New Zealand transportation culture – it’s just different
My third night in New Zealand was the first time I ever hitchhiked. Google Maps said walking from Queenstown to Fernhill takes 45 minutes and driving takes 10. That’s an expensive cab. We started the walk. Cars drove by infrequently, and I stuck out my thumb with a half of a hope for getting picked up. We were already a good way up the hill and the only potential for a car to pullover was a narrow shoulder. Rear-view lights breaking caught our attention but we still didn’t believe they were for us. The breaking came to stop so we ran over to inquire.
“That hill’s the worst, get in mates!” announced the driver as his window lowered.
The driver and his passenger were both Australians new to Queenstown, planning to stay just for the ski season. They’d bought the car cheap from a traveler eager to rid of all belongings before their approaching departure. They found work in a bar and a café and hoped to ski most days. Our plans were similar, so we exchanged numbers in hopes of later skiing together. The driver saved his number under the name “Disco Stu.” He dropped us at our friend’s door and wouldn’t let us out without a “parting gift” – a nugget of marijuana.
We never saw Disco again. I never had a better hitchhiking story. We hitchhiked everywhere: to work and home, to the ski fields and home, to the grocery store and home. There were “hitch spots” where two cars drove by before the third stopped and offered a ride. The dialogue was usually the same – Where you from? How long you been here? What you doing here? And how long you staying here? The line of questioning was always the same, but their answers never were. The Queenstown bubble is made up of backpackers from all over the world. Some there just for the winter, others for the year of their visa, but most with no plans to leave.
In Queenstown, a 2008 Honda Pilot sticks out like a Tesla in 2008 (They hadn’t yet been invented – that’s what I’m getting at there). Traveler’s recycle cars, they don’t buy new. Residents become numb to the dark fumes and wheezing sounds of a car squeaking to a stop. But in the defense of the cars, they work hard. In Queenstown, if you’re not driving up a hill, you’re driving up a mountain. If you’re not driving up in second gear, you’re rolling down in neutral. You wouldn’t take a manual 1990s 2WD two-door off-roading in the Rockies.
We eventually bought our own clunker: a 1998 Mazda Capella Wagon, from a fellow named Wayne. Wayne seemed like a straight shooter. He was only selling because he was leaving town after 40 years in Queenstown. He assured us that he hadn’t experienced any problems, but the car he sold us was one migraine after the next. Sharing a car with three others is frustrating to begin with. Driving stick with your left hand on the foreign side of the road is a lot to think about. Fitting snow chains that don’t exactly fit the tires is frustrating. We had to replace the breaks and clutch within a few weeks of owning the car. We would eventually abandon the car when the CV-joint failed on the homestretch of a two-hour drive to Cardrona for a day of skiing.
Cardrona sits atop a 14km unsealed, unpaved, steep, windy road. I still don’t know what a CV-joint is. I do know that it sounded like the engine was going to fall out. When those sounds leveled-up from discomforting to dangerous, we left the car on the side of the road, hitched up to the base, skied all day then hitched back down to the car, and rolled to the bottom in neutral. Four of us got out and pushed while one stayed in to steer. The Cardrona Hotel pub just up the road was our goal. We pushed with ease for 100 yards until a slight incline halted momentum. The decision was easy: we couldn’t afford the tow back to Queenstown and definitely couldn’t afford to replace another pat. We abandoned the car on the side of the road. With all belongings removed, we walked the mile to the pub.
A mutual friend, named Amanda, worked at the pub. She offered to drive us back to Queenstown. She also had a New Zealand Automobile Association (NZAA) membership. Members get three free tows we found out. She offered to sacrifice one of those. I was happy to leave it and forget it, but she insisted. NZAA promised a truck within an hour. We ordered another round and waited for their call. Itsy and I volunteered to ride in the tow truck. When the call came, Amanda drove us to the tow site.
NZAA first sent a mechanic in hopes of an easy fix. The mechanic didn’t bring his engine-falling-out tool, and suggested we go back to the pub because the tow truck might be a while. We followed his orders. The tow truck driver greeted us with disapproval, “Well if I’d known you’d be at the pub, I’d done my other pickups.” In our defense, we didn’t keep him waiting more than a few minutes. Also in our defense: mechanic’s orders.
It was an awkward hour-long drive. I sat in the middle and tried my hardest not to bump elbows with the driver. Itsy and I were still in a laughing fit about the lost toe. The driver dropped us off and unloaded the car at an auto shop. With no further words or advice or information on where we were, he drove off. We walked to the well-lit main road and hitched a ride back to Fernhill.
So, we were again without a car. The convenience of the car was most missed by the early morning work shift. A prompt hitch early in the morning is no guarantee. Now having to account for potentially walking, leaving home an hour before the start of a work shift meant you’d be on time or you might hitch a ride and arrive long before your manager with the keys. I cut it close some days and waited outside a closed café other days. Hitchhiking was awesome when it was new, but it got old fast.
I said earlier in this post that we never saw disco again, but I’m happy to share an update: as I was writing this blog post, Tyler, who was also in the car that night with Disco and who is still living in Queenstown, messaged me this:
Disco Stu lives!