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  • Writer's pictureKaren Custer Thurston

“Unexpected Walkabout" Part I

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

How An Older Female Backpacker Unwittingly Finds Herself Hitchhiking In Arthur’s Pass, (South Island) New Zealand

A lone highway leads to a mountain range on the South Island of rural New Zealand
A lone highway leads to a mountain range on the South Island of New Zealand

When I was 56 years old, I found myself on the South Island of New Zealand. With major decisions to make in my American life, I thought, well, I’ll go on a walkabout and get some perspective. Having gone through a divorce and uprooted my life in the Midwest to work for the National Park Service, I wanted clarity around where to begin this next chapter of my life. From my home in northern Arizona, I organized three months of backpacking in New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia.

It was a big walkabout. And I had no idea what I was doing. On a whim, I made the plans, deciding in what order to see the different countries. I bought an external frame backpack, a daypack and a pair of rugged Italian hiking shoes, crampon ready. I would realize much later that the boots, alone, weighed five pounds. In backpacking, weight can make or break joy.

I had no idea who I would meet or if I would be lonely traveling solo. I worried that young backpackers would shun me. I had no idea how long my money would last but I was ready for an adventure as well as deciding on a few life issues.

As it turned out, young backpackers, a third my age, welcomed me every day of the journey. Men and women, missing their mothers, gravitated to me in hostel kitchens and dormitories, on backpacking bus routes, and on glow worm* and glacier tours. I met adventurous Irish, British, Welsh, Scottish, Australian and Kiwi backpackers on New Zealand’s South Island before traveling onward to Tasmania and mainland Australia.

New Zealand’s springtime quickly delighted me. Lush grass pastures covered this country which exports large quantities of beef and sheep meat, wool, fruit, vegetables and wine. There were more sheep than humans on the South Island. Different breeds grazed on the fecund farmland. Baby lambs frolicked among their watchful mothers. Dairy cattle breeds of various colors were scattered for grazing between morning and evening milking. If luck were with me, my bus would have to wait for a herd to cross the road between pastures and the milking shed. I could then identify the cattle breeds. If I were doubly lucky, I could smell the fragrance of the herd through the bus windows. Seriously. Reared on a livestock and grain farm in America’s Midwest, I felt at home with every mile I traveled.

Despite our age difference, the young backpackers and I had four objectives in common: seeking out adventures, yearning to see incredible vistas, stretching our money as far as possible, and searching for meaning and purpose in our lives. Tent camping and shared dormitory rooms were the lodgings of choice. Having lived on my own for years, I didn’t expect co-ed dormitories and co-ed bathrooms, but I stayed true to saving as much money as I could. I had tried to estimate how much money these three months of travel and airfares would cost. I could always go back home if I ran short of travel bucks.

Regarding mixed facilities, I’ll never forget walking into a hostel’s bathroom to brush my teeth one morning. I expected a women’s bathroom. When I saw the bronzed, muscular young man at the sink, naked, in his tighty-whities, also brushing his teeth, I was speechless. Unsurprised, he murmured “hello” in a German accent. I squeaked out my “good morning,” trying to appear as though I were perfectly comfortable being in bathrooms with naked young men. I stared straight into the mirror while putting in my contact lenses so he wouldn’t think I was checking him out.

I wanted to look but didn’t want him to catch me looking.

Gosh, what an odd international meeting of a middle-aged Quaker woman and an uninhibited European young man.

Another personally awkward moment occurred when I hoped to brush my teeth and entered the bathroom dressed in my pajamas. I opened the door to a glaze of hair spray and a crowd of chattering, young women primping for their night out. A narrow mirror space ran the length of the sink. I had hoped to use the sink but the bevy of colorful young ladies were glued to the mirror for foundation, lipstick, eyelash curling and heaps of hair spray to cement their tresses. I was highly annoyed and, in being vexed, missed an opportunity to chat up the young girls.

I could have learned so much more about them: What nationalities were they? Were they on work visas or traveling? Did they miss their families?

As backpackers we were better able to stretch our travel budgets by cooking in communal kitchens. The buzz of multiple languages made a joyful soundstage underscoring the clattering of pots and pans. I saw Brits devouring baked beans on toast for every meal. The Asian travelers hovered with loving anticipation over their rice cookers. Rice cookers were new to me so I tried to sneak peeks to see how to use them in case the cookers became available back home. The Brits and Asians may have noticed that I ate my weight in sauteed lamb. The beef I tried was tough and pricey. The lamb was fork tender and inexpensive. On the side, I drenched the fabulous whole-grain New Zealand bread in sauteed zucchini and tomatoes.


An Unexpected Forecast

Through the hostel system’s bus plan, I could arrange my ride to the next town on my route. I could stay as long as I liked at that hostel if accommodation was available. Or I could stay one night in different towns if I wanted to travel a greater distance. This Kiwi travel plan was brilliant in giving backpackers total freedom of movement. Greyhound bus travel in America didn’t come close to this comfort or convenience.

map of the South Island, New Zealand showing Arthur's Pass and Christchurch
Map of the South Island, New Zealand

I had merrily bused and travelled from Nelson to Christchurch when I decided to leave the eastern coast and head inland. My nifty backpacker bus line only circumnavigated the South Island, so I decided to travel to Arthur’s Pass by train. At only 3018 ft., the area is not as high as other parts of the mountainous chain running down the spine of the island, but serious weather is normal for this part of New Zealand. The forbidding Antarctic is nearby.

Equally, I should have noted my Lonely Planet Travel Guide’s reference to Arthur’s Pass weather as “…often savagely changeable weather conditions.” I was so proud of myself for having booked my train ticket to this beautiful alpine area. To my peril, I totally dismissed the weather warnings.

It’s the South Island. How bad can the weather be?

The views from the train were superb with nearby fluffy flocks of sheep and multi-colored dairy herds on pastureland. Strange trees, flowers and crops were curious to my American eye. The train’s rhythm was hypnotic and comforting, although I was too excited to nap.

Too soon, we arrived at the train station in Arthur’s Pass. Struggling to swing my 60-pound backpack behind and onto my hips, strapping on my 20-pound daypack onto my chest, then draping my purse with passport and money across the daypack, I lurched down the metal steps to the train platform.

An aerial view of snow covered mountains on the South Island Of New Zealand

Don’t fall. Hold on to the rail. Falling would have been a great loss of face for me. I was an extremely proud and sensitive senior. I had figured out the closest hostel to the train depot but hadn’t been able to make a reservation. Lurching like a peg-legged pirate, I staggered toward the hostel, alternately listing from port to starboard en route.

Trying to avoid falling on my face through the hostel’s doorway, I noticed a young man look up from the registration desk.

“How ya goin’, sir?” I asked with my best attempt at Kiwi slang.

“Just fine, ma’am,” the young gentleman politely answered.

As if he might not have figured it out from my baggage, I asked, “Do you have a room or dorm bed?”

“Ah, I don’t. Welcome to Arthur’s Pass. I’m Garth.”

“Thanks, Garth. Oh, that’s my bad luck,” I responded.

Crikey, I thought. That’s no good.

Garth thought for a moment, then asked, “Do you have a tent?”

“I do.”

“I can rent you a tent site out back if you wish. You would have access to the bathroom and kitchen. Look out this window. You can see the tenting area a little downhill from the kitchen door,” Garth offered.

“That would be great, thanks!” I answered. Yes! I’ll use this tent equipment I’ve dragged around for 14 days, and I have access to the shower and refrigerator. The day was sunny, clear and filled with light.

With my heart singing about how I loved this country, I joyfully set up my two-man tent which meant barely enough room for one person. Happily leaving the camp stove and cooking equipment packed away, I inhaled a tart Kiwi apple with peanut butter while I perused my Lonely Planet guide for a nearby hike.

After spending the day in town, I feasted on my now beloved Kiwi whole grain bread with copious amounts of butter. I believe that bread exists for butter. Turning in for the night in my cozy tent was idyllic, as always. My tent was my cave, secure and warm, with everything I needed: my sleeping bag, water bottle, sweatshirt, shoes and a light for nocturnal bathroom visits. I was alone in the hostel’s backyard and happy in the night’s silence.

I may or may not have heard Garth mention something earlier about an approaching storm system.

I was awakened by the sound of water streaming beside me and the feel of the water underneath my ground cloth. Shocked, panicked and confused, I thrashed around for my flashlight and fumbled with the two zippers of the tent and rain flap. As I clambered out of the sagging tent and rain flap, I felt shock from the cold downpour and the streaming water on my bare feet.

Dramatic lightning in the distance marks an incoming stormfront
Dramatic lightning in the distance marks an incoming stormfront

As rapidly as I could move, I ferried everything, load by load of what I had inside the tent, leaving the ground pegs, tent and rain flap to sag under the weight of the hard rain. Thankfully, the kitchen door was unlocked. Spreading around my things as best I could on the kitchen table and the few chairs, I realized I could do no more and collapsed on an old sofa for hopeful sleep.

When Garth walked into the kitchen, hours later, he surmised my situation, understanding why my wet things were strewn about. I was as bedraggled as my soaked possessions.

“Karen, sorry to tell you but this storm is forecast for the next three days. It could have well missed us, but it didn’t. I have no one leaving and, as far as I know, the other few hostels are full as well.”

“Are there taxis available?”

“There are no taxis here at all.”

“Would the train have a return run to Christchurch today?” I ventured hopefully.

“The train has a return service to Christchurch in three days and, before you ask, there is no bus service to either Greymouth or Christchurch,” Garth shook his head.

The sun was shining at the moment. As I hung out my wet things on the grass, my mind rabbited around what to do. More storms are likely. No rooms are available here or elsewhere. No bus system. No immediate train departures. No taxis.

A thought was looming in the back of my mind, a thought which had never occurred to me growing up in the conservative Midwest as a sheltered farm girl.

What if I hitchhiked?

The pros and cons of my brain went at it. I’ve never, ever hitchhiked. I don’t know anyone who’s hitchhiked, even for a ride home from college. My mind raced with graphic images in news stories about single female travelers in the U.S. who had been killed or disappeared while attempting to hitch a ride with strangers. Well, not all drivers would be bad people. And don’t I have good intuition around people? I had a pressing need to find a place to sleep by that night. Everything in Arthur’s Pass was booked.

OK, what do I need to do to get a ride out of Arthur’s Pass? How do I even hitchhike?

With storm clouds looming over head, I walked inside the hostel to find my man, Garth.

I needed a hitchhiking advisor.

To be continued in Part II…

*If you enjoyed this story, please like it (click on the "heart") and leave a comment below. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the comment section. Your support and encouragement are much appreciated!


* Glow worms are a species of gnat. In the larval stage, glow worms produce a glue-green bioluminescence, creating magical light in the dark.

Photo Credits: Unsplash and Google

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Sep 17, 2023

Great story and so well written! Wondering who is going to give you a ride.


Sep 04, 2023

What a fun read, Karen! And thank you for the descriptions and pictures of South Island, somewhere I know almost nothing about. Great entertainment as I feed little newborn Cormac!


Aug 27, 2023

This is a great story, Karen! What an adventure - and I admire your bravery! I'm looking forward to the next installment. Roseanne

Aug 28, 2023
Replying to

Thanks so much, Roseanne. Means the world, as you know, to hear from a reader. Karen


Aug 24, 2023

Fabulous read!! Looking forward with eager anticipation to Part II...😉

Aug 28, 2023
Replying to

Thank you so much! I don't know who this is but appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. All the best!

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