HITCHHIKING
Accepting a ride from a stranger always carries with it a small but potential risk of danger. Cairns Unlimited doesn't recommend hitchhiking, but we do recognize it as a means of travel, and would prefer our readers were fully informed on the best ways to minimize any risks and ensure that thumbing your way around Tropical North Queensland is safe and fun. Get ready for HITCHHIKING 101!
IT IS A WIDELY HELD BELIEF THAT HITCHHIKING IS ILLEGAL IN AUSTRALIA, BUT OUR RESEARCH HAS FAILED TO DETERMINE THAT HITCHING, IN AND OF ITSELF, IS ILLEGAL. IT SEEMS TO BE MORE A MATTER OF WHERE AND HOW YOU DO IT. DETAILS BELOW.
G'day, I'm Steve Savage. In case we didn't already meet on the BACKPACKERS page, I'm one of the faces behind Cairns Unlimited. In 2003, I completed a 15,000 mile hitchhiking journey around the United States and Canada. I've hitchhiked extensively around the world as well as in my home state of Queensland, and hopefully I can share with you some of what I have learnt about 'the art of hitching'.

As mentioned above, many Australians believe that the practice of thumbing a ride is illegal. I was surprised that most Americans I met had the same impression about hitching in the States, but over the 15,000 miles I covered, I didn't encounter a single state where hitchhiking was blanketly illegal. Sure you can't hitch on motorways, but why would you? The traffic is moving too fast, and you'd be more likely to cause an accident than get a ride. In some states, it's illegal to hitchhike within city limits, so you have to walk to the edge of town before you start thumbing. In New York state, hitching on the on-ramps to some motorways is prohibited as well, which I discovered courtesy of a Highway Patrol officer, who was kind enough to escort me to a smaller adjacent highway.

IS IT A CRIME?

In Australia, the legislation surrounding hitchhiking is vague, at best. The Police Department certainly seems to strongly discourage hitchhiking, but whether it is completely illegal is left somewhat up to your interpretation, and possibly up to the discretion of the officer who sees you as you're thumbing your way to Cairns. We have not heard of anybody being arrested for hitchhiking anywhere in Australia. The Northern Territory Government website, under Australian Traffic Regulations, states that it is an offence to obstruct traffic if soliciting a ride from within the roadway. Queensland Police warn against hitchiking, and against picking up hitchhikers, and state that it is an offense to hitchike 'from a road'. South Australia Police say to avoid hitchhiking but do not say it is illegal there.

The conclusion we have drawn is that hitchhiking is not actually illegal in Australia but it is a traffic offence to stand on or by the road when trying to get a ride... unless you are standing on the footpath. Do your best to look like a respectable 'traveller type', and you are less likely to be stopped. In any case, if you're polite and friendly, you would be more likely to be offered a ride by police than be charged.

Legal or illegal, hitchhiking unfortunately gets a lot of bad press, particularly since the widely publicised hitchhiker murders several years ago. The fear that incidents like this generates has had two negative effects. Many people are afraid to pick up hitchhikers, and a lot of other travellers are scared to hitchhike. This means less hitchers on the road, and hitchhiking has become something of a dying art.

HITCHHIKING TIPS AND TRICKS

If you choose to hitchhike in Australia, there's a few things you should know about our great country. Number one, it's big. It's a continent. Cairns is 1700 km north of Brisbane, which is 1000 km north of Sydney. Sydney is 700 km from Melbourne, and 4200 km from Perth! Sometimes, there may be great distances between towns, and not very much in between. The first thing you'll need is a good road map. If you can find a map that also shows petrol stations and rest areas, that would be ideal, since these can be good places to grab your next ride. Always ask, before getting into a vehicle, where the driver will be dropping you. If you're going to end up being left in the middle of nowhere, or at an on-ramp that's unlikely to see more than the occasional passing farm tractor, it's better to wait for a ride that will take you all the way, or at least to a town or a petrol station.

Sometimes a ride that brings you a little way in the right direction can be a huge help, if it is going to get you to a better spot, for example to the other side of a major highway intersection. Check your map; you'll have to use your own discretion as to whether it's better to accept a short ride or wait for a longer one.

Australian summers can get awfully hot, and especially in Tropical North Queensland. You'd be well advised to carry some water in case you end up standing by the road for some time. Wear a hat and use sunscreen; the sun's UV rays are stronger here than in the northern hemisphere, and you'll get burnt in no time. Having said that, the wet season in North Queensland -December to April- can be unpredictable. It's essential to carry a raincoat, and a waterproof cover for your backpack. Some modern backpacks have foldaway waterproof covers built in. Oh, and carry a supply of toilet paper!

The three most important factors for getting a ride are location, location and, you guessed it.. location. Find a spot where motorists will see you with enough time to decide to pick you up, and make sure there's somewhere the driver can safely -and legally- pull over. If possible, find somewhere where the traffic isn't moving too quickly. One of the best places to catch a good ride is on a highway on-ramp. Don't be afraid to walk until you find a good location to hitch. Don't bother trying to hitchhike from within a town or city. Invest the couple of dollars and catch public transport to the edge of town. Let the bus driver know where you're going and ask to be let off wherever he thinks is best, or ask locals.

Always project a positive attitude, what I like to call a 'road presence'. Face the oncominig traffic and make eye contact with the drivers. It's important that they can see you, so avoid wearing sunglasses. Look neat and respectable, non-threatening. Wear bright clothing so that drivers can see you. Maintain a relaxed and happy composure, even if people yell obscenities at you or spray you with water pistols as they pass(it does happen)

A large, easy to read, cardboard sign with an indication of where you want to go can be very helpful. Personally, I very rarely use a destination sign. On my most recent hitchhiking odyssey around North America, I held a small sign that read "WORLD TOUR 2003". Motorists seemed to find that intriguing, and I rarely had long waits between rides. In fact, one of the best hitchhiking signs I've seen simply read "FRESHLY SHOWERED".

THUMBING SAFELY

As far as safety goes, statistics prove that the perceived risk is far greater than the actual risk. In fact you are much more likely to be injured in an accident, or to be struck by a passing vehicle than to be harmed by some unsavoury character. But still, incidents do happen, and there are ways to minimize the potential for problems. If possible, hitchhike with a friend. This especially applied to females wanting to hitchhike. If you are travelling with a companion, stand together and make it obvious that you want a ride together. Drivers don't like to be surprised by an extra person.

If you're concerned about the safety implications, note the registration number and vehicle make, model and colour before you ride. If you travel with a mobile phone, call a friend and tell them you're on your way. ("Yeah, I should be there in a couple of hours. A guy in a big red four wheeel drive picked me up outside Innisfail"). If the driver did have any unpleasant intentions, you'll be safer now that he knows someone is expecting you

Keep your bag or backpack in easy reach if you can, so you can grab it if you need to bail out. Be prepared to lose it if it is locked in the trunk. Keep your passport, wallet, money, I.D., bank and credit cards, under or in your clothes, don't have them all in your pack.

Getting a ride at night time is very difficult, and kind of risky. It's something I try to avoid at all costs. You might have better luck at a petrol stations, where people can see you and have a chance to talk to you a bit before committing themselves.

It's impossible to make on-the-spot value judgements about a driver in a few seconds through the car window. BUT you're under no obligation to accept the ride. If you have any doubts at all... politely decline!


FOR ADVICE ON A RANGE OF SAFETY ISSUES- DRIVING IN AUSTRALIA, STAYING HEALTHY IN THE TROPICS, SWIMMING SAFELY, AND AVOIDING OUR LESS PLEASANT NATIVE ANIMALS- PLEASE VISIT OUR SAFE TRAVEL PAGE.










A quiet day on the road to Cape Tribulation.