Starting Location: Exeter, Devon UK.
Final Location: Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Total time: 22 Hours.
After my trip to Thailand during my gap year, I began University with an adventurous attitude. I was ready to make new friends, drink A LOT and make sure I made the most of my fresher year. By the time October came around however I found myself feeling restless (after all Exeter is a tiny city) and longing for another new adventure. Therefore I was intrigued when an email popped into my inbox from our charity society RAG (Raising & Giving), asking for students to interview to be part of a charity hitch hike committee. After applying and going to interview for one of the roles, I was invited onto the events committee and helped market the event for sign ups.
As all committee members were expected to take part in the hitch hike, I managed to hustle a couple of others to join me. My team raised over 600 pounds for charity through sponsors and we packed our bags ready to hitch hike from Exeter to Amsterdam in the quickest time possible. The only rules were that we were not to pay any money for travel and were to stay in our team at all times.
Starting out at 6am we took a taxi to our starting location; a service station on the outskirts of the city. Here we set up our handmade signs and boards, and after what felt like hours of asking strangers for lifts, we nabbed our first ride from a middle-aged businessman who took us from Exeter to the outskirts of London. From there we once again managed to hitch with a businessman straight to Dover, where we boarded a boat to Calais for free (pre-arranged by the committee beforehand). This part of our journey had been relatively simple, with many willing to give us lifts once they realised that the trip was for charity. What we didn’t realise as we crossed the channel, was that this was the last time we could use the reason of charity as a way of persuading people to give us a lift. From the time that we arrived in Calais, language barriers and lack of familiarity meant that we had to simply hope that people trusted us enough to allow us in their vehicle. If we had realised this maybe we would have made more effort to find our next hitch while aboard the boat. Instead we very naively found ourselves attempting to grab a lift from the entrance to the port, which proved to be more difficult than we first thought; we later found out that as illegal immigrants commonly tried to enter lorry’s around this area, people were reluctant to stop for us.
And so we stood at that port for a good 2-3 hours, hailing any passing vehicle in the freezing rain hoping that someone would finally take pity on us and stop. Just as we were ready to admit defeat; a car halted a few hundred metres down the road from us and flashed its lights. A French gentleman from Lille was kind enough to pick us up on his way home from work and drove us over the Belgian border and well into the country, dropping us at another service station before heading home to his young family.
Here we ate, grabbed some hot drinks and took it in turns to take shelter from the cold while the rest of the team advertised our need to go onwards towards the Netherlands. Eventually we were offered a ride with our first lorry driver, a lovely British man who agreed to take us just over the boarder of the Netherlands. In between naps we spent this time sharing stories about our lives, hearing about where our driver called home and also about some of his experiences driving around Europe alone – some of them more ominous than others. This was one of my favourite hitches as it was homely and familiar and I think my whole team were sorry when we had to jump down from the toasty cab to enter the next service station, our signs at the ready. However at least we were now in the correct country!
Our next hitch was one of our most questionable. One of my team was conversational in Italian and we decided to target two young Italian LGV drivers to see if we could manage to hitch a ride without having to speak English. While we were successful, these men spoke no English whatsoever and my friend’s Italian was probably not as useful as we thought it might be. Instead of being dropped in Rotterdam, we were instead dropped off in a lonely and dilapidated service station that was quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We watched desperately as our Mediterranean friends drove away, waving and beeping with gusto; sure that they had just helped us get to where we wanted to go.
So now we were stuck. It seemed we were in an even worse position than when we were in Calais. Our only option was to wait and hope that someone would drop in at some point. Just as we were coming to the decision that after 2 hours of waiting we may need to try and walk to the next service station in the hope that it was more populated, a car pulled off of the dual carriageway and drove towards us. Instantly knowing that this was our only chance, we spent the next 15 minutes badgering this poor man as he tried to have his midnight coffee, and eventually he agreed to take us the extra 20 minutes down the road that we needed to enter Rotterdam. This guy was a pro, he must have been driving over 90 mph the entire way, effortlessly dodging in and out of the dual-carriageway traffic. Within minutes it seemed we were entering Rotterdam, the industrial cranes from the port glowing in the street lighting ominously over us.
By now it was the early hours of the morning and although we had taken it in turns to sleep in lorry cabs and service stations, the journey was really taking its toll. This was by far the most kitted out service station we had found ourselves in and we decided to re-energise with sugar, tea and lots of carbs. While discussing what our next moves could be in order to finally get us to our destination, we overheard two men talking at a table and distinctly heard ‘Amsterdam’. Over we went and after a little persuading (we were experts by now) we had our golden lift to Amsterdam. The slight catch being that this lift was in the back of a van…but you can’t be picky while hitch hiking right? We spent the next 50 minutes in the dark sat on toolboxes and sheets, with not a clue where we were going. Looking back this was not the wisest decision and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do the same! I think by that time we were so delirious from lack of sleep that we didn’t even consider the fact that we could be heading for somewhere much more sinister. Thankfully we were lucky and this guy was genuine, dropping us off in Amsterdam outside of a metro station. Watching our last hitch disappear into the distance there were high-fives all round. Now our only challenge was finding our hostel and hoping that no one else had beaten us to it.
Thankfully a member of my team had packed a map of Amsterdam in her bag and had already marked where our hostel was, so we walked the remainder of the way and finally entered the lobby around 4.30am – 22 hours from when we started out. While we were not the first to arrive, we came a close second and this to me was good enough. The next two days were spent exploring the city and visiting museums, with regular stops at cafes and restaurants to warm up from the minus temperatures.
While I would love to revisit Amsterdam one day, hopefully in the summer months, I could never replicate this unique experience. I am still amazed by the kindness of strangers in those 22 hours, my own resilience when all seemed to be lost and how safe I felt during this time. This journey really opened my eyes to a new way of backpacking and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is travelling in a group and on a shoestring budget. Stay safe, use your gut instinct and go on an adventure!