20 February 2010

Get your thumb out

By Trevor Phillips

I am just back from a week in the South of France. In my rich lifestyle (by global not European standards) I consume more than my fair share of global resources, so I went by train to reduce my 'carbon footprint' somewhat. No doubt I must do more than this, but it's a start.

It was no hardship: nine hours from London to Nice in comfort, with countryside views and the chance to walk about, dine in style and avoid airports. At £125 return, why use a budget airline?

But going further overland can be very expensive. A few years ago I went by train to Greece. I confess I flew back: I was testing my fifty-something years' capacity to cope with a lengthy if 'greener' journey and decided to try it one way, avoiding the risk of double misery. It was actually great fun. London to Patras in 48 hours included the joys of a restaurant car through France at sunset, a sleeper to Bologna and a ferry from Brindisi, with accompanying dolphins. Next time I hope to do the round trip by train and boat. But the outward train journey cost me considerably more than the return flight. If international leisure travel is to continue – albeit perhaps rationed in some way – long distance rail travel must surely be made cheaper than flying.

In my younger days I preferred to hitch-hike to Greece. It took under four days and cost almost nothing as truck drivers often treated me to breakfast and a beer or two, and let me kip in the cab. This has its risks of course, especially for unaccompanied women, but many young couples often travelled together safely.

Hitching is much more difficult now, and few would stop for a dodgy looking geezer like me - I no longer look like a student. Media scare stories have exaggerated potential risks into a public terror of hitch-hikers and generous drivers. Insurance firms have forced companies to prohibit non-company passengers. What a shame this is, as there is no better form of motorway travel than in the cab of an 'artic' and the use of a vacant seat or two could further reduce carbon footprints. Maybe someone will develop a viable lift booking service which records the photos and ID of hitcher and driver by phone-camera. Services like CarShare Norfolk already promote lift share schemes.

Hitching was democratic as well as green, an affordable adventure enhanced by its nagging uncertainty: Please don't drop me on the motorway… or miles from anywhere. And what skills one developed: drying hair under a wash-room hand-dryer and sleeping upright or in a luggage rack.

I once did the overland trip to India: a four day hitch to Istanbul, then onward by trains and buses. I would have missed so much if I had flown. Of course wars have made that particular route a difficulty now, but the chance to travel far, without flying, still exists. But has the decline of hitch-hiking changed the nature of long distance travel? Some young gap-year travellers now take the train to China, but many more fly to Latin America, even though a few days hitching plus a ferry could get them to Morocco or Egypt for a fair slice of adventure.

Even when it went wrong, hitching provided me with my best memories: like being dropped off on a deserted road in Yugoslavia at 5am in a dawn chorus drizzle, singing Gordon Lightfoot's masterpiece to keep my spirits up: "You can't jump a jet plane like you can a freight train, so I'd best be on my way, in the early morning rain." I never tried illicit jumping on planes or trains – probably best avoided - but I will never forget that early morning rain. Oh to have my thumb back.