…Yuuri is much cuter looking than me, so I get her to stick her thumb out, and sure enough she gets us a ride in about three minutes.
The lady who stops for us is taking her kids home from school.
“Hi, I’m Carol. I’m not going very far, but if you don’t mind stopping off at my place on the way, so I can drop off the kids and the groceries, I’ll take you to the highway after that…”
Roaming Oz Part 1: Hitching
By Emmanuel Marshall
Australia is a big country. It is also pretty sparsely populated, so there are big distances between towns and a lot of wilderness in between.
Most backpackers who visit Australia spend lots of money on transport. But there’s a better way.
(Top photo: you can get a ride anywhere in Australia, if you have the confidence and patience, even in the middle of the desert.)
Quiche To Go.
Yuuri and I set out south from Sydney. It’s Yuuri’s first day hitchhiking. I can tell she is pretty nervous. Yuuri is Japanese. We have only known each other two days. She doesn’t speak much English, and the closest to camping she has ever been is a picnic in Tokyo’s Sumida park.
Yuuri and I met the previous night at a new years eve beach party, in Sydney’s leafy southern suburbs. I tried to chat her up all night. Total fail.
We both crashed out at the party.
The next morning I was packing up my gear, when Yuuri wandered past, searching for coffee. I made her a cup of Nescafe, and asked her if she would like to see a bit more of Australia.
“I’m going to hitchhike down the coast today. Go to a few beaches. Why don’t you come with me? You’ll get to see some beautiful places. On Monday you can jump on a train and be back in Sydney for college, no problem. Not a date – just for fun.”
She looked at me and smiled.
“Actually” she admitted, “I have always been curious to try hitchhiking.”
“You got a towel and a toothbrush?”
“You’re all set then.”
She considered for a moment,
“OK. I will do it.”
So that was it. We packed up our stuff, and set off.
Yuuri is much cuter looking than me, so I get her to stick her thumb out, and sure enough she gets us a ride in about three minutes.
The lady who stops for us is taking her kids home from school.
“Hi, I’m Carol. I’m not going very far, but if you don’t mind stopping off at my place on the way, so I can drop off the kids and the groceries, I’ll take you to the highway after that. You should be able to get a ride there really easy.”
We thank Carol warmly, and pile into the back seat of her old station wagon, with the baby and the labrador.
Yuuri loves dogs, and I can see she is much happier already, with a dog to pat, than she was trying to have a conversation with me in broken English.
(Above: Yuuri trying her hand at hitching, and showing great natural talent.)
Carol pulls into her driveway, and we help her carry her groceries into the house. The kids show us all their favourite toys, and Carol introduces us to her husband, the budgie, the cat and the pet goat.
“I picked up these two on the way home” Carol tells her husband, a rosy faced man with a beer gut. “After lunch I’ll take them over to the highway, so they can get a ride down to Pebbly Beach.
We all sit down to a big lunch, with garden salad from carol’s back yard, cold roast chicken, and delicious little cup-cake size quiches, fresh out of the oven.
After we finish eating, Carol puts the left over quiches and some chicken sandwiches in a plastic bag, and gives them to Yuuri.
“I hope you really enjoy traveling in Australia, Love” she smiles. “At least you won’t be hungry tonight, anyway.”
We pile in the station wagon again, wave to the kids, the husband, the cat, the dogs and the pet goat, and Carol drives us out to the highway.
Yuuri and I stand on the roadside again, and wave to carol, as she makes a u-turn and heads home.
“She is such a lovely lady” Yuuri observes, happily.
“Hitchhiking brings out the best in people” I agree. “Well, I reckon if we get a ride pretty soon we will be at Pebbly Beach before sundown, and we can finish the day with a swim. You seem to be a natural hitchhiker, girl. I never got a ride as quick as you did.”
Yuuri smiles proudly.
“Since you’re so good at it, you might as well stick your thumb out again, hey?”
She frowns. “No. Is your turn, Mr Hitchhiker. I am busy.”
She opens the bag that Carol gave us, and bites into a quiche.
“Yes. I have to eat these.”
(Below: Australia’s spectacular coastline, south of Sydney.)
Free Is Just The Beginning.
Australia is one of the easiest places in the world to hitchhike, and safe too.
I’ve been hitching in Australia for ten years, and I’ve met nothing but lovely, generous, friendly people. They go out of their way to get you to where you are going, share their sandwiches and smokes with you, and offer you a hot shower and a bed for the night.
The east coast highways between Brisbane and Melbourne are particularly good. It’s quite possible to travel 1500 km in a single day!
But why would you want to rush? There are beautiful beaches, lush forests and rivers everywhere, where you can pitch your tent, and enjoy the gorgeous wilderness that most backpackers zoom past in crowded busses, so they can squeeze into overpriced hostels and get ripped off at resort beaches.
I’m going to talk more about camping out in my next post, but suffice to say, there is always somewhere to sleep in Australia, without paying for it. In all the years I have been roaming around Oz, I have only spent about half a dozen nights in hostels, and I have always been safe and comfortable.
(More about camping in Roaming Oz Part 3: Camping.)
Hitchhiking is free transport, which is awesome, but there is another really compelling reason to thumb your way around Australia.
When you hitch, you make friends. Sitting in a car with people for an hour or two, you get to know them. People are always curious about who you are, and where you are going.
You get great advice from people about what to do and where to go. Most of the time, the people who pick you up are locals. They know the area, and they love it. They want to show you their place – share with you their passion about the part of the world they call home. So many times, the people I ride with make suggestions to me about places I can camp, beaches to visit and even where I can go to get work.
(Above: Aussies are really hospitable people. In 2014, when I hitched across the Nullarbor Desert, this lovely bloke drove me about 1000 km, and shared his dinner with me as well.)
Many times, as the sun is going down, my last ride of the day will ask me where I am going to spend the night. When I tell them I am going to pitch my tent, they insist that I come to their place, have some dinner, and spend the night on their couch. It’s the old fashioned kind of hospitality that used to be the norm a hundred years ago, and it feels really good.
There is a warmth, a humanity, that comes out in people when they encounter a wayfarer. It feels like a basic human instinct to help out travelers. I always express my gratitude for that. I never take it for granted. Of all the aspects of being a nomad, it’s that natural, simple, human connection that I love the most.
OK then. How do I get a ride? How is it done?
Hitchhiking is not a complex science, so I’ll keep this short and sweet.
The truth is, you can get a ride from anywhere, to anywhere, as long as you have the time and confidence to keep trying.
Some places are easier, some are harder. There are cultures where hitchhiking is considered suspicious, and places where it is almost unknown.
Hitching used to be commonplace in Australia. Since the 1990s, it has declined in popularity, but it has never disappeared, and now it is making a bit of a comeback.
There are three basic types of hitching:
2. service station
Roadside hitchhiking is your basic, stand-on-the-side-of-the-road-with-your-thumb-out technique. It’s all about picking the right place. You need to be somewhere there is space for drivers to stop safely, and you need to be on a road that leads to your destination. The rest is all patience. It helps to have a bit of cardboard, with the name of your destination. It is also a really good idea to try and be in lower speed zones. People are less likely to stop if they are zooming along at 110 kph.
Service station hitchhiking is the safest for people who are nervous about their personal security. A lot of female hitchers like it, because they have an opportunity to meet the drivers, and talk to them, before they get in their car.
You hang out beside the service station door, and when drivers come to pay for their fuel, you smile cheerfully, and ask them where they are going. The rest is down to your charm and skills of persuasion. If they offer you a ride, you can keep them talking until you feel comfortable about accepting. Also, most service stations have camera surveillance now, so that may also provide some security.
It’s a good way to hitch for other reasons, too. You can shelter from the weather, and if you’re lucky, you might be able to use the toilets and showers inside the servo. The biggest plus of all is, the drivers are already stopped, so if you are able to get them talking, you have a really good chance of getting a ride quickly.
Having said all that, service stations are few and far between in Australia, so finding one is not always easy. Odds are, you will find yourself on the roadside most of the time.
Chat hitchhiking is the form that requires the most confidence. Basically, you just walk up to someone in the street, who has a vehicle, and ask them for a ride. People are sometimes quite surprised, and a bit confused, but if you are friendly, and polite, they are often willing to help. I sometimes do this when I’m in the middle of a big city, especially if its raining, and I don’t want to walk. When you think about it, if they are going your way, and they have the space, why wouldn’t they help you out? It’s all about your attitude, and how confident you are.
The Danger Of Hitchhiking
Once you give it a go, you are going to get hooked. Trust me. The danger of hitchhiking is, that once you start, you may not be able to stop.
When you feel the freedom that hitching gives you, and get to enjoy the awesome generosity people are capable of, it becomes an integral part of your travel experience. You will connect with people you never would have met otherwise, and make friendships that will last a lifetime.
Every hitchhiker I know feels the same way. Hitchhiking makes you a stronger, more ambitious traveler, and invests you with a faith in human kindness that is hard to get in any other way.
I can’t get enough. Even if I have money for the bus, I still hitchhike. There’s nothing exciting about riding the bus.
(Below: Australia’s coast is crammed with gorgeous, pristine beaches. Hardly anyone ever visits most of them, and hitchhiking is an awesome way to explore them.)
Yuuri and I get to Pebbly Beach around seven o’clock.
We have a swim, and sit on the beach eating the chicken sandwiches Carol gave us.
“Where we sleep tonight?” Yuuri asks. “No hotel here, I think.”
“No hotel needed” I reassure her. “We’re free range humans. We will pitch the tent in the trees up there above the beach.”
She nods. “OK.”
“Did you have fun today?” I ask her. “You seem to have a talent for hitchhiking.”
“It was very fun. I want to do this more. I never imagine you can travel this way. Is this possible in Japan, also?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t tried it in Japan yet, but I think it would work fine.”
We finish our sandwiches as we walk up the beach together. The sun is getting low in the sky, and the water is shimmering with red and gold.
“Come on” I say, “let’s get the tent set up before it gets dark. We need to get going early tomorrow – get you to the train so you can go back to the city for college.”
“Hmmm. Actually, I am thinking… I can take some days off before I go back to college. I will like to spend some more time hitchhiking.”
(Below: me and Yuuri heading down the coast. As well as free transport, hitching in Oz is a great way to make friends.)
Hi, i’m Emmanuel Marshall.
I’m an excessively tall person, with no fixed address and itchy feet.
My mission is to live a nomadic life with one bag and thousands of friends.
I started roaming in 2006. The more time I spend on the road, the more it feels like home.
I write a blog called Raw Safari. It’s full of useful info about low-budget adventure – hitchhiking, urban camping, backpacking, etc – and funny stories about my misadventures.
If you would like to read more of my stuff, check out rawsafari.com