.

A few minutes later, out of the blue, he tells me that the car is not registered, but the police won’t stop him. What the heck man?

He then opens the window, peels a giant magnetic label off the side of the car, and shows it to me: “Maori Wardens”.

He is one of the 800 or so Maori Wardens who help New Zealand’s police deal with crime involving the Maori community, usually in a more fatherly way, through fostering relationships.

[It turned out that the car was registered, it was just his bizarre way of introducing his Warden role]

Somewhere in Auckland

I also learned a lot about the gangs in South Auckland – the Maoris, the Mexicans, the 501 deportees from Australia, and the Samoans whom everyone else fears.

I’ve left this ride’s safety factor undecided (??). I didn’t feel in any danger but given his criminal history and involvement with the gangs maybe I should’ve been.

Lesson 6: Hitchhiking is all about meeting colorful people and exploring the tapestry of humanity in a new place.

If you like reading funny stories of bizarre hitchhiking experiences, take a look at this one from Turkey.

Wrap up

I felt pretty safe hitchhiking in New Zealand. The only safety score lower than an 8 came from this one guy who gave off bad vibes and the seatbelt didn’t work.

But it’s definitely losing its appeal. For one reason or another locals stop less, there are fewer hitchhikers on the road and the public perception is irrationally that it’s dangerous.

The waiting times of more than 1 hour at some places prove just that.

But then again, I made it from Queenstown to Auckland only by hitchhiking, so I can’t complain, now can I?

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