Teresa Smith of the Westport News reports how a frustrated Frenchman passing through Punakaiki has turned the world media spotlight on a small West Coast town.

A story about the French hitchhiker who attacked road signs in Punakaiki to vent his spleen after four days without a lift has gone global.

A local man quoted in the original Westport News story, published on Monday, said on Tuesday he had had to stop answering his phone after receiving calls from reporters around the world including the UK, Australia and Canada.

The hitchhiker, Cedric Claude Rene Rault-Verpre, 27, of no fixed abode, pleaded guilty in Greymouth District Court yesterday morning to a wilful damage charge. Police arrested him in Punakaiki on Sunday after locals reported that he had thrown a freedom camping sign in the river, damaged other signs and verbally abused people.

The owner of the large road sign involved, Fulton Hogan, is seeking reparation of $3000. Rault-Verpre disputed the amount in court yesterday, saying the sign was already damaged.


He has had to surrender his passport as part of his bail conditions and was remanded to appear again in Christchurch on Friday.

Worldwide attention

People from China, Italy, Lesotho, Canada and Germany have been in touch with friends and family in Punakaiki saying they had read the story in their papers.

A version of the story was the most popular item on the Guardian UK's website (which has an estimated readership of over 40 million) yesterday and today.

Details of the original story, however, changed somewhat in overseas editions. For example, Punakaiki was described as a "fishing village" and Rault-Verpre was said to have "gone berserk".

More reports

Meanwhile, The News has received more reports about the hitchhiker's behaviour on State Highway 6 on Sunday.

The Buller under 14 and under 16 basketball teams travelling to Greymouth on Sunday morning saw him looking for a lift.

A parent driving one of the cars slowed down and pulled in further up the road, intending to offer him one. However, the parent drove off again when Rault-Verpre gave him the finger.

A woman driving another car in the basketball convoy received the same gesture. She was so angry she turned back and told Rault-Verpre what she thought. He walked away.

'Nazi NZ'

Rault-Verpre told waiting media outside the Greymouth District Court yesterday that New Zealand should include "Nazi" in its name.

He had earlier expressed his frustration to the court, saying he had spent four days on the side of State Highway 6 at Punakaiki and no one had bothered to even offer him some water.

Duty lawyer Marcus Zintl said Rault-Verpre just wanted the matter to go away and he was prepared to pay reparation, although he believed the signs were already damaged and he did not do $3000 worth of damage to them.

As Rault-Verpe was leaving the court he told the Greymouth Star that he could not believe he was unable to see a judge today to sort the matter out.

Asked to give his side of what had happened on Sunday, Rault-Verpe said he had been trying to hitchhike out of the tourist spot and in frustration he had thrown "two stones" at a sign.

His predicament had left him with a sad impression of New Zealand, Rault-Verpe said.
"You should change the name to Nazi Zealand, not New Zealand."

Rault-Verpe said he could not believe the way he had been treated.

When questioned by waiting media he did not appear to fully understand the New Zealand court process. Asked how long he had been in this country he replied, "too long - way too long - and I've been to 80 countries".

He did not confirm if he intended hitchhiking to Christchurch following his appearance yesterday or whether he would take a bus in order to make his court appearance.

- Westport News

Additional reporting - Greymouth Star