20,000 Kilometres By Thumb: A Hitchhiker’s Lap Around Australia

You recently completed a full lap around Australia. Was that solely by hitchhiking?

No, I did cheat for one section. When I got to Sydney, I drank and had a massive hangover, and the next day I couldn’t fathom the idea of talking to people while hung over…So I just caught the train to Brisbane and then started again the next day. But otherwise, everywhere else, all around the top end and everything, was all hitchhiking.

So what was your route and how long did it take to complete?

I essentially took the coastal road, the A1, but when I got to Broome, I got a ride with a bloke who was going down the middle of Western Australia. He was going all the way to Perth from Broome so I just thought, well, I’m going to go with that dude…and he was awesome…He’d travelled all around Western Australia [working]…and then was coming straight back down the guts through all these places I’d never heard of – Karratha and through the Pilbara – I didn’t even recognise I was going through the Pilbara when I was going through ... And I would like to think that I would be able to recognise that, but because it wasn’t a route I was expecting to take I was just saying, “Jeez, it’s nice around here,” like an idiot.

What inspired you to hitchhike? Had you done it before at all?

Well, my dad did it when he was a young fellow. He travelled around the world for eight years and some of those sections he hitchhiked – from Turkey to London – pretty crazy stuff. So when I was young I did it because my dad did it. But also because of pecuniary deficiency: I had no cash so I just went, right, hitchhiking’s the way forward and I’d hitchhike to the beach [and around]. Then at the uni holidays one of my mates was going across to Western Australia, so I went with him and, having not really much money to go back, I hitchhiked back across the Nullarbor. Nullarbor was a pretty good adventure so I thought, one day down the track, I’m going to do a full lap of Australia…

You must have met some pretty interesting people along the way. Can you tell me about one or two of your favourite drivers?

I met some characters. There was a guy [from Zimbabwe] who had been kicked off his farm by Robert Mugabe…I had about a three-hour drive with that character and I just drilled him full of questions just to entertain. It was interesting to hear that angle as well: the white farmer booted off the farm because many people might side with Mugabe in the original instance of giving the land back to the black [population]. I know I did, until [Mugabe] got a bit more violent, a bit more out of control. And this bloke set me straight. The farm had been in his family’s possession for a few generations and when he was telling the story about how he’d built the farm up to be worth about $1.5 million US, I was [thinking], you shouldn’t really be kicked off that farm….

What I really liked about that bloke was that he’d been booted off his farm, he came to Australia, but he only told me about it because I asked him about it. And he didn’t particularly whinge about it, he just stated that as fact and then he just carried on…he was awesome; he just ploughed on [with his life]….I hopped out of his car just feeling so much more educated. And most of the rides you hop out of, you didn’t feel more educated.

You didn’t?

No, well, you’d feel more educated about that person’s life because often they just unload. They just say, “I’m divorced, I’ve got four kids,” you know, like there was a Christian fellow who told me that he tried to commit suicide ten times and all this sort of stuff. So really intimate, full-on details really quick. People just go straight there. You’re like a priest.

John Card hitchhiked a full lap around Australia

John Card at the Victoria River in Northern Terrritory, Australia

Did your method of transportation affect your travel experience?

Absolutely. I like bushwalking and going to national parks but the roads to national parks are often ‘C’ roads; there’s so little traffic on those that it was a real risk to go and stand out there – you could have waited forever. So I tended not to get out to them. Which is a real shame, but my motivation wasn’t necessarily to get to those unless it was easy. I wanted to just get around a full lap, see as much as I could considering the circumstances, and get an insight into Aussies.

I’ve been a schoolteacher for a long time and I just felt quite cynical about Australian society. I don’t feel like they care enough for kids and I was just jacked of teaching, but I wanted to take a more positive angle on my own country or find out whether I was at least right and Aussies are ungenerous, unkind and that our international reputation as friendly, fun-loving people wasn’t necessarily accurate. So I went out cynical and came back positive. People would go the extra mile. Yeah, ninety-nine per cent or more cars go past you. If you look at it that way, you’d end up with a broken head, but it’s all because of Wolf Creek. Do you know the movie?

I’ve heard of it; the horror movie, right? I haven’t actually seen it…

People [are afraid]. Anyway, so I understand that and that’s ok. But the people that did pick you up would say, “Where are you going?” and they’d go [out of their way] sometimes – one fellow offered to drive about 140 kilometres out of his way just to drop me somewhere he thought I might like to go…I really had to tell him “no.” Nice guy. People would do that with monotonous regularity….
There was a Belgian fellow who I met in Broome and he’d been hitchhiking all over the place. He was like a Kerouac-style character. He’d go without food for days and all sorts of crazy stuff. He was more hardcore than me but he was getting around all over the place. People were taking him in, feeding him meals; one guy put him up for two weeks, all this sort of stuff. And, I just wanted a lift and to talk to people and anything extra I usually said no. They’d try to buy me lunch fairly consistently and I’d try and buy them lunch or we’d stop and I’d try and buy them a beer. There’s that sort of reciprocity in the arrangement. He was happy to bleed the situation a little bit. But he was having a completely different travel experience to all the other backpackers that I met. He knew Aussies better than they did. Everybody else, if you went to a backpackers anywhere, would complain [that they] don’t meet any Aussies. This guy had the opposite problem. He was always meeting Aussies.

Were most of the people that picked you up truck drivers or did you get a fair mix of everyone?

Actually, there were more truck drivers than I expected….I came from Perth to Adelaide solely by truck, which is a long way….I got across the Nullarbor faster than you would if you hopped in a car and drove yourself or even if you drove with two mates. I was across to Adelaide in 25 hours, I think…and I wasn’t rooted by the time I got to the other end because I was maintaining conversations with truck drivers for long periods of time.

Hitchhikers might find themselves catching rides with truck drivers

Do you have any advice for people looking to hitchhike their way around somewhere?

It’s a very tactical game. Where you position yourself, when you put yourself in different spots and how you present yourself, I reckon are the three key things. I hitchhike neatly. I know about a guy who hitchhiked through Japan and he wore a tie, which I think might be a little bit over the top when it’s 42 degrees [Celsius] outside of Katherine, but I wore a polo shirt and shorts and I was always neat and I usually wore shoes as well so I didn’t look like a layabout. Although people will scream out at you all the time that you’re a dole-bludging cockhead and stuff like that, you know, you just look at the next car. They’ll pick you up; you don’t get affected by it. And then try to get where someone’s got a sight of you. You want them to be able to see you for at least 500 metres. You want a possible conversation to be able to occur between two people should there be two people picking you up… So I’d stick my thumb out miles out so they could see that’s what I was actually doing and my body was directed at the traffic. And generally you want them to be going quite slowly so that they can have a good look at you. If they were going 40 km/h, that’s ideal. Coming out of petrol stations I got a few lifts but I never asked.

That was one of my golden rules: never to ask anybody for a lift because I didn’t want to be that person. It starts the trip together on the wrong note. You want to be the bloke who they’re doing the favour for, not that you’ve asked. I reckon that’s the wrong premise for any following discussions. And [start] early in the morning, I reckon. For my big legs, I was out there at five [in the morning], pack the tent up, have a nice coffee, enjoy and because it was often hot days, I was out there between seven and eight, fully packed, clean, ready to get a lift. But, often those first few hours would just be standing by the side of the road kicking rocks around or throwing rocks at trees.

You put on lots of sunscreen hopefully?

Yeah, part of my presentation was that I wore a big hat, which said to people that you’re not a fan of cancer and therefore you have some knowledge, you’re not an idiot and you’re not carrying a shotgun. You had to present, the best you could, that you’re non-threatening. And that’s difficult for me because I’m 6’1”…the Belgian fellow, he was better at getting lifts than me, from our discussion. He was about 5’8” and had a bit of a hippy thing going on and I don’t want to present as a hippy. But to me, that was an advantage for him. And if I should do it again in another country, I would experiment with different looks in order to try and get rides faster. Because it is frustrating waiting a long time.

But I didn’t wait that long ultimately for lifts. The longest wait was six and a half hours and often, quite often, it’s under an hour. Considering that I went around over 20,000 kilometres due to my thumb, I think that’s quite amazing.

What about your personal safety? Safety is obviously a big issue whenever anyone’s talking about hitchhiking and most travel guides don’t recommend it. Did you ever feel unsafe or threatened?

Not while I was hitchhiking, really….I reckon do it, don’t be scared of it. I wouldn’t ever recommend it to girls by themselves…Couples could do it fairly easily and fellows should just do it, especially backpackers. It takes a bit of ticker, a little bit of mongrel, and you’ve got to think that anything can happen to you. But what usually happens is really positive things, amazing conversations, good times and you get a bit of faith back in humanity. That’s what it did for me.

John Card is currently studying radio broadcasting in Australia and writing a book about his hitchhiking experiences.

Do you have any hitchhiking experiences or tips of your own? Or any questions for Card? You can post them in the comments below.

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3 years ago

I’m pretty keen on hitch hiking, but as a female, we are sort of conditioned to think that sticking a thumb out for a lift is going to attract every Wolf Creek axe murderer in the country. That’s not the case really. You get weird rides, but most people are actually really concerned about your safety and are giving you a lift because they think you are in danger…. or stupid. I always explain politely and with a sense of humour that I dont own a car and usually walk, or ride, but seeing as they are going my way…… Read more »

grefo the hitcher
3 years ago

i first started hitchin when i was around 18-19 while i was in new zealand with a friend he would always try to get me to come in the truck with him when we were younger (like go and hitch with a truck driver) and then one night i did it and after that we started hitching out to gisborne together from auckland to see his ex girlfriend and then we did auckland taupo and now ive been up and down the whole north island and south island from auckland all the way down to bluff on my own, the… Read more »

Hitchhiking Beeman named Quentin.
6 years ago

Now aged 62, I’ve been hitch-hiking world wide since I was 16 ! This includes about 2,800 miles around Britain during the summer of 2015. over the years I’ve had wonderful hitch hiking adventures in a variety of nations including New Zealand, Venezuela, Canada, Malaya,USA, parts of Europe, and on just about every Caribbean island ( I live on Nevis) . Quite often I wear the kilt I received aged 21; it once helped me get from Quebec to Alberta in 5 days !

James of the Nile
6 years ago

Howdy I love hitching. First did it out of desperation in Hawaii big island…amazed I was, 2-5 min waits and faster than the bus :))) next i experimented whilst in Eastern Europe…wow!!! The following summer I did the whole of Western Europe dedicated to hitchiking and it was incredible. Then the big one the following 2 years, all of North America, from prudehoe bay to the darien gap, all 49 mainland states of us where I wracked up over 2000$ in 6 months thanks to the out of this world generosity. I met so many awesome people…so different to the… Read more »

10 years ago

Wow thats amazing! James and I hitchhiked around much of New Zealand but havn’t really though about doing it here in Australia. Maybe we will do some later… its always a problem that you need to have a very flexible schedule otherwise its too stressfull

Jade Johnston

Reply to  Jade

I’ve never tried it! I’m sure it would be really interesting though

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