Hitchhiking In The South Pacific: It’s a Thumbs Up

There was little life, if any at all, on these isolated rocks that erupted out of the depths of the Pacific Ocean millions of years ago. And positioned thousands of miles from the nearest continents, the steaming lumps protruding from the abyss must have been amongst the most inaccessible and inhospitable places on earth. And yet, in time, each island was painted green with tropical forest, a kaleidoscope of colours emerged from the fringing coral reefs, and the air was filled with the harmonies of existence. Birds squawked, insects clicked, leaves rustled.

Although today many of the islands bear the scars of civilisation, with man and all his domesticated animals pottering about within, nature had long settled here before the first voyagers dared to venture into the blue. We are in the habit of forgetting that there was a world before man, and that it spread itself across the globe many millennia before we did. But how did nature traverse the world’s largest ocean? A feat that man, in his infinite wisdom, has only achieved relevantly recently. Well… some flew, some swam, and some stuck their thumb out and got a lift. Indeed, the composition of the South Pacific owes a lot to hitchhiking.

Plant seeds, for example, got a ride in the bowels of ocean-faring birds that came upon the likes of Samoa, and deposited their passengers into the rich volcanic soil. Factor in the sunshine and rainfall levels of the tropics and you have a pretty good garden, with no need for any gardeners. Fruit bats, which are mammals, also came by air, migrating from New Guinea as far as Tonga, to do the same, and soon botanic life blossomed.

It is easy, of course, to see how the underwater world came to be here (erm… it swam), but the arrival of insects and mammals pre-Homo Sapiens is slightly more puzzling. Rather ironically, it may well be that forces of destruction can account for such proliferation of life. Tsunamis, are one possibility. The damage they inflicted upon the shores of continents could well have produced rafts of debris that carried some of the more resilient mammals across the vast waters on ocean currents: frogs, iguanas and geckos navigated the Pacific long before the Captain Cooks of the world.

And another option is cyclones. Unimaginably powerful winds have been known to act as express forms of transportation, even in the modern world: I once read about a cow in America, famous for twice being sucked up by a tornado and deposited hundreds of miles away, completely unharmed. (I’d wager this didn’t get her off the hook, so to speak, and that she still ended up making one damn tasty burger, as they say.) But in the South Pacific, over the course of millions of years, it is more than likely that some lucky insects found themselves picked up by one of the annual cyclones, and dropped in paradise.

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Life found a way. And at times we have had to find a way too. You see, a boat can only take you so far. About the point where the bottom of it rubs up against the sand of the rising beach is the threshold I’d say, and actually that would probably be deemed a bit too far. Best to reverse up a bit and drop the anchor. After that one can resolve to the dinghy, but once the bottom of that rubs up against the beach too, exploration must be taken by foot or by thumb. This is about the adventure that can be found in the latter.

The notion of hitchhiking is straightforward enough. Find a road that sees some traffic and stick an arm out in the hope a kind soul will admit some stinking sailors to their vehicle for a little while. To begin with it’s entertaining in its own right: it’s people watching with a purpose. Then you begin to notice that most people have the space in their car to pick you up, just not necessarily the space in their hearts, and so gradually the whole escapade begins to feel like a decisive and damning verdict of mankind. But when that one kind soul finally stops, elation reigns. All is forgiven in the click of a seatbelt and humanity seems wonderful once more – it’s an emotional rollercoaster, let me tell you.

You might have thought – or you might not have thought about it at all, which is fine – that the more traffic there is, the sooner you are likely to be picked up. In fact this is not at all the case. It takes far longer to get a ride in the hustle and bustle of Tahiti or New Zealand, than it does in the smaller islands with significantly less cars. This might be because in the busier places it’s easier for drivers to assume somebody else will embrace the responsibility, whereas in the less populated areas perhaps the burden of obligation sits heavier on each individual. But this assumes a rather glum and selfish perspective of us as a species. From a more altruistic viewpoint, one might argue that those who live amongst smaller communities are better acquainted with the shared benefits of helping others out, whereas city folk tend to be selfish wankers.

Sorry city folks, I didn’t mean that. In fact, our South Pacific hitchhiking began fruitfully in one of the few cities of the region: Papeete, Tahiti. This is largely because it was the first place we’d been with any significant roads since Panama, some 4000 miles to the east. It was amongst this city several good Samaritans made themselves known, the most striking example of which was Yan the German, who more or less forced himself upon us as our hitchhiker-host.

We had just emerged from a supermarket with hoards of baguette and cheese, and were unashamedly stuffing the spoils of nineteenth century French colonisation into our faces with gluttonous glee. (This was the first supermarket we’d seen for many months, I hasten to add, and as much as anything it was novel to go into a shop with an abundance of air-conditioning and a scarcity of cockroaches.) Over the end of my baguette I suddenly realised a middle-aged man had been talking to us. “Do you boys need a lift?’ The stranger was politely enquiring. I’m not sure how long he’d been standing there, but we were all aware of him now. James, Will and I looked at each other with eyes full of suspicion and cheeks crammed with baguette, each of us too confused and food-stuffed to reply, and so we settled for an air of collective gormlessness instead.

Yan observed the greedy morons he had bewildered with his attack of kindness, and reading our shared thoughts explained, “You just seem like the kinda guys who might need a lift somewhere. Shall we go?” Unsure whether insulted or grateful, and still silent and suspicious, we slowly rose and followed the man to his car, trading looks of uncertainty. Was this a normal hitchhike operation? Didn’t it normally work the other way around?

In the back of Yan’s car there was camping gear which, rightly or wrongly, aroused further concern. He was about to go up into the hills for the weekend, he explained, as he noted us eyeing his stuff. I didn’t want to make assumptions, but I couldn’t help but think this man was going to roast me on the campfire tonight. I wasn’t the only one who had jumped to this conclusion either. We caught each others eyes again and in those glances a whole conversation took place: yes we might be about to get into a car with a man who will eat us all, but at the end of the day we’re just too polite and too British to refuse. We’d be better off joining the long list of people who have already been eaten during this island’s history, than to attempt such insolence.

With these precarious priorities in place, we got in the car. And, of course, Yan dropped us off happy and unharmed at our destination, where we resumed our baguettes by the waterfront and mused that Yan was one of the nicest non-cannibals we had ever met.

Sometimes the unlikeliest of heroes can come to the rescue. Fast-forward a few months to our elongated stay in New Zealand, and James, Sophie and I found ourselves in a small town in the north, trying to get back to Blue Eye after an afternoon of kiteboarding. The last lady had kindly gone out of her way to drop us at this petrol station, but an hour on it was now dark and we still had a long way to home. We were beginning to spiral into the depths of despair about humankind once more.

So much so that I didn’t even bother putting my thumb up for the lorry that was heading our way… what kind of a lorry driver would squeeze three salty people into his cabin, along with the array of sandy equipment piled at their feet? Sophie did though, and a good job too because low and behold he swerved into a lay-by and threw his doors open for us. We chucked our gear in amid the chilled cheesecakes and clambered up into the front with him.

I’d never stopped to think that I might enjoy the inside of a lorry, but it’s a surprisingly cosy place to be. Elevated, capacious, homely… it’s amongst the most luxurious hitchhikes one could hope for. And when the driver bid us farewell with some cheesecake at the other end he really had gone beyond his call of duty, consigning us to the all too familiar position of not being able to thank someone enough for his or her generosity. (Such unruliness with company stock, however, might have gone some way to explaining how he came by the capacity to steer the lorry with a bulbous belly, whilst using two hands to roll his cigarettes.)

When it comes to hitchhiking with delivery men though, our experience on the small island of Lifou, New Caledonia is the most memorable. Amongst the small populace of people who know it exists, Lifou is famous for its hitchhiker-friendly inhabitants, and so we expected to easily get to the capital and back in order to run some errands that day.

Indeed, it was not a surprise when the very first car to come around the corner stopped to welcome us into their modest little run-around. It was not a surprise that the three local guys took up most of the space inside with their broad-shoulders, given that physical garden work employs most of the men on Lifou. It was a distinct surprise, however, to open the boot and find there was no room for our bags there either, as an entire cannabis plant was bursting out of it. Cue our bursting into laughter at such blatant absurdity, which soon infected them too, as if they had forgotten about the pungent contraband that was now spilling out the back of their car.

Now, at this point we were effectively illegal immigrants to New Caledonia, having already cleared out of the country and ostensibly being on our way to Vanuatu. (This is not common procedure for us, but the French authorities make life very difficult for the sailor who wants to visit places like Lifou, by demanding that they sail the hundred-odd miles back to the capital city, Noumea, to complete departure formalities, before then sailing back past Lifou on the way east to Vanuatu. Like most cruisers, we put two fingers up to this idea.) So to now be in a car with a copious amount of marijuana was perhaps to be on the wrong side of good sense, but the guys seemed good people and, ever victims of the old-fashioned innocuousness of British culture, we didn’t want to offend.

During our journey the language barrier was overcome enough to glean that one of the men was to be catching a boat over to the mainland to deliver the plant on display in the boot. Given it was stinking out not just the car but the entirety of any town we drove through, and that not even token efforts had been made to conceal or package the plant, it was intriguing that the plan had made it even this far. Once in the capital we didn’t hang around too long to find out what the next stage was, but given they drove past us later that day leaving a familiar smell in their wake, we guessed they had second thoughts about the whole thing anyway.

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All life in the South Pacific owes its existence to catching a ride in one way or another, be it with it the winds, currents or a vehicle of some form, and hitchhiking remains very much part and parcel of the ocean. Hundreds of sailboats potter across these waters every year, plenty looking for extra help along the way. We count ourselves very lucky to have been joined by the intrepid travellers that have graced Blue Eye during our time here, all of whom are now eternally connected with us by the many miles we have travelled and the experiences we have shared.

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