Sleeping on nettles behind the bins of a German service station isn’t most people’s vision of an ideal getaway.
But that’s where Tom Schneider, 21, a History and Politics student at the University of Sheffield, found himself midway through Easter as he embarked on the annual adventure that is Bummit.
Every year hundreds of students from the university take up the Bummit challenge to make their way from Sheffield to a destination on the opposite side of the continent.
The catch? They only have one week to do it. And they have to hitchhike.
Now in its twelfth year, the world’s largest student-organised hitch-hiking group, run by Sheffield Raising and Giving (RAG), raises tens of thousands for local charities, with last year’s trek to Vilnius bringing in over £88,000.
This year’s cohort of 400 travellers attempted to reach the Croatian capital Split within seven days, with an optional halfway point at Warsaw.
Yet for some it’s not the places you go but the people you meet who make the journey worthwhile.
“Getting these glimpses into their lives was the best bit, because it’s only because of their generosity that hitchhiking is possible at all”, says Economics and Philosophy student Isaac Stovell, 20.
“Seeing the personalities underneath means that Bummit is a big emotional investment but is also hugely rewarding, whether or not you get to the destination smoothly.”
A smooth ride is certainly not what anyone signs up for.
“The main point about hitching is it’s not really a holiday”, Tom says. “You are hitching or trying to hitch about 14 hours a day and then you are planning tomorrow’s hitching or partying if you get a spare moment. Definitely not something to unwind on.”
Planning and preparation are useful in every part of life, but for every Bummiter a bit of luck is needed every now and again.
Stuck in Dresden late at night with nowhere to stay, Japanese Studies student Sonja Bobrowska, 22, and her two companions spotted a group of what looked like university students in the street. Trusting her instincts, Bobrowska asked the group if they knew anywhere they could stay – only to be offered a place at theirs.
“There’s no courage in anything – you just have nothing to lose” Sonja says. “You assume they say no anyway, so why not give it a go. I don’t have a problem with approaching people. I don’t have like a mindset or whatever. That’s the only way you can get a lift, not thinking about it.”
For others, luck can sometimes come at an unexpected price.
English student Jessica Pitocchi, 21, tells of being stranded along the Croatian coastline at a bus stop with no water or shelter in the hot sun and starting to feel a little worried.
Suddenly a young man pulls up and agrees to take them further down the road, but on one condition – one of them drives the car instead.
“It turned out he had been driving from Switzerland across Europe to pay a surprise visit to his family back in Zadar and he was tired from doing so”, says Jessica.
“So my teammate hopped in the driving seat and drove a complete stranger’s car - which he told us was only bought the day before! People are so trusting – so nice to experience.”
For Jessica, the trick to getting a long lift is keeping your host entertained. “It’s all about engaging with the lift, paying an interest in them and you’ll soon find they enjoy your company as much as you enjoy the lift.”
With at least 300 students travelling on Bummit every year everyone has a story to tell, even the ones who don’t get the whole way. Sonja, who passed through her hometown in Poland on the way, had her final year dissertation deadline looming and decided to call it quits when she got to her boyfriend’s in Vienna.
She recommends the experience to everyone, but especially those who aren’t confident speaking to others.
“If people are shy or they have difficulties approaching people for some reason then they definitely should do it, because that changes them so much. You are not doing it alone you are doing it as part of a team. If you are not that open at the beginning then someone else does it for you.”
Like Jessica, Tom and Isaac, Sonja had to rely on perseverance, enthusiasm and pushing her luck in her travels across the continent.
But for her hitchhiking is also in the blood, with her mother hitching from Poland to Greece and across Turkey in the 1980s.
When Sonja and her mum hitched to Sheffield they kept the faith every Bummiter must have when stuck in the middle of nowhere, drenched by rain and losing hope.
“Me and my mum hitchhiked from the Peak District to Sheffield.
“I said we are not going to get a hitch and my mum said there’s always a hitch around the corner.”
Bummiters meet a whole host of people from across Europe on their travels.
Here are a few of the most memorable...
Sonja Bobrowska – We met a group of freestyle runners in Leipzig doing the Red Bull Challenge, where they have to travel to as many of 30 European destinations as they can in a week. They were one of the best, in second place at the time.
Tom Schneider – We chatted with a Polish Jehovah’s Witness trucker about the upcoming Apocalypse before he stopped on the motorway and we pushed a car that had fallen out of the truck back on again. He was a funny chap.
Jessica Pitocchi – On the German-Polish border we got picked up by a girl who at first just spotted our other female teammate and it turned out she had driven past us, turned her car around and came back. She ended up taking us into Gorlitz – which has starred in a surprising number of films – and took us to lunch in Poland!
Isaac Stovell - Among our most interesting was Robert, a thrash-metal guitarist who had taken up youth-work with a local church; Eli & Henning who’d had a 13-year long-distance relationship between Austria and Denmark; and Simon, who used to organise raves on motorways in the early ’90s and now helps lay beats for several fairly big hip-hop artists.