I see many films, and hear many stories about hitchhikers, and they always meet with some crazy guy, who kill them. I see you there, and I think I better give you a ride, because otherwise maybe some crazy guy will come along. You must be careful. Especially here in Australia…
October 2015. Central Australia.
It’s seven thirty. The sun is going down. A cool breeze picks up, and flicks the red sand at my ankles.
There is not a lot of traffic on this road. I’ve been standing here, three hours, waiting for a ride. Only two vehicles have passed. They were big trucks, each towing multiple trailers. Trucks never stop anymore. I used to get rides with trucks all the time, but the big insurance companies have strict rules about passengers now, so the drivers aren’t allowed to pick up hitchhikers.
Another vehicle approaches. It’s a big camper van thing. A Unimog; with a boat strapped to the roof, dirtbikes clamped to the bullbars, and a thick coating of red dust over everything. The driver waves in a friendly way, and the rig rolls to a stop on the shoulder.
“G’day mate” the driver calls out over the rumble of the big engine. “I’d love to give you a ride, but we haven’t got enough seatbelts in this thing, and the cops dish out big fines nowadays.”
“That’s OK” I reply, trying not to sound disappointed. “Thanks for stopping, anyway.”
The driver hands me a packet of potato chips and a bottle of cold water.
“Good luck mate!”
I reckon it’ll be dark in less than thirty minutes. Once it gets dark, there’s no way I’ll get a ride, and I am really not crazy about the prospect of another night out here in the desert. I haven’t had a shower in three days, and all I have for dinner is a packet of potato chips.
There’s a car coming! It’s just a speck in the distance but moving fast. I stick my thumb out, and crack my sunburned lips with a smile.
The driver pulls over onto the sandy shoulder, and I stick my head in the window.
“Where are you going?” the driver asks me in a puzzled french accent.
“Melbourne” I tell him.
He raises his eyebrows. “OK. Come on. I can take you as far as Port Augusta. At least you will be out of the wilderness.”
I throw my pack into the back seat, and climb into the car.
“I’m Manny” I tell the driver.
“My name is Philippe.”
He shakes my hand.
“You come from Alice Springs today?” he asks me.
“And you are going to Melbourne? That is a long way, you know?”
“Yes it is” I agree. “About two thousand kilometres.”
“And you are going to hitchhike all the way?” Philippe asks me incredulously.
“That’s the plan” I tell him.
A brief pause. Philippe shakes his head slowly.
“Are you crazy? This is a fucking desert, man. Why do you do this?”
“I want to visit my friends in Melbourne.”
“Yes, but why do you hitchhike?”
It’s hard for me to give a simple answer to this question.
Why do I hitchhike?
I ask myself that same question often enough. Especially when it’s raining. Especially when I’m hungry and tired, and the cars just zoom past me. I ask myself that question when I get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, at three in the morning, and have to pitch my tent under a bridge beside the freeway. It’s a rhetorical question, I guess. I know why I do it. But it’s hard to explain it to other people, sometimes.
I started hitchhiking in 2001.
I was in love, and my girlfriend was two states away, and I was broke, and I missed her. I had just been fired from my job. I didn’t really care. I hated the job anyway. But I was broke, and if I wanted to go see my girl, I needed at least a hundred bucks for a bus fare.
We were talking on the phone one afternoon, and I was telling her how much I wanted to go see her, and then I thought about a comic book character I loved when I was a kid, called Tintin. Whenever Tintin was in a tight spot, and needed to go someplace, he just stood beside the road, and stuck his thumb out, and people would pick him up, and take him where he wanted to go. And they were usually interesting people, with stories to tell, or sage advice to give. It was a great travel strategy, and I thought ‘if a Belgian cartoon character can do it, then I can do it’.
“I’ll see you in a few days” I told my girlfriend.
I packed a few spare clothes in a bag, with a blanket, a block of cheese, and a packet of sesame seed buns. I went to the highway, on the edge of town. I stood beside the road, took a deep breath, and stuck my thumb out. A car stopped in less than half an hour. I was on my way.
I got to my girlfriend’s house super quickly, and had a great time on the way.
Everyone who picked me up was friendly, and helpful. I saw parts of Australia I had never been to before.
Since 2001 I have hitchhiked all over Australia, across South-East Asia, Europe, America, England, New Zealand and Morocco.
I’ve hitchhiked across Morocco’s Atlas Mountain range, from Marrakech to the Sahara Desert and then back up Todra Gorge to the olive groves of the north.
In France I hitchhiked with my ex, Nia, into the Alps. Eric, a rugged mountaineer, drove us high into the steep valleys, where we passed the Glacier, and swept into a tunnel that emerged in Alpine Italy. Within ten minutes a smiling Italian in a jeep stopped for us, took us out on the town to meet his friends, and gave us his guest bedroom to spend the night.
Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Portugal, Spain; so many intensely sophisticated and beautiful cultures. Here’s the thing: everywhere I went, there were people kind enough to help me out; a stranger standing beside the road.
I’ve come to love hitchhiking. Even when I have money, it’s still my preferred way to travel.
It can be slow, difficult, uncomfortable, confusing, and pretty weird sometimes, but I keep doing it.
I still don’t have a simple answer to that – even after all these years.
Improvisation. That’s part of it, at least. I love randomness. I love not knowing where I will be at the end of the day, or who I’m going to meet.
It’s very boring sometimes, when you’re standing there waiting for someone to stop, but hitchhiking can also be huge fun.
I meet all kinds of people. I get invited to sleep on people’s couches. I get invited to parties. I hear people’s life stories, and get to know their worlds a little bit.
When I’m traveling in strange lands, the people who pick me up from the roadside are locals, who tell me all kinds of useful stuff about the area. They fill me in on local culture, and current events. I learn a little bit about the place I’m in, from every person who gives me a ride.
There is no classic profile of a person who picks up hitchhikers.
The people who pick me up are from all walks of life. I have been picked up by judges, off duty cops, mums with kids, tourists, farm hands, professional gamblers, grandmothers, hippies, drag queens and priests. Despite their diversity, they all have one thing in common: they care about strangers.
“Ninety percent of the people who see me standing on the roadside, and invite me into their cars are kind, confident and optimistic. Meeting them every day, as I travel, buoys my spirit, and re-affirms my faith in humanity. They give me a lot more than a ride in their cars. They give me their trust, and their stories.”
I try to speak quietly and clearly, without too much emphasis. I don’t want Philippe to think I’m ranting. This poor guy. He picks up a scruffy hitchhiker from the middle of the desert, and asks him a simple question, and the wild eyed hitchhiker proceeds to go on a rant about cultural immersion and universal love. I don’t want him ditching me, because he thinks I’m a nutter.
“And, of course, I’m trying to save money. Traveling in Australia is expensive” I finish, lamely.
Philippe rolls his eyes in agreement. “Is more expensive to live out here in the fucking Aussie Desert, than to live in the South of France.”
“I know, right? I can’t believe what a tin of tuna costs out here” I winge.
We speed past the service station at the turn-off to Uluru. It’s the first building I’ve seen in hundreds of kilometres. The big dusty Unimog, with the dirtbikes on the bullbars is parked in front of the cafeteria.
On the sides of the road, even the sparse saltbush fades away, and soon we are driving through an absolutely featureless plain. As the twilight deepens, the red soil turns a rich crimson.
Philippe draws the car to a stop beside the road. He gets out a thermos flask of coffee, and a packet of fruit muffins. We sit in the dust beside the road and sip coffee.
“When you hitchhike, are you not afraid of some crazy people?” he asks me.
“No. I hardly ever meet crazy people. Well, not crazy in a dangerous way. Almost everyone who has ever picked me up, in ten years, has been a sweet-heart. People are a lot nicer than we give them credit for.”
He purses his lips, looking unconvinced.
“But, I see many films, and hear many stories about hitchhikers, and they always meet with some crazy guy, who kill them. I see you there, and I think I better give you a ride, because otherwise maybe some crazy guy will come along. You must be careful. Especially here in Australia. You have a lot of murdering of hitchhikers here.”
“That was one guy. In the eighties. He’s still in gaol. It’s really safe, seriously” I insist.
“Well, it sounds interesting. I have never done that. But, in Europe, we have many hitchhikers. I often give them rides. I think ‘well, I am going that way, and I will have some conversation’. I spend a lot of time driving, and I can be bored. It is good to have company when you drive.”
“Yeah. That’s great. You drive for work, then?”
“Cool. Hitchhikers love guys like you. What do you do?”
“I import hashish from Morocco to France.”
Around nine o’clock we pull into a roadside parking bay, and piss on rocks. There is a beat-up toilet shed, but it stinks. The soil out here needs moisture anyway.
I refill my water bottle from a rusty looking tank beside the smelly toilet shed.
When I get back in the car, Philippe is staring at the dashboard.
“We have no fuel” he says calmly.
“Oui. I think it is not so far to the next service station, but actually, we have not enough fuel. Maybe we can make another ten kilometres.”
There is a sign in the headlights, at the edge of the parking bay: ‘next petrol station Glendambo; 57 km’.
“Do you have a jerry can, like, a spare fuel can?” I ask him hopefully.
“Non. I have driven all over Australia for two years. I never run out of fuel before.”
“Well” I think out-loud “it’s probably not a good idea to leave here with so little fuel. At least there is water here.”
“Someone will come along in a while, and we can ask them to borrow some fuel” Philippe says flatly.
I nod and smile. We have only seen five or maybe ten cars in the last two hours.
“Maybe it’s your day to try hitchhiking?”
We finish off the muffins. Philippe plugs his phone into the car radio and we listen to high BPM dance music. The moon is not up, but the sky is brilliant with a hundred million stars.
Forty minutes, and about a hundred percussion crescendos later, headlights appear in the distance. The plain is so flat, and the distance so great that, at first, they look like another distant star.
We clamber to our feet and stand next to the road. The engine becomes audible; a rumbling growl. We wave and grin like maniacs, hoping the driver doesn’t decide we are highwaymen and run us over.
It’s a big truck. A Unimog; with a boat strapped to the roof, dirt bikes clamped to the bullbars, and a thick coating of red dust over everything.
The driver kills the engine and climbs down from the cab. He’s a sun-browned, friendly man in his fifties, with a toothy smile, and matching khaki shorts and shirt.
“G’day. I’m Wayne.”
Philippe and me introduce ourselves.
“Hey, you’re the hitchhiker, aren’t you?” Wayne asks me.
“Yeah, I remembered your truck too” I laugh.
“Sorry I couldn’t pick you up, mate” Wayne apologises. “Back in the day it wouldn’t have been a drama, but the fines they hand out for seatbelts now, it’s crazy.”
“Don’t worry about it” I tell Wayne. “Philippe here came along right after you.”
“That worked out alright then” Wayne grins. “I didn’t like to leave you out there in the desert on your own. You can get in a bit of trouble out here if you’re not careful.”
“Wayne, mate” I tell him “the thing is, we’re in a bit of a pickle right now. My colleague here, Philippe, kindly picked me up. But now he has run out of petrol.”
“No jerry can?” Wayne asks Philippe, incredulously.
Philippe shakes his head.
Wayne scratches his chin. “Bugger! Nothing a bloke likes better than getting a Frenchman out of a pickle, but this beast runs on diesel. That’s all I got. It’ll kill your car if we put diesel in it.”
A woman’s face leans out of the Unimog. “What about the bikes?” she asks Wayne.
Wayne’s face lights up. “Oh yeah! The bikes! Good one Kylie’! That’s me wife, Kylie” he tells us.
Me and Philippe introduce ourselves to Kylie.
“Should be just about enough petrol in the bike tanks. Enough to get you blokes out of trouble anyway” she tells us.
Wayne grabs a length of hose, twists the caps off the motorbike fuel tanks, and siphons the fuel out into a jerry can.
“You need to keep one of these in your boot” he tells Philippe, giving the jerry can a pat. “It can be life and death out here, mate. Some roads out here, one or two cars go down there a week. By the time anyone found you, you’d be out of water and out of luck.”
We pour the fuel into Philippes car.
“It’s got a bit of oil in it, but it won’t do any harm” Wayne reassures us.
Philippe takes a fifty out of his wallet and presents it to Wayne, but Wayne pushes the money away.
“Forget about it mate. No worries. We all help each other out in the outback. You’d do the same for me. You got to keep an eye out for folks out here. All the spiders, and snakes, and crocodiles; none of them are the most dangerous thing in Australia. It’s the bloody emptiness can get you out here. No petrol. No water. No bloody people. No bloody nothing. Gotta be ready for anything.” He laughs, and slaps the fender of the massive Unimog. “That’s why I drive a tractor.”
Wayne puts away his jerry can. He and Kylie proudly give us a tour of the Unimog. It’s a pretty amazing machine. Like a camper van on steroids.
“She’s a beauty!” I tell Wayne.
“Yeah, she’s a lot of fun this truck. Bloody expensive to run though. I reckon you’ve got the right idea, hitchhiking.”
“Philippe thinks I’m crazy hitchhiking here in outback Australia. What do you think Wayne? Am I Crazy?”
“Well, I did a lot of hitchhiking myself when I was a younger fella’. Bloody good fun. Went to some beautiful places. Met some great people. That’s how I met me wife, matter of fact. In those days, back in the seventies, there were lots of hitchhikers going around the place”. Wayne grins. “No, I don’t reckon you have to be crazy to hitchhike. Probably helps though.”