As It Happens

French hitchhiker stuck in NZ town has 'petulant fit,' destroys sign and throws punches

Residents of a small fishing village in New Zealand say there's good reason nobody reached out to a French traveller who spent four days unsuccessfully waiting for a lift.
The road to Punakaiki, New Zealand. (Reuters)

Punakaiki sounds like a lousy place to hitch a ride. For one thing, it's a small out-of-the-way fishing village in New Zealand. And, according to local police, one French tourist stuck his thumb out on the side of the road for four whole days without success.

But if you ask the locals why no one picked him up, you'll get a whole other story.

Neil Mouat owns a horseback riding company in Punakaiki. Here's part of his conversation with As it Happens host Carol Off.

Carol Off: Neil, when did you first become aware of this backpacker who was in your fishing village trying to hitchhike?

Neil Mouat: My neighbour came and looked me up when I was shoeing the horse at our horse stables next to the highway, and said, "Look at this guy. He's damaged the 'Welcome to Punakaiki' sign." He'd sort of had a petulant fit, as it turned out, and fairly substantial highway signs, he'd pulled out three of those and thrown one in the bush and thrown one in the river. And a major highway sign about three metres high, he'd got a rock and somehow he'd managed to do quite a job. He dented the whole thing.

Neil Mouat standing next to one of the signs that a French traveller has been charged with damaging, on the edge of the town of Punakaiki, New Zealand. (Neil Mouat/Karen Dickson)

CO: Did anyone ask him what he was doing or try to stop him?

NM: Well, a 76-year-old went up and remonstrated with him and didn't get a good reception. So the coal miner friend of mine was standing by to make sure it didn't go ugly and came and got me after that.

CO: When you got to the scene, did you try and talk to him?

[He] had a big bellyache about New Zealand — that it was a terrible country and we were horrible people and he couldn't wait to get back to Europe.- Neil Mouat, resident of Punakaiki, NZ

NM: Most of his gear was in a black plastic rubbish bag. He sort of looked like a vagrant, like an unstable type. So I stayed clear of him.

CO: Do you know where he was from?

NM: [It] came out that he was French and had a big bellyache about New Zealand — that it was a terrible country and we were horrible people and he couldn't wait to get back to Europe.

CO: Did he explain what his problem was? Did he tell you why he was so angry?

NM: He made a story up that he'd been around for days, hitchhiking. It sounded improbable. We know he's camped up in the bush near us. I don't think he'd been at our place for more than a day. Plus he was on a blind corner by a bridge where no one can pull over. By this stage, he was flipping the bird at motorists. I rang the police 'cause he was lying down on the road, on the white line. Someone could have come 'round the corner and run him over.

I've had a thousand hitchhiking rides and I've been really grateful. And you pay for your ride by conversation and being cheerful. And that's the exchange.- Neil Mouat

CO: Is it possible that he was there for four days and nobody picked him up?

NM: I don't know. But we hadn't seen him where we are. But a Department of Conversation staff member had gone past earlier in the day and he'd given her the finger. So he wasn't putting the best face on France, that's for sure.

CO: Neil, have you ever hitchhiked?

NM: I've had a thousand hitchhiking rides and I've been really grateful. And I've slept by the side of the road many times. And you pay for your ride by conversation and being cheerful. And that's the exchange.

CO: He lay on the road and the police came. And then what happened?

NM: Well, he refused to get up. And they had to question him in the prone position. And eventually, after they'd taken witness statements and photographs of the damaged signs, etcetera, he got up and he was handcuffed and taken away — arrested, charged and pleaded guilty.

CO: Where is he now?

NM: He's awaiting sentencing. And the Highway Authority want restitution of about $3,000 for the signs. I expect he's in Christchurch and, after he can get free of the courts, I expect he'll be leaving the country.

CO: Sounds like that's what he wants to do.

NM: Yeah. 

For more on this story, listen to our interview with Neil Mouat.

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