Thumbing Around: Robert Prins Writes

By: Bernd Wechner
© November 1, 1998

Robert Prins made it into the Guinness Book of Records with his hitch-hiking exploits, and with a remarkable set of records he recreates for us an illuminating and in many ways precise account of his history as a hitch-hiker. Behold the story as it unfolds and if you have any questions for Robert, by all means place them here, or email him.

Hitching in Numbers

How do you define the quality of a hitch-hiking trip? Read on...

Where do you start putting the spotlight on yourself, if you don't feel very comfortable in it? I suppose 07:47 on 16 June 1980 in De Bilt, Netherlands, is about as close as you can get, it was the start of a recorded hitch-hiking career that is now in its 19th year and approaching the 100,000 mile mark, a mark I might just break before the end of the year, having to cover a mere 2154 miles to do so.

So why did I start? For the usual reason, lack of money.

My first trip was to the south of Sweden. After my mother had dropped me off on a junction pointing towards the north of Europe, 10 more rides followed on that first day, taking me up to Guldborg in Denmark. The next day brought me to Copenhagen, to see Hans Andersen's Little Mermaid (skip it!), and a day later I crossed over to Malmö, from where I slowly (with a lot of emphasis on sloooowly) thumbed my way along the coast up to Stockholm, returning across Sweden to Göteborg, before eventually returning home (to De Bilt). I arrived at 03:15 on 17 July, having received a final ride from just south of Göteborg almost to the front-door of my parental home, a distance of 924 km, including two free (the driver only pays for the car!) ferry crossings, from Helsingborg (S) to Helsingør (DK) and from Rødbyhavn (DK) to Puttgarden (D).

The ride was all the more memorable because it was one of the few where I actually got to drive, on the Autobahn, at 140-150 km per hour in the late evening! I'd just passed my driving test a few months earlier, something I didn't bother telling the driver...

Before I left, my parents and some colleagues had suggested that I should make some notes. I "designed" a simple form, on which to note down such essential facts as the places and times of departure and arrival, the average driving speed and other general notes.

As I said, the going was slow, I covered less than 250 km per day at a speed of just under 90 km/h. Still I enjoyed it, and the next year, in 1981 I decided to do something a little more ambitious, to hitch-hike up to the Northcape (the northernmost tip of Europe!).

Just before I was about to leave though, I was struck by a bout of acute appendicitis and postponed my attack on Europe's most northerly tourist trap until 1982. It was fortunate in a way, imagine this happening on the road!

I laid a tight schedule, it was my intention to get to the Northcape in twelve days, including a short stay in Oslo, to arrive there on 21 June. In the event I made it! I made Oslo with only a slight delay and once I left Oslo, I managed to reach each of my intended daily destinations without too much trouble, spending the nights in Trondheim, Mo i Rana, Narvik and Alta, arriving in the fog covered Northcape on 20 June only to leave again the very next day. On my way back I got stuck in Kautokeino in Norway (some 40 km before the Finnish border) for two days. None of the dozen or so cars to pass in that time bothered to stop! So I caught a bus and continued hitching from Rovaniemi.

Eventually, after stops in Helsinki, Stockholm & Copenhagen I made it back to Germany, where I got a ride just North of the Ruhrgebiet which took a turn for the unexpected.

It was late, I fell asleep and ended up near München, which was not really my intention, but then again, I shouldn't have fallen asleep. However, I ended up having a great day pushing buttons in the Deutsche Museum, before trying to get to Paris, where an uncle used to live. I got as far as Strasbourg...

The next day was useless. After a long walk out of Strasbourg, broken by a dip in the Marne-Rhine canal, I managed to get a ride back into Germany. Later that evening, at a German motorway service-station (a.k.a. Raststätte), I was greeted around 23:00 by another hitch-hiker with "Ah, die Konkurenz ist noch wach!" (Ah, the competition's still awake!).

During our conversations, he told me that he had left Southern Italy in the early morning, which seemed impossible to me, having rarely if ever hitched so far so fast myself. "What's your secret?" I asked. It turned out to be rather simple: "Ask people for rides when they stop at service stations!"

Eventually, late in the afternoon on the next day he decided that we were not going to get away from our Raststätte, and suggested turning around to try another route.

I wasn't so sure, but we crossed the Autobahn (don't repeat this!) to the Raststätte on the other side, and hitched the 30 odd kilometres back to get onto a parallel Autobahn more or less our way. He was right, it was a good idea, we got a ride fast.

We arrived at our next services, just as Germany and Italy started their 1982 World Cup final. The Autobahn went dead as a dodo, not fun. But Germany lost, big fun! Shortly after it finished, traffic picked up again and we got a ride. In no time I was at the Dutch border and found a ride that brought me home to De Bilt.

Another year later, in 1983, I hitched to Stockholm in the mild winter. Come summer I decided that I had seen enough of Scandinavia, and went to Greece, which took me, despite asking for rides, eight days, though I did get back in only five, and after a weekend in De Bilt I managed to get to Stockholm in a mere two.

Over the years that followed, I travelled mostly to Athens, added a few more Stockholms to my tally and in 1986 I had the pleasure of breaking Ashok Gupta's long standing record (in Ken Welsh's "Hitch-hikers Guide to Europe") for the greatest distance hitched in 24 hours, covering almost 170 km more, for a total distance of almost 2100 km. Guinness didn't accept it.

A year later, in 1987, I hit rock-bottom, or more to the point, the railing in the middle of the motorway, some 100 km south of Beograd. My driver fell asleep! I got a free flight home courtesy of my travel insurance. My injuries were not very serious, a small wound on my head and a crack in my shoulder- blade, but in Yugoslavia they considered in necessary to put my entire upper body in plaster, which makes sticking your thumb out a bit hard!

1988 was uneventful, but in 1989, thanks mostly to Neoklis Adamopoulos, a Greek living in Germany, I finally earned my "15 minutes of fame" (© Andy Warhol), with a distance of 2318.4 km, from southern Yugoslavia to Hamburg. The record appeared in the 1991 edition of the Guinness Book of Records , only to be deleted a year later.

In 1990 I made my longest trip ever -- from Holland all the way to eastern Turkey via Stockholm on the way down and Greece on the way up.

Stockholm-Gallipoli was quite amazing, it took me a mere 72 hours and four rides, the last one with a Turk who set the standard for all Turks to follow, friendly and embarrassingly hospitable: Turkish drivers refused to accept any payment, in spite of a custom that hitchers should offer half the equivalent bus fare. During stops on the longer rides I was inevitably treated to tea or a meal, but was never allowed to pay my share.

My visit to Turkey also had a profound impact on my life in a way that has nothing to do with hitching. In Istanbul I found a copy of one of those magazines that are freely distributed near London tube stations, plastered with the ads from IT recruitment agencies. I decided to move to the UK, a move I haven't really regretted, au contraire!

Of course living in the UK means living in the country of those two famous hitching limits, Land's End & John O'Groats. The Guinness Book was regularly publishing the record hitching time between these two spots, one in the extreme south-west, the other in the extreme north-east.

After two exploratory trips, in November 1991 and May 1992, I set off on 25 June 1992 for a trip to both, despite receiving, on the morning of my departure, a letter from Guinness telling me that they would no longer accept entries for this record. Of course I never did go on to break it, it took me 48 hours and 57 minutes to cover the distance and while trying for the return trip I gave up, running out of time.

And as for my usual summer destination, Greece? After my trip to Turkey in 1990, Yugoslavia had decided to blow itself to pieces, so I was forced to go through Italy. I still wonder why I was always so reluctant to do so before, as that year I made the trip to Athens in a mere 63 hours and 10 minutes, which included the 17 hour crossing between Bari and Patras, or almost 15 hours faster than my best time via Yugoslavia! (However, going from Greece back to the Netherlands via Yugoslavia has always been faster, with a best time of 42:06 hours, versus a best of 74:42 hours via Italy)

Still, after Germany and the UK, Italy is probably the third best country in Europe for hitch-hiking, even for someone whose entire Italian vocabulary can be written on a single sheet of A8 (or is it A9?) paper.

My plans for the immediate future? I'm not sure. Earlier this year I tried to get to John O'Groats again for a change, but only made it, quite romantically, to the second round-about in Perth, before heading back to Sterling, for a good night's sleep in the motorway services. If you're not too shabbily dressed and sit out of the way, they usually leave you alone on motorway services, at least that's my experience, not only in the UK, but also in Germany and Italy.

I am determined to break the 100,000 mile barrier, but at the moment the pressure at work is such (Y2K & Euro) that I may have trouble doing it this year, although a few Friday evening to Sunday afternoon weekends may just be enough to do the trick.

And then? Actually 100,000 miles may be a nice cut-off point, although I do not rule out sticking out my thumb in Australia, the US or even Japan.

To end this tour, let's return to the question that I posed at the beginning, "How do you define the quality of a hitch-hiking trip?" It's easy, the quality of a trip is:

Q=D×D×Ri+DaT×Ri×Da

where D is the total distance in kilometres, Ri the number of rides, Da the number of days on which you got rides, and T the actual driving time in hours. (N.B. The unit of quality is square km per hour) As for the derivation of this formula:

Q=D×VelocityRi+D×VelocityDa

or in simple terms, cover as much distance per ride/day with a speed as high as possible.

Any Q over 100,000 should be considered a treasure, my best achievement is 116,167 (km2/hr) and looking at the other 100,000+ trips, they were also excellent in most other ways (with the sole exception of that one ride in 1987 that ended rather abruptly! Although? Well actually, it gave me the opportunity to fly again for the first time in almost a decade so it was excellent too!)

So you think I'm a bit weird? Yes, I suppose you're right...

N.B. If you're like me and have kept track of all your rides, I have just the program for you. It not only calculates that very important quality for all of your trips, but also produces dozens of weird, wonderful and mostly utterly useless tables. If you need any help using it, feel free to email me.

Editor's Comments

Robert's clearly an immaculate keeper (and maker) of records! He stands out in my mind as one of those modern day hitchers, that indulges in thumbing out of many reasons beyond financial need. The simple joy of a change in lifestyle, a slight change in social role and identity, perhaps the chance to experience adventures and uncertainties that the regulated professional world doesn't provide.

I'm not sure what drives his passion for keeping such precise records, but I have to admit at times that I envy them. I've often asked myself the same questions others ask from time to time: "well, how long do you usually wait for a ride?", "how often do people stop?", "what kind of people stop?" … and been unable to answer them very well: "you know, a half hour or so", "often enough", "all kinds" …

Robert has all of this and more written down for every trip he ever thumbed! I can't help but wonder if Stephan Schlei and Bill Heid keep such immaculate records? Well, each to his own, Robert's most definitely a character and his story's an incredible contrast with Jostein's (which we saw last month).