The start of the Rob Roy hike, Mount Aspiring National Park

“You could hitchhike…” said the lady at the Korean restaurant. “A lot of young people here do it”. She seemed to imply that even though I wasn’t particularly young, there was no reason it shouldn’t work for me too. Never mind that I had never hitchhiked before or even seriously considered it.

I had just explained to her that I wanted to hike the Rob Roy Glacier track but had no transport. Rob Roy is part of Mount Aspiring National Park, which is one of the reasons many people come to Wanaka.

“The most varied and spectacular one day walk in New Zealand” proclaimed the brochure of a local adventure company before asking the princely sum of NZ$275 (US$177) for driving you there and “guiding” you up the track before driving you back. That seemed a little insane. Why so pricey?

At the tourist office, the young woman concurred: yes, it’s really easy to hitch a ride to Rob Roy. On the town map, she showed me the best place to stand. Half the cars passing there are going to the Rob Roy track she said. It’s about an hour’s drive away.

From what I had read and what she told me, I learned that the Rob Roy track is a graded moderate three to four hour hike (10 kms) on a clearly marked dirt trail. The gradient is around 4oo metres. The trail is not technical and doesn’t require any equipment except good hiking shoes or boots. It’s a single track going up, which you then follow back in the opposite direction, along with dozens of other hikers.

It sounded pretty straightforward to me and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would need a guide on such a trail. But that left the problem of transportation. I figured that even a taxi there and back wouldn’t cost NZ$275. But I was now intrigued by the hitchhiking concept. How wonderfully retro!

The couple at my AirBnB accommodation also confirmed that a lot of people hitchhike in Wanaka. They gave me a piece of cardboard and told me what to write on it: “Rob Roy (Raspberry Flat)”. Raspberry Flat is the name of the parking lot from where the hike starts, in case there should be any confusion.

The following morning around 9:45 am I found myself standing by the side of the road holding my sign up in my right hand, while sticking out my left thumb. I’ll admit that I felt pretty ridiculous for the first few minutes. I had wondered if the area would be crawling with other hitchhikers competing for a ride. It wasn’t. I was the only one there.

After about five minutes, a young man started walking in my direction. “You too?” he said. I took that to mean that he was a hitchhiker himself and replied that I had been told this was the way to go. “Been hitchhiking all around New Zealand” he said. “You probably won’t have to wait more than half an hour here.” “Great” I said. Was that supposed to be good? Honestly, I had expected that it would take much less time.

The guy walked past me and went to stand about 300 metres down the road. Hitchhikers etiquette?

Holding your arm up can be pretty tiring, so I only lifted my thumb when cars were coming. Should I smile, or would that look manic and creepy? I decided to keep my mouth closed, but to try and look innocuous yet confident. (Yes this is perfectly normal and comfortable. I’ve done this dozens of times before. Not.) I was hoping a couple would stop, or perhaps a family. A woman or two would be good as well. But what if it was a single guy… What would I do then?

Finally, a red SUV stopped with a single woman inside. I felt relieved. But I soon discovered that she was only going as far as Glendhu Bay, less than a third of the way to my final destination. With regret I thanked her and let her go. I was wary of being stuck in some unknown place with possibly no way to go forward or back. At least as long as I was in Wanaka I could still abort my plan. Except I didn’t want to. It was a beautiful sunny day (not to be taken for granted in New Zealand, even in the middle of summer) and I really really wanted to do this hike! Should I have taken the woman’s offer after all? Was hitchhiking in segments the way to go? I should really have researched the topic more.

The sun was getting hot and I was totally exposed. I started moving slowly toward the shade of a clump of trees that I could see in the distance. Once in a while I turned in the direction of the other hitchhiker. Yup, he was still there. I had been waiting for maybe 20 or 25 minutes when I noticed a white car parked on the shoulder about a hundred meters up the road. Was he waiting for me? I didn’t even remember seeing him pass me. Or maybe it was just someone consulting their map or GPS?

Cautiously I made my way toward the car. I couldn’t see any movement inside, nobody beckoning me over. I expected the car to drive back onto the road at any moment, but it didn’t. It just sat there. I went past it and looked into the windshield. I saw someone motioning to me. I opened the passenger door and saw a single guy sitting in a messy car, his brown face unshaven, wearing a baseball cap. I hesitated. “I’m going to do the Rob Roy hike” I said. “Where are you headed?”. “I’m also going to do that hike he said. I can give you a ride”. He could sense my hesitation so he added “I’m from Nepal, I live in San Francisco, and I’m travelling around New Zealand. Up to you.” I noticed a bunch of stuffed animals and other junk on the passenger seat. Surely a psychopath wouldn’t have stuffed animals in his car, would he?

I said OK, but I was still a little nervous. While he cleared the passenger seat, I made a mental note of his license plate and texted it to my AirBnB host, along with a quick description of the car and guy. A girl can never be too cautious.

Well, as it turns out, I need not have worried. Akil was a 35-year old guy on a solo trip to a destination he had dreamed about since childhood. The little stuffed animals were souvenirs he bought along the way that kept him company on his long car journeys. He said he had never picked up a hitchhiker before, so didn’t really know the protocol either. There we were, two hitchhiking virgins!

We ended up doing the hike together, and he brought me back to Wanaka at the end of the day, in one piece. We talked a lot, took pictures of each other (although Akil is a master of the selfie) and of course hiked this brilliant trail. No regrets, and a new friend as a bonus.

Below is a little slideshow that will show you why this trail was worth hitchhiking for!

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