A French hitchhiker who apparently spent four days trying to get a lift out of Punakaiki without success ended up leaving in handcuffs with police yesterday.

Locals contacted the police after the man apparently took his frustration out on road signs, allegedly taking one out of the ground and throwing it in the nearby Punakaiki River and hurling large rocks at another.

Senior Sergeant Paul Watson said they received several calls about a man damaging signs and abusing people.

"It seems he lost the plot after becoming stuck in Punakaiki for four days and unable to get a lift."


He said witnesses alleged the man had thrown a freedom camp sign into the Punakaiki River and taken to the Punakaiki sign itself with a rock. They also told police he had verbally abused tourists and locals.

Police arrested the 27-year-old and took him to Greymouth where he was bailed and his passport kept. He would appear in court tomorrow charged with wilful damage, Mr Watson said.

"He could have started walking, he would have been in Franz Josef by now."

'Gave the finger'

A staff member from the Punakaiki Visitor Centre said the man had been seen around Punakaiki but had caused no problems until yesterday.

He was noticeable due to the big black plastic bag he carried and was understood to have slept on Punakaiki Beach.

She first saw the man on Saturday afternoon when driving home from work. He was on the side of the road near the Punakaiki River bridge and appeared to be hitching south.

When she returned the next morning he was there again. Even though she was travelling in the opposite direction to where he was headed he "gave me the big finger. It was quite vicious and gave me a fright".

She did not see him with his thumb out and wondered if he actually knew hitchhiking technique.

Later in the morning some locals came into the visitor centre and asked for help, she said. They described a man as aggressive when they approached him about his behaviour and were worried he might be violent so wanted the Department of Conservation (DOC) to alert police.

DOC staff were concerned that his behaviour might have been caused by a medical condition, the woman said.

Whitebaiter intervened

Local business owner Neil Mouat, whose property is close by, said the first he knew there was a problem was when a resident from across the river came to tell him what was happening.

An older local man who was whitebaiting had upbraided the man after witnessing his behaviour while a younger man stood close by as he was concerned the hitchhiker might take a swing at him, he said.

Mr Mouat said when he arrived the hitchhiker was sitting on the ground so he went to examine the damaged signs and found quite a few gone.

"We found one in the bushes last night and one had been thrown in the river."

A nylon base plate nailed to a sign warning of hidden phone lines and to 'dial before you dig' had been torn off another sign and the whole sign uprooted, he said.

"By that stage he was lying on the road and I couldn't quite see but I thought he was almost lying on the white line by a blind corner."

Mr Mouat then called the police.

When they arrived the man did not get up and talked to them from the prone position. He said when the hitchhiker did get up he was handcuffed and taken away after police retrieved one of the signs and replaced it.

Mr Mouat said the man told one local that "New Zealand was s**t and he couldn't wait to get back to Europe".

It seemed he had enough English to get by, Mr Mouat said as he had offered police the translation services of a French couple working for him but they were not required.

One of his French workers declared that for a Frenchman to behave like that he must have been dumped by his girlfriend, said Mr Mouat.

Police alerted the NZ Transport Agency's West Coast contracting team to the sign damage.

Regional performance manager Pete Connors said a replacement sign for the major sign at the entrance to Punakaiki was being ordered and it would be installed in coming weeks.

- Westport News