Patrick O'Brien

Tag: hobo

My backpack

The author ~ Image © New Zealand Herald

We hitchhikers grow to love our backpacks, which is just as well given that we spend our lives in their company — many a long hour standing beside the road, or crammed into cars, and, come the night, we lie down beside them to sleep.

One’s choice of backpack is a personal matter. I use Macpac designs after switching to them in 1993 because, at that time, they were the only company manufacturing canvas bags with twin compartments.

Here’s how I pack my bag:

The bottom compartment is for clothing and change of footwear — the former rolled, not folded, for more efficient use of space and less creasing of the garments.

The top compartment is for stowing my heavy gear, listed here (from the top down) in the order of which I use it come the end of day: two ground sheets; my tent; sleeping bag (loosely stuffed, not bagged); cooking gear; a reserve fuel tank.

There Image: Front packare front and lid compartments on my pack and these hold my sewing kit, first aid kit, toiletries, and other sundries. A water bottle and sleeping pad are strapped to the sides.

I also carry a front pack, or day bag, which serves as my office, and this attaches to the main harness, as shown (click to enlarge).

Once a week I thoroughly examine each pack, looking for any wear or tear . . .


A full list of my road kit is available here:


“… a day in the life of …”

Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

I was born and raised on a dairy farm so it’s not surprising I’m always drawn back to the land in my travels. These days, my favourite assignments are those where the women folk commission me to shoot a-day-in-the-life-of their men. It’s fun! — for around a week, simply hanging out with them, their dogs and my cameras.


“Icebreaker” Logo ~ Image: 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

It’s the first day of winter. This morning I unrolled
my thermal skins — merino wool from Icebreaker.


A full list of my road kit is available here:

About (9)

‘The wandering seek . . .’
“And homeless near a thousand homes I stood,
and near a thousand tables pined and wanted food.”

~  William Wordsworth  ~

The ‘garage sale’

 Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien — 

Various projects and assignments have me coming off the road for more than a month at any one time, taking up temporary residence in a house or apartment for the duration. Here’s a recent example with the Gelfling pictured kneeling on her sleeping pad after moving into a new loft. We have become experts in an arcane art — the garage sale — selling off our accumulations from a stay, prior to moving on.

A successful garage sale is when everything on offer is sold. The secret to that success is pricing. Label every item with a price tag which you’ve arrived at by estimating the second-hand value of that item, and then halving it. This is your starting price. If items are not snapped up immediately when your punters arrive, then halve the price again.

Think of it like this: people are paying you to take away your junk.



Le plonk

South Pacific Island Sojourn

In the world of children . . .

Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves,
and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever
explaining things to them.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


In earlier posts I’ve spoken about those precious moments in my life as a hitchhiker when people invite me into their homes and open their lives to me, even trusting me to photograph their children — a blessèd task made easier if the child accepts me in their world. This is Master D with little brother climbing on the camera . . . they adopted me.

About (8)

On the run . . .

In 1978, haunted, hunted, traumatised and scared, I resigned the police and fled New Zealand — a price on my head and lucky to be alive — the legacy of my work for Criminal Intelligence.

For thirty years I travelled the world, running and hiding, running and hiding, yet never able to lose the demons that rushed around in my head.

At one point in the late 1980s, on a visit to New Zealand and desperate for help, I underwent a psychiatric assessment. The psychiatrist, a specialist consultant for the police department’s undercover programme and an expert in the field of PTSD who also worked with veterans from the Vietnam, Korean and Second World wars, diagnosed my condition as being chronic “post-traumatic stress disorder” resulting from my work as an undercover agent — and yet the police department absolved itself of any responsibility and refused my ask for assistance.

Their refusal was a blessing because my life of wandering continued . . .


My cooker

Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

—  MSR XGK-EX  —

In an earlier post on Life’s little Pleasures I spoke about tea being my preferred drink — plain, black-leaf tea, served boiling hot with lots of sugar. Pictured here is my cooker, boiling up the billy for a brew.

The XGK-EX multi-fuel stove is a serious bit of kit, designed for use in the most extreme conditions and a popular choice of those on expeditions — or travellers such as myself who are equally serious about making cups-of-tea under all conditions.

I purchased this cooker in late 2007 to replace my older (equivalent) model, the XGK-II which had served me well since around 1993, and, while I love the simplicity of design and trouble free use (it does exactly what it says on the box) I wouldn’t recommend this particular model for general backpacking or outdoor use. Here is a downloadable stove comparison chart showing which MSR models are better suited for any intended purpose.

XGK-EX technical details, performance specs, schematic diagrams, plus an owners manual in PDF format with instructions on its maintenance and use, are available from the manufacturers Web Site, here:




“My tent”

Some thoughts on tents . . . their purchase and use

My heroes (2)


― Maewyn Succat ―

Many travellers assume road names and mine is that of childhood hero and patron saint who was born Maewyn Succat in 387 AD at Kilpatrick, Scotland, the son of Calpurnius and Conchessato who were Roman officials in local government.

At 16 years of age, Succat was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland where he was sold to a Druid high priest in Antrim. Working as a shepherd slave, Succat became fluent in Irish and knowledgeable in Druidism.

After many years of captivity Succat escaped, returning again sometime after 432 AD — an ordained priest and bishop using the name “Patercius” or “Patritius” (derived from two Latin words ‘pater civium’ meaning the father of his people) which was conferred on him by Pope Celestine.

Succat died on 17 March 460 AD and is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. Today, Succat is known as Patrick . . . which is my given name.

Precious moments:

Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

“A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”

Oscar Wilde  ~


In previous posts about hitchhiking, I wrote of exchanging my camera skills for food, water and a place to pitch the tent (here’s some examples: a girl’s bedroom, the client, and, the babysitter).

This business model works well, except with wealthy people, many of whom, unless charged an exorbitant amount of money for my images, regard them as having no value.

Not so with the poor — the grateful mother of this young man, for instance, overheard explaining my concept to sceptical friends: “It’s simple; Patrick comes to stay, we look after him for a few days, and after he’s gone we’re left with all these precious photos.”

Precious moments, priceless memories . . .

The hitchhiker

The author © New Zealand Herald

“. . . and the journeying is towards God . . .”

~  Qur’an  ~


My parallel universe:

Succat Serials

‘Stealth Camping’

Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

Being a hitchhiker, I’m often asked by people and
other travellers starting out — where do you sleep?

In the following discussion thread over at digihitch, my alter ego, Succat, offers some well practised suggestions to a young Canadian woman who is starting out on a solo hitchhiking tour of New Zealand. These tips are applicable universally, including the use of cemeteries . . .

Stealth camping as a Woman



“There’s probably little need for “stealth camping” unless you find yourself in a city or town and don’t want to be disturbed through the night.

The trick is to not be seen entering the area you wish to sleep. Scout out a suitable spot during daylight hours and then return after dark. Remember: keep to the shadows, they are your friend.

With regards cities and towns, any of the following will enable a quiet night’s sleep: parks, reserves and botanical gardens; church yards; cemeteries (my favourite); and, on weekends when classes are out, school grounds . . .”


The ‘baby sitter’

Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

On occasion during my travels I will come off the road for short periods of time and look after people’s property — a baby sitter, if you will. These opportunities have gifted me some wonderful experiences and, while usually farms, I’ve also minded a holiday park, numerous homesteads, even an art gallery, while their owners take a break.

In this example, I looked after a man’s animals for a month while he travelled abroad to marry his betrothed and bring her home. I took this shot shortly after their return . . .

The ‘client’

Copyright 2012 © Patrick O’Brien

In an earlier post on hitchhiking, I wrote about exchanging my camera skills for food, water and some where to pitch my tent — a fresh twist on singing-for-one’s-supper.

My ratio of male to female drivers is around 50/50 and, while not surprising, it’s worth noting that, as I grow older, so does the age of my female drivers. These days a lot of grandmothers stop.

Grandmothers make for both the best and worst of clients, in the sense that, while always keen to have portraits of their grandchildren, they often want to run the shoot. Many professionals ban mothers and grandmothers from their sets for this very reason.

I try and fit them in . . .

New year’s resolution:



A girl’s bedroom

Copyright 2011 © Patrick O’Brien

As a hitchhiker, I am frequently blessed when people take me into their homes and open their lives to me. In a fresh take on singing-for-one’s-supper, I will often exchange my camera skills for food, water and a place to pitch the tent. In this shot, the daughter of my hosts wanted a photograph about herself for use on social media . . .

Hitchhike New Zealand

Hitchhiking in the snowCopyright 2011 © Succat

New Zealand is an easy country to hitchhike around – even in winter, with the Gelfling pictured here following a fresh fall of snow. However, as with any country, getting through cities poses a unique set of problems for the hitchhiker and so, in this, the first of a series, the writer’s alter-ego offers some of his well-practiced methods on exiting each of the four major metropolitan centres in New Zealand:

Exiting New Zealand Cities

Hitchhiking & PTSD

A discussion thread with Succat over at on the relationship between war, post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD and the homeless, wandering vagabonds who inhabit and hitchhike through our world . . .

Look what they’ve done to my soul’

.“In those years immediately following World War Two, thousands of
. returned service men from my father’s generation went on the road
. or joined lawless motorbike gangs. We now know that many of these
. characters were traumatised by war and suffered a condition known
. then as battle-fatigue.” ~ Succat

A hitchhiker’s death

Conversation between a Minister and a Hitchhiker

Minister: How long have you been hitchhiking?
Hitchhiker: Twenty years.
Minister: Was your father a hitchhiker?
Hitchhiker: Yes.
Minister: What happened to him?
Hitchhiker: He died while hitchhiking.
Minister: And your grandfather?
Hitchhiker: He was a hitchhiker. He also died while hitchhiking.
Minister: But this is an awful prospect for you, my poor man. Are
…………you not afraid to go hitchhiking?
Hitchhiker: Afraid, parson? Where did your father die?
Minister: In bed, of course, like a good Christian.
Hitchhiker: And your grandfather?
Minister: He died in his bed, too.
Hitchhiker: That’s bad, parson. Are you not afraid, then, to go to bed?

Adapted from:
“A Mariner’s Miscellany”
by Peter H. Spectre

Mirror to the World

Some advice for the new hitchhiker starting out . . .

The simple act of standing quietly with your pack beside the road conveys a silent yet powerful message to all who pass. Many of those people will feel uncomfortable or even challenged by that message and what you represent.

Most will simply try to ignore you, looking away, or resorting to a variety of other amusing tricks in pretending you don’t exist. Some will attempt to block the message, and, not having a “delete” button, will shout abuse in their attempt to drown you out.

All hitchhikers will face this reality, and each of us will deal with it in our own way. It can be difficult, standing for hour after hour being ignored and/or abused — yet deal with it we must.

In many ways the hitchhiker is a mirror to the world and what people see is a reflection of themselves. Always be mindful that how they react speaks of them, not you.


Succat: copyright 2008 © New Zealand Herald


Copyright 2011 © Patrick O’Brien

This is hitch. He’s my hitchhiking buddy. I found him in
a muddy puddle beside the road, many years ago . . .

Highway Number One

Copyright 2005 © Gelfling

In 2003 I commenced a short hitchhiking tour of New Zealand, touching the country, meeting her people and sampling the mood. Pictured here, standing beside State Highway One which traverses the length of New Zealand from North Cape to Bluff, I travelled this land for seven years. Here are my hitchhiking logs which record the distance covered, a journey farther than travelling twice around the Earth’s equator . . .



The Hitchhiker


Stylised self-portrait 2003 © Patrick O’Brien

Please allow me to introduce my alter-ego:

My Tent

 I love tents and here are some of my thoughts on their purchase and use . . .

● There is something very comforting when, at the end of the day, no matter where I am, even when cold, hungry or wet, I pitch my tent, climb inside — and, I’m “home”.

● Choose a tent designed for your intended purpose, such as, for example: “tunnel” tents for high wind use or geodesic for heavy snow loads. Many top end tents are a clever combination of both these design elements.

 ● Purchase the best tent you can afford; a good tent will be the most expensive part of your road kit.

● Good tents have a simple design — avoid tents with complex designs or those offering solutions for problems that don’t exist

● Choose your tent size as follows: if travelling alone, 2 x man tent / if travelling with a partner, 4 x man tent.

● Good tents are distributed with the manufacturer’s repair kit comprising patches for each of the materials used in their construction plus short metal sleeves for broken poles.

 ● An hermetically sealed tent will protect you from insects, snakes and other assorted creepy-crawlies that nibble ‘n bite in the night. To deter bigger critters, urinate into a container before sleep and spray a circular-perimeter-line about 10 meters out from tent.

● Twin-vestibules provide improved ventilation and alternate access/regress during storms. On good tents, the vestibules will be roomy and may be left open when it rains without leaking water into the cabin.

● A deep, tub-floor will prevent run-off from heavy rain or superficial flooding from entering the cabin.

● Designs with an attached/detachable fly-cover offer more versatility and ease of use.

● Choose a fly-cover that is waterproofed to a minimum of 3500 mm of hydrostatic head tested to British Standard 3424.

● My choice of colour for the fly-cover is dark green or similar.

● Aluminium poles are my preference: greater breaking strain; won’t shatter; can be temporarily repaired in event of mishap (for extreme conditions, carry two sets of poles and double sleeve them).

● To prevent condensation problems through the floor, carry 2 x footprints that have been sized or cut to the dimensions of your cabin. Place one underneath the tent, the other as your first layer inside the cabin.

● Carry a seam sealant and apply liberally on the inside seams of your fly-cover if leaks develop.

● Don’t use commercial products on tent zippers — a soft toothbrush (or similar) is best for cleaning/clearing teeth of dust and grit.

● Good tents are storm proof — but not fireproof, so keep clear of flame and sparks.

● Don’t sleep under trees — falling branches shred tents.

● Cut and carry a length of PVC pipe (or similar) and leave it permanently down the inside of your pack. This serves as a convenient sleeve to insert your pole bag unhindered when stowing.

 ● Leave a small hand towel (or similar) permanently inside the cabin for wiping out dust and debris prior dropping the tent.

● Carry a small high-absorbent towel specifically to wipe off excess moisture and condensation from the tent prior packing. While it will not always be possible to dry-pack your tent, water is a heavy substance and removing any excess will lessen your weight.

● Remember — it’s not always necessary to actually pitch your tent if the immediate terrain does not provide sufficient screening or cover for your purpose. In some situations it might be preferable to simply use the tent like a bivvy bag.

● Remember, too, that farmers and private land owners all over the world are usually welcoming of the Traveller. Don’t be afraid of asking permission to camp — simply knock on a farm house door before sunset and introduce yourself . . .

● Share the weight if travelling as a couple or with a partner — one carrying the poles and pegs, the other carrying the cabin and fly-cover.

● A combination of daily use and UV light destroys tents — even with care, my tents only last around 18 months!

● My favourite sound in the world is rain on the roof of my tent at night.

● This is my current tent:

Copyright 2010 © Macpac

● A full list of my road kit is available — here

● Free download in PDF format — a useful primmer for tenting in extreme conditions: “Alpine Tech Tip – Shelter For The Storm”

The Tooth Faerie

Successful hitchhikers keep their faith and embrace the Road, for
they know that, like a loving mother, she will always provide . . .

I’d been to Gore once before. A successful photo shoot, portraits of a young woman, and an earnest invitation from her mother to call again and stay if passing through.

Nestled among rolling green hills stocked with grazing sheep and dissected by the Mataura River, one of the world’s finest brown trout fisheries, it’s a pretty place.

Small town New Zealand; parks full of exotic European timber introduced by early settlers from the Occident — and a bored youth. Booze, cars, drugs and teenage pregnancy.

A weird combination of circumstances and rides saw me arrive back in Gore at sunset, Easter Sunday.

Pitching my tent, I felt the first tingle of things amiss in my jaw. Tooth ache, a slow, minor niggle at first, accelerating into a mind bending crescendo within 24 hours, with that creeping numbness indicating the complication of infection.

Strange town, no money, medical emergency. The hitchhikers nightmare.

At 4.00 am on the Tuesday morning, desperate from pain, I remembered the earnest mother from two years earlier and knocked on her door.

Yes, of course I could use the phone.

A call to the after hours emergency number was answered by a female voice thick with sleep. She woke her husband, Mr James, the local dentist.

I’m just a traveller passing through, I told him. Not a problem – happy to help you.

I have no money, I told him. Not a problem – see you in my clinic at eight.

A few hours later, with offending tooth pulled, and a pocket full of antibiotics to clear a nasty infection, I mulled over the Road’s splendour: it had picked me up and carried me down to this little town at the bottom of the world with perfect timing to fix a pending problem.

Thank you, God!

Tonight, I’ll leave the tooth in my tin cup outside the tent door for the tooth faerie . . . I need $45 to pay the good Mr James.


Copyright 2011 © Patrick O’Brien

The Messenger

In the daily hunt for food, shelter and our next ride, we hitchhikers risk
becoming self centred — which is understandable given the power of
our survival instincts. However, and as this experience shows, it’s not
always about us . . .

Mr “P” stopped and gave me a ride just outside Taumarunui. Nice car. European. Built for speed.

He drove very fast. Too fast, perhaps, but seemed to know what he was doing and I soon relaxed into a fun ride.

Eventually, the afternoon ran down and her shadows lengthened. It’s not my practise to travel after dark, usually stopping before sun set and pitching the tent, so I studied my map and searched the unfolding landscape looking for a likely place to camp.

Suddenly my inner voice spoke.

Experienced travellers nurture their inner voices, learning to trust them without question. So, when mine said “stay with this ride,” I didn’t hesitate and we raced on into the night without event but at high speed for several hours.

Then, the first indication of trouble.

It came as my driver used an unorthodox point of entry when approaching a long, gradual right-hand-sweeper. A concrete bridge with squat, solid abutments sat on the apex.

A few car lengths away from colliding with the bridge, I remember thinking what a strange line we were taking and looked across at Mr. “P”.

He was asleep.

It can be difficult to accurately judge time/distance at night, especially with high speed factored in, yet, when I turned back to look at the road, death was just an instant away.

My hand took the steering wheel and the car responded. Immediately. Thank God for German engineering.

We swerved slightly, almost imperceptibly, just enough to miss the abutment head-on, bounced off the inner guard rail, shaved some speed then charged at the opposite rail across the road — at which point Mr. “P” woke up.

Correcting my over steer, he steadied our vehicle along the centre line then braked us to a halt.

We sat there, quietly, my voice the first to break our silence.

“Would you like me to drive?”

“Yes!” he said, “and please come home to meet the family.”


Home was a mansion in West Auckland surrounded by high fences with large steel gates and my introduction to the family was brief:

“This is Succat. He’s a hitchhiker. He saved my life.”

Then I was introduced to the fit young men. I recognized their type. Minders.

And then I found out what they were minding.

Crystal meth. Speed. Bags of it, pure metamphetamine — also known as “P”— elongated crystals the size of a computer mouse, millions of dollars worth.

This was serious shit.

All my instincts said to leave but my inner voice spoke again telling me to stay, and so stay I did.

Mr. “P” made me most welcome, an honoured guest with free run of his home and property, a witness to the comings and goings of the fit young men. No door was locked, no conversation blocked, even commissioning me to shoot a documentary photo essay of a ‘Day In His Life’ such was the trust.

After browsing through a small portfolio of my work, his daughter spoke to me.

“Succat, will you look at my photographs?”

Annie was a pretty young girl with large brown eyes, not yet a teenager. We shared a couch and balanced her laptop computer on our knees while she scrolled through her collection.

The images were stunning.

“How much training have you had?” I asked.


“How long have you been taking photographs?” I asked.

About a week.

I was speechless; a natural talent.

All next day, and the following one, I spent with Annie and her little point-n-shoot. We talked about photography and the world outside, of places far away and the adventures to be had with a camera.


On the fourth night I hitched up my pack and slipped quietly away. A fit young man at the gate smiled and waved me through without question.

It took me some time to recover from that whole experience.

Previously I’d prided myself, thinking my travels were about helping people and that, somehow, the people I helped were in some way deserving. It haunted me to know I’d saved a merchant of destruction, our Mr. “P”.

And then my inner voice spoke again:

It’s not about you, it was Annie.”

The Universe had required a messenger reach this little girl inside her home, a photographer who could identify her germinating gift, offer encouragement and provide some hope of life beyond the compound.

Given the barricades, those fit young men and a father’s criminal paranoia — this was a big ask!

One couldn’t simply knock on the gates and ask to come in.

The task required someone who had a gained a unique position of trust, someone who had done something extraordinary, someone like . . . someone who had saved her daddy’s life.

People’s names, some minor descriptive details and the location of

Succat’s pick-up point have been changed in the telling of this story.


Copyright 2008 © New Zealand Herald