When hitchhiking goes wrong

In central Queensland, Australia, I was cautioned against visiting Weipa on the York Peninsula. “There’s nothing there!” people exclaimed when I expressed interest because of the local York Peninsula’s geography which appealed to me. So, reluctantly, I decided to head for Cooktown, which necessitated that I hitchhike right at a T-junction. But while waiting for a lift, I wonderful man offered me a lift right into Weipa town 600km north-west and I hopped in.

That afternoon our vehicle pulled up in what was to become, to me, the most wicked settlement in all Australia. I arrived in town with my guard down, expecting to meet lovely Australians as I had done for the past 3,000km of hitchhiking up the country. As dusk fell, I enquired about pricing at the only campsite: to string my hammock between 2 trees would cost almost as much as a hotel room half a dozen towns away. The only hotel I had been told about was charging USD250 a night.

So I crept into the edge of an estuary to sleep, alert after reading a sign warning of crocodiles. Drawing on my bush skills, I crouched, waited with my mouth open to increase my sensitivity to noise, and listened intently. No human movement. I slipped beneath a palm and again, I waited. No noise. No crocodile tracks, squeaks, broken egg shells or nests. Hastily, I hung my hammock and dove in.

In the humid morning air, I sneaked out of the palm cluster to a public tap for a wash. I liked the place – birds coloured like rainbows, flying foxes by the thousand, fishing to be envied, and indigenous forest for mile upon mile. This was my dream – a wilderness paradise I felt I wanted to become a part of, at least for the time being. I was falling in love with the natural beauty of Weipa.

So I set off to see if there might be any short-term contracts I could take. Within an hour of searching, I found a job on offer which would allow me to utilize almost all my world record-related skills in a professional capacity. I was delighted and felt as if I was walking on air as I waltzed in to apply with complete confidence.

Instead of waiting around Weipa, sleeping in the bush for a week while the candidate was chosen, I wanted to backtrack down the entrance road to go volunteering for a small business until the job position decision was made. I asked the trucking businesses, but none would take me for fear I might cause trouble. There was a 12-month waiting period to book onto the only ferry, so I began hitchhiking but nobody stopped all day. I crawled back into the estuarine bush that night, not long after I’d had a ‘Weipa welcome’ from a local who shouted out raucously in the local club: “Hey, manager, take this xxxxx back to New Zealand with you”.

Sweaty and clammy, I began hitchhiking for the second day. A young lad pulled over to take photos of me and allow others to make a mockery of me on Facebook. A mine worker stopped to question me, and pitying me somewhat, he offered to help. Saying it would be far too dangerous to introduce me to his family, he took me to a patch of burned tree trunks smothered in aromatic weed, where I left me to sleep for the night and offered to return me to the roadside at 5:30am. This kind man soon brought me a coffee and wished me well.

Nobody stopped all day, apart from 3 people. An Aboriginal brought me a meal and a drink – I wasn’t able to express my thanks enough. A young married man stopped to chat and I asked if I might shower at his house. He wanted to help but apparently his wife saw me as a danger so I was refused. And the police came to inspect me. During the day, a number of vehicles had passed me by swerving into the other lane, accelerating, gesticulating at me and punching the air with their fists. I didn’t know who it was, but someone had reported me to the Australian Police, saying they had identified one of the nation’s most wanted criminals hitchhiking out of town. A police investigator interrogated me before releasing me.

At dusk, the coffee man returned, and suggested I go to the campsite. He dropped me there, I walked 20 steps and a friendly woman said hello. We got chatting, and she kindly invited me to get clean at her house. By this time, I was filthy and gladly accepted the offer.

At the house, I was introduced to the flat mate who was leaving immediately for Cooktown. I let her know I wanted to get out of Weipa, but she refused to let me travel with her. I put up notices in town but others removed them. When I returned to my bedroom on the 2nd night, I was confronted. My host had told a senior executive in the tiny town what job I had applied for, and was told I was a lying conman: the executive, whom I was told knew everything going on in Weipa, denied there was any such job. But I showed paperwork proof and my host refrained from kicking me out, which she nearly did.

I bought my host a small gift and offered to volunteer some work around the house, but she politely refused. By then I realized I would need to fly out at tremendous cost, and by a stroke of luck I was offered a job: washing dishes and walls in a grubby club restaurant. I accepted, and offered my host rent payments by the day, until I could get out of town. When I awoke the next morning, I stuffed a banknote into my pocket and was about to head off to the supermarket to buy my host some groceries in thanks, when I spotted a note.

She had taken advice from an influential member of the local community who had advised her not to help me. In addition, the housemate was moaning about my being there and wanted me kicked out, and the note told me to leave immediately.

Because I’d finish washing dishes and walls in the dark, I’d not be able to see what I was doing during hammock set-up in the estuary, so I asked the Weipa Bowls Club manager if I might erect my hammock on the periphery of their premises, for safety. I was refused. I asked a number of others, and was refused by all so I sneaked off to the public toilets near the police station.

The women’s was the only cubicle which locked, and I needed to be behind a door for safety. So I huddled up in the tight space between the toilet bowl and the concrete wall, and drifted in and out of sleep all night. I hitchhiked the next 2 days away, but again, nobody stopped. Drivers swerved to avoid me and jeered nasty things as they passed me. Next, I found out why: word was spreading around town that I was dangerous, a criminal, and that nobody ought to go anywhere near me. I realized then that I was stranded because of residents who were actively trying to cause me problems, and people were dodging me wherever I went in the streets. After washing walls that night, again I returned to the women’s lavatory.

Drivers swerved around me and raged at me as they passed me for most of the next day, so I was pleasantly surprised when an Aboriginal lady stopped with a sandwich. What a great person! After washing walls again that night, I headed to a rodeo to relax. A group of itinerant workers who had seen me on the road invited me to join their group. While watching bulls bucking cowboys, Kenny Papin who introduced himself as being from the Weipa Bowls Club walked over.

“The police are looking for you. You asked my wife if you can pitch your tent near the club”, he said, very softly. I confirmed that to be the case. “If you ask again, I will personally stretch your neck like a rubber band. xxxxx off”. He began questioning me aggressively. “I am going to confirm your situation with other people and if I find out you’re lying to me, I will do you a great deal of damage”. Kenny Papin phoned business people across town to check on the answers I’d given him, and then undertook to begin stalking me around the rodeo as I approached drunks for a lift. He and a few friends called the police on me once again. It was then that a businessman told me I had become the laughing stock of town, and nobody wanted anything to do with me because I was a lowly hitchhiker.

I slunk back to the toilets before my next day of unsuccessful hitchhiking. I was stuck in Weipa. I was being threatened, stalked, drivers were veering across the road to pass me and nobody was prepared to assist me because of the rumours around town. Late in the afternoon, I returned to wash dishes and walls, and was told my job had been cancelled. “Why?” I asked. Kenny Papin had arranged for several business people in town to harass the man who gave me the dish-washing job, and I was told the police were on the way.

I sat, waiting, wondering how on earth I had gotten myself into this mess. No police arrived, even though Kenny Papin and his friends had been trying to get them to arrest me all week – he told me so. I have no idea why, and it was evident he is a bitter man. The lovely staff where I was let me know it was fine for me to stay there with them until I was comfortable to leave their premises. As I contemplated my situation on the sofa, a young man approached me and slapped $50 into my pocket. I objected, because I felt guilty. He insisted and then enquired about my position.

I gradually opened up and explained, at which this man – a veritable savior – booked and paid for a flight out of Weipa for me the following night and invited me to his house for a safe night. For the first time in a long time, I was treated as I deserve to be: as a backpacker, not a roving criminal. I relaxed, knowing I’d soon be away from the vicious community I’d mistakenly entered 10 days earlier.

As I hitchhiked to catch the airport taxi, more nasty people drove past me, hurling abuse as they did. Again, I was lost for words: what, oh what, had I done to be treated this way?

Once through the airport security barrier, I was safe; safe at last from the wicked, narrow-minded brawling Weipa residents whose aim had been to chase me out of town. They may have achieved their aim and killed my enthusiasm to be a part of their community for a while, but my adventure will continue to distant lands for many years to come.

Since I began hitchhiking in 1990, I’ve travelled to over 50 countries. I recall Dakhla in the Western Sahara as being dreadful beyond description, and Bol in south-western Chad as being hell on earth. Weipa ranks 3rd on my list of disgusting localities on the face of the earth.

On reflection, I can see I made a 3-part mistake. Firstly, I entered town as a lone hitchhiker. Because many believe all hitchhikers to be dangerous, this could have instilled fear without reason. Secondly, I was chatty and friendly upon arrival. Some residents had said I must have been hiding something as such friendliness is suspect. And thirdly, I was looking for work in town. This, it seems, threatened locals who felt I was invading their ‘patch’. However, all I saw was a bitterly small-minded society incapable of receiving a visitor in town normally.

Please never visit Weipa, but if you do, I sincerely hope you meet some of the mere 17 good souls I met in my 10 days there.

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