So I’m hitchhiking up the West Coast of New Zealand’s south Island and I get dropped off somewhereoutside the picturesque little lakeside town of Wanaka, where an endless winding road meets another endless winding road. The junction of Freedom and Bedlam, miles from nowhere, and exactly where I want to be.
The harsh, New Zealand sun is shining and there is no shade in sight, so I trudge up the road to a spot where the shoulder widens – a good place to hitch a ride without being run down by groggy drivers. About a hundred yards up the road, I see the hazy silhouette of a man with a small backpack hanging off his shoulder. Heat radiates from the asphalt road, distorting his image like a mirage or an old VHS movie. He waves, and I wave back, and we both drag our packs towards middle ground.
I’m hesitant, but he is friendly. His name is Sebastian and I call him Seb. He is from Holland, and working without a visa, picking grapes or apples or whatever he can get paid for. We’re both headed in the same direction (me, with no real destination in mind) so we decide to pool our limited resources and hitch together.
We spend the next few days hitching rides with strangers and weirdies and some very kind folks. A few of our rides were quite memorable, like the young Kiwi gear-head who picked us up in his supercharged WRX and made record-breaking time, squealing around blind corners on the winding West Coast highways. Then there was the friendly old man who told us stories of getting drunk and seeing how far into the mountains he could drive, as we three sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the cramped front seat. That ride ended with a sudden, “I’m going to the pub now. This is where you get out.”
Seb and I got stranded in punakaiki that night – our last hitch dropped us off at the Pancake Rocks just before sunset, so we snapped some pictures before heading down the road to look for a place to stay. The Backpackers was full, and we were lucky to get a cheap cabin at the campsite down the road. We had to borrow plates, forks, and a pot to cook our meager dinner of pasta and canned tomatoes – all the food we had left.
I met a friendly Israeli named Liat Okin, and we decided to meet for a drink at the pub down the road. We had a few, shared some laughs, and called it an early night, as we were both on the long-haul hitch and wanted to get an early start in the morning. She was headed South, and I was headed North.
Two months later, her body would be found near the Routeburn Track, seven weeks after she went missing. I wouldn’t even know she was missing until I recognized her from a picture on a news report about the search and rescue mission finally coming to an end. A sad and strange turn of events.
Seb and I caught a ride easily that morning. After four or five short rides, we were dropped off at an intersection about 30k outside Nelson. Nelson seemed like as good a place as any to stop for the night, or maybe longer. It’s a decently sized city, but if I needed something bigger, it would be easy to find tickets to tickets to Auckland or Queenstown to look for work.
We sat on a grassy embankment on the side of the road for over two hours, waiting for our next ride. Finally, we were picked up by an old school rock and roller who introduced himself as Edwin. He was blasting Guns and Roses from his tape deck, and as I eyed the tattoos on his neck and arms, I silently chuckled at how un-rock and roll his name was. Edwin proved himself to be a very friendly guy. We talked about life and family and music and travel.
When we arrived in Nelson, Edwin dropped us at a petrol station and pointed out the house on the hill adjacent. He said it was a backpackers hostel called The Palace, and that he had done some work for the owner in the past. “The best backpackers in Nelson,” he said.
So I said my goodbyes to Seb, who was headed to Blenheim for some pruning work on a vineyard, and I started to make my way up the seep (and slightly creepy) driveway to the old house on the hill that modestly referred to itself as a palace.
And so began a new chapter in my travels – Long Term at the Palace.
To be continued…