Warning: this post contains some frustration at bad public transport, mixed in with hitchhiking optimism
It’s got to be one of the most ancient ways of humans getting around. However, up until this past week, I’d really only hitchhiked once, on the outskirts of Banff National Park. I was with my mum and brother and we were stood by the road for 45 mins trying to thumb a lift because the bus driver ‘had’ to take a 2-3 hour break mid afternoon, leaving us with no wheels. The driver who stopped and picked us up was a local who told us she’d decided to stop ‘because it’s been on my bucket list for a while’.
I grew up with parents, uncles and family friends who all drove — in a London borough too. Why learn to drive when I could grab a lift or walk 2 minutes down the road and catch a bus, a train, the tube? As a family we drove all over Europe, preferring for instance not to fly to Poland but drive there over two days via Germany, staying at a hostel in a grand old castle. I’ve got to confess, the kaleidoscopic collection of happy memories from those childhood trips chokes me up sometimes.
Sadly, being a small family, we were inevitably going to run out of drivers — my mum frustrated that she’s unable to drive because of her eyesight; my uncle Ray and dad Roy passed away; dad’s twin David also not able to drive any longer because of his eyesight.
We are left with no drivers. No two days anywhere by car. Action was needed.
Living away from London as I currently do – I had enough of relying on no buses on Sundays and ridiculous routes just to go 45 minutes down the road between two counties – the result is that I’m taking my driving test in July. But that’s July.
Land of ice and ire
It doesn’t take much for me to get on my soapbox about how important public transport is for improving quality of life and for cutting down on the number of cars on the road, so let me move onto Iceland, where I’ve just spent the past week.
Iceland regularly tops happiness polls, school achievement polls, ‘biggest number of authors per capita’, that sort of thing. Its landscape meanwhile is famously wild and sparse, an epic of ice and rock and snow and lava and puffins, all reachable over very drivable distances, even if they’re a bit rocky or impassable here and there.
In 2016 in fact, we (mum, uncle, brother) piled into a tiny Suzuki Jimny and drove around the south and up to Akureyri in the north, smack bang into a sky full of Aurora. (Read my blog about that day here).
But what Iceland doesn’t have is a really great network of public transport. Trains, I fully understand why they don’t have them but buses seem depressingly to me like an afterthought across much of the country. The 4WD car is the almighty accessory, while buses are often relegated to city centres or to connecting them — often only on certain days. That, or when they do cover a longer distance (say Reykjavík to Akureyri or Borgarnes to Hellissandur), very few buses go the whole way, and often you can’t travel anywhere on certain days of the week. People were certainly using them, but why was there such a ‘barely there’ service?
I gather it hasn’t always been this bad, buses have been in decline for a while, a fact hastened by the pandemic. Outside of summer, too, cars tend to be the preferential way to get around. But if the excellent ferry from Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsness Peninsula over to Brjanslækur at the bottom of the Westfjords can run most days of the year, you’ve got to wonder, why can’t you get a bus to that ferry most days of the week? As an Icelander associated with the ferry service themselves said, ‘it is such a pain’.
Yes, you can fly domestically of course, but the very real impacts of the climate catastrophe ought to make us want to try and find alternatives where we can.
Besides Covid seeming to be the route cause of excuses for ‘things not working’ nowadays, the common excuse is that ‘there isn’t enough demand’ or ‘cars are what everyone uses’, but that doesn’t wash with me. We all know that in an average year, Iceland receives more tourists than it has residents (500k – 2m versus 366k).
It’s up to governments, local and national, to create the choice for locals and residents alike, to not prioritise only one type of transport but to upgrade infrastructure in recognition that fewer cars on the road means more people served overall, and fewer emissions. It is surely a win / win strategy?
But back to my trip. How was it that I made it up to the very north of the Westfjords, despite the country’s best attempts to thwart me?
Soapbox aside, and with the phrase ‘if you can’t beat them, you’ll just have to bloody well join them’ in mind, I discovered pretty early on that I would need the help of others going my way. I’d need to hitch some rides.
As mentioned, I had only hitched once before, but I had also tried and failed to do so with my brother on the island of Orkney, north of the Scottish mainland. It being September 2020 and there being a pandemic and all. Incidentally, Orkney is described as a fantastic place to hitch a ride, locals are always going out of their way to help people who don’t drive. We held masks so that drivers knew we would be happy to wear them, but it was totally understandable that nobody stopped.
But here I was, deep in the Snæfellsness Peninsula at an awesome hostel called The Freezer, on the edge of the national park. On the edge of a brilliant landscape, unable to explore as fully as I’d want.
Not to be deterred, myself and a keen walker, a Basque woman called Marga, walked from Rif into the last town on the bus route Hellissandur, along grasslands and pockets of lakes reminiscent of Patagonia, and on a coastline teeming with pods of dolphins, elegant and exuberant in the calm seas. This was all with the glistening backdrop that snowy mountains and the Snæfellsjökull glacier provided. We were hooked and wanted to explore more of the park.
Any time a car came along – and they were scarce at 9.30am in the morning – we would stop, turn, smile with our thumbs out and hope. But nothing doing.
So we got off the road and explored the remains of fishermen’s buildings, furred now with lichen and mountain thyme. No sooner had we scrambled back down than we could see a hulk of a 4WD car approaching. I half managed to waggle my thumb as we sought to reach the road proper. We saw the driver smile and wave, then stop. Having almost given up hope, we had a ride into the park on the cards — and it turned out the couple were going the same way we’d hoped to go, into Öndverðarnesviti, the furthest west you could go on the peninsula.
With an ease that only comes from driving a car you’ve dubbed ‘the beast’, our Singaporean driving hosts zipped with us around the park in the gorgeous sunshine to see lighthouses, beaches, jagged rocks of nesting birds spattered with guano, against blue skies and more of that gorgeous sunshine we craved.
Eventually they had to leave to go and climb into a lava tube (very Iceland), but not before dropping us off at the park’s main information point at Malariff, where we could eat lunch and start a hike further around the peninsula.
After a few hours’ hiking, we were a day’s hike away from our hostel, having completed going nearly all the way through the park. The slightly tense knot of butterflies returned, as the pod of orca casually circling their fishy prey off the headland of Hellnar seemed to say: you are a speck through the viewfinder, just like us.
We knew that many people in the park would need to leave it the same way as us, but it was getting late by national park standards.
But back we got, with only a little waiting around, and the help of two couples — an expat Russian mother and daughter who have been living in Italy and Spain for decades and a French couple, who live in Las Vegas now. All tourists to Iceland themselves, all with stories of why they had wanted to come and where they were going. On a day when the sun shone like summer.
We felt very lucky. These car couples didn’t have to stop but they did. I thought quietly, would this wonderful day be a one off? How would I fare, kitted out with my big backpack and my rucksack, alone?
Oui ou non?
I was very worried about getting up to the north of the Westfjords and it had played on my mind a bit, despite the brilliant events of the day before. I knew of the Icelandic car pooling website samferda.net and had scoured it, posting my own request, but there was no-one going round much or round on the same day.
As you may guess, buses weren’t running that might have allowed me to work something out, though I could at least get a bus to Stykkishólmur to take the ferry. I knew from emailing the ferry operator and tour / summer bus operators that outside of summer there are no public or private hire transport options from the ferry terminal on the other side. Only some weekday buses around the main towns once you get to the north.
Enter two lovely French couples, joining many of their fellow countrypeople for an Easter holiday break. Along with the Dutch, their holidays seem to have started after Easter, not before.
Having read a handy online guide to hitchhiking, I knew that plucking up the courage to speak directly to ferry passengers was my best chance. Two groups said they didn’t know where they would be driving once they disembarked – oh the luxury! – but an older couple had overheard me, got their paper map out and told me that although they were going west, not north, they could drive me north as far as the crossroads you have to pass from Reykjavík. They only wished they could take me further, which was lovely of them.
After we said our goodbyes at the crossroads petrol station and hotel (having reminisced about the golden days of disco when I told them my reason for heading to the Westfjords), I took out my sign for Isafjordur or Thingeyri. I was prepared to have to wait a few hours, as some people would be heading west, or not going much further up, and visitors to the Westfjords are generally fewer in number.
Hardly any cars about.
If I did see a car it was not going north. Doubts crept in, maybe the location wasn’t as good as first appeared. The cafe by the petrol pumps turned out to be closed so I couldn’t have headed in for a hot drink. A few cars started to pass to go north, but my sharpie sign didn’t move them. A young French couple stopped to get petrol and I asked, but they were going west. I waved them off and thought that at least I could walk for an hour back to the ferry port if it came to that.
But within a few minutes of the young couple leaving, a couple in their 40s or 50s stopped. I showed the woman my sign. She didn’t speak much English but pointed to Isafjordur on my sign and did a thumbs up.
You know the deal by now. Karinne and her husband Jerome showed me such a brilliant level of kindness, they asked me when I needed to get there by, offered me some food for lunch (while Jerome relaxed over a lager and a mini cigar) and we stopped at points en route to marvel at the vastness and the ridiculous beauty of it all.
What’s more, because my French was better than their English, the adventure was conducted almost entirely in their tongue, which gave me more practise than a week’s worth of Duolingo lessons.
Most of the time you won’t see your hitchhiking hosts again. Other times, they might spot you later in their trip as the ferry couple did, stopping to ask me how I was and to say how pleased they were that I reached my destination — or maybe you mention, as I did, where you’re heading to next, and you will find an offer awaits. Karinne and Jerome live outside of Narbonne in a gorgeous part of the south of France — as soon as I mentioned my plan to travel from Carcassonne over to Antibes (between meeting friends), Karinne wrote down their address and invited me to stay.
While I don’t necessarily believe in good karma, I have always believed that there are good people at every corner — on the road or in life. I think that now more than ever.
Have you tried hitchhiking yourself, as the driver or while backpacking? If the answer is yes, then do leave a comment, I’d love to hear your stories!
If the answer is no, read on…
My top hitchhiking tips
I hope my quick guide below will be of some use. It’s just one person’s thoughts in general, do read up from hitchhikers who have been where you’re going to.
Before my list, a quick note to address safety worries. You may be thinking ‘Iceland’s safe, but the same can’t be said everywhere’ — and you’re not wrong! But you’ve got to also think, if we applied the worst case scenario to every part of our daily lives, how would we even function? The question I’ve been asked most about my past week is: ‘Aren’t you worried someone will murder you?’ It says a lot about our societal worries — and podcast habits. All signs point to far more mundane things to be careful about, like falling from a cliff. That’s not to say I don’t always think in terms of my safety as a lone female travelling. Just don’t let fear be a reason not to try hitchhiking for yourself some day.
1. My post only skims the surface of what hitchhiking is like. Whether you’re planning ahead or choosing to hitch at short notice, you might want to check your government’s advice about travel within the region you’re in — you will find guides to hitchhiking in most countries. This brief guide to hitching in Iceland made me realise I should ask people on the ferry.
2. Get familiar with maps of where you are. This is easier than it’s ever been in history, most of us have a world’s map at our fingertips, but if you don’t have lots of data to use, consider downloading maps so that you can use them offline. I switch between maps.me and Google maps.
3. Sounds obvious but be absolutely sure you’re standing in the right place before holding up your sign or readying your thumb. The driver has to feel that they will safely be able to stop for you. Just before or just after a town’s boundaries, where there is parking or a petrol station, or at a crossroads are the kinds of places to choose — definitely shouldn’t on a motorway. And triple check you’re on the right side of the road, that does head where you’re going!
4. If you have all your luggage or your main rucksack with you, you can reach for that extra jumper if it gets cold, and you will have water and snacks most likely, but if you’re day tripping somewhere make sure to think about what you might need if you can’t get a lift or if you are out many more hours in the day than you hoped you would be. Don’t be a stranger to a good pair of comfortable shoes or walking boots either.
6. I was hitching lifts with a back-up plan. If someone says they can only take you to a random village that’s closer to where you want to go, but off the main route, you may struggle to find an onward driver. Or have in mind your plan B and plan C destinations, with a strong chance of more transport or more hitchhiking chances, that way if someone can only take you part way, you’ve already done the thinking.
7. A sign isn’t essential, but it doesn’t hurt to have one so that drivers look and think more about whether they can take you. Thumbing is still the classic symbol that all drivers should recognise. But bring a sharpie and some A4 paper or card if you have space m. Remembering that in bad weather, onot so great.
8. If like me, you are hitching to reach destinations where you’ll still use some public transport, a tent isn’t as necessary as it would be if you planned to hitchhike everywhere. Statistically, the more you rely on hitchhiking, the more you are likely to have a day where not everything goes to plan — even more reason to plan to camp as well as hitch.
9. Be incredibly wary of hitchhiking at night. I’m not only talking about the risk increasing of someone with ill intent appearing on the scene (which, remember, is a low one), but about the increased danger of accidents.
10. Always be polite and remember that the driver has their own itinerary and might never have stopped for someone before. I Google-translated the French for ‘please don’t go out of your way if you have to be somewhere’ at one point, as I didn’t want to come across as expecting them to drive for longer than they might want to.
11. Most of all, don’t be disheartened if you’re waiting around a lot. I have been very fortunate this past week with the lifts I’ve received, but on one morning when the weather was especially freezing and windy and I was stood by a fjord with seemingly no-one willing to stop, I nearly gave up. Couldn’t think of one positive thing and dwelt on not being able to drive. Past that point I started singing to myself, swearing about how cold it was and making up random plans for what to do once I got a lift. Mind over matter. Not long after, an Icelandic guest house owner stopped to pick me up. We had a fantastic chat about all sorts of things and I was able to defrost a little bit too…
11. Lastly, a tip I try to apply to daily life in general (I write this to you in Auxerre, France, my skin slightly pink skin from the sun) — check the weather forecast!
Happy hitchhiking everyone.