My bag was stolen in Oamaru.
Not recently; this happened back in 2002, when I came to New Zealand for three months before I went to Australia for a year’s working holiday.
When I tell people my bag got stolen in New Zealand usually they’re shocked. There’s a very low crime rate here and it’s pretty much unheard of for anyone to have anything stolen. And yet of all the supposedly ‘dangerous’ countries I’ve been to, this is the only place where I’ve had anything taken!
But it’s not all the terrible story it sounds like it might be. Despite my negative memory of it, Oamaru is actually a lovely little town that really celebrates its Victorian heritage. Now that I’m back here I think it’s time I told you all about what happened all those years ago.
I stayed a night in a fairly new hostel and the next morning went off to the shower, closing the door to my room behind me. I did not realize at the time that to make the door lock, I had to slam it, and as I’m not really in the habit of slamming doors in the morning when people are sleeping, I didn’t. And I guess I didn’t check it after, either.
It was a few minutes after I came back from the shower to my room that I realized my daypack was not there. I didn’t panic at first; I simply thought it must be in my car. It was only after I’d gone out to the car and checked that I realized I had a serious problem!
I’d lost the bag that zips onto my big backpack, with my passport, wallet with all my cards and about $40, camera, binoculars, and water bottle inside.
People were exceptionally kind. While I waited for the police to come make their report, I ran down to the info centre down the road and used the phone there to cancel my credit card. The woman working there was so sweet; she heard everything and when I got off the phone she looked at me and said ‘You look like you need a hug’, and when I nodded, tears in my eyes, she came around the counter and gave me a big hug!
When I was all done with the police a British couple who’d heard all about it decided I needed lunch and more importantly, a drink, so they took me to a local pub. I, of course, had no money, so they very sweetly treated me to all of it.
This all happened on a Sunday, so I arranged with the hostel owners (who were horrified that this had happened at their establishment) to stay that night, and the next morning was able to cash a traveler’s cheque using a copy of my passport.
I realized that I’d actually probably seen the guy. As I was going back into my room from the shower, I saw a strange man going into what I think was the office. I didn’t really think anything of it, because the hostel was owned by a couple and I’d only met the woman. I simply thought the man I saw was the other part of the couple. But had I looked a little closer, I probably would’ve noticed my bag slung over his shoulder.
So all of this sucked, clearly, and caused me a fair amount of stress with having to replace my passport, but there’s so much more to the story.
After I finished at the bank on the Monday, I decided I didn’t want to stay in Oamaru anymore, and I drove up to Lake Tekapo.
On the first morning I was there, I and another girl were lazing in our beds in a female-only dorm, when a man abruptly walked into the room. I asked if I could help him, and he said he was looking for someone named Marcus. I said he wasn’t there, and the man left. Later I found out that another guest’s money belt had been stolen from his room.
When the policeman came I told him about the man I’d seen, and gave a description, along with my own story. He said someone had been going around targeting hostels in this way, and that the police had a suspect in mind.
A few days later I got an email with a lineup of 10 photos, asking me to identify the man I’d seen, along with a percentage of how sure I was. As soon as I looked at the mug shots I knew exactly which one was the man who’d barged into my room, so I wrote back and said I was 99% sure.
The cop replied and said I’d identified the right man, and that now they just had to catch up with him. The other girl in the room hadn’t gotten nearly as good a look as I had, and she chose the wrong one.
Several days later I got word that my bag was found in some grass along one of the roads that goes between Oamaru and Lake Tekapo. In it were my passport and wallet, with all my cards still there.
Now you can imagine my elation at getting all that back. But then on top of that I could only conclude that my bag in Oamaru and the guy’s money belt in Lake Tekapo were very very likely taken by the same man, and that I had had a part in identifying and hopefully catching him!
I’ll never know for sure if it was really him, or if they ever caught him or what punishment he might have faced. But I like to think that at least I had a hand in catching not just a criminal, but the very same one who had wronged me.
To complete the story, the New Zealand police found my camera in a pawn shop, sent photos of it to my home in Canada asking if it was mine, and when I emailed them to confirm that yes, it was, they mailed it back to Canada for me!
So I learned a few things here.
1. Don’t let your guard down. It doesn’t matter how safe the place you’re in might be, if you’re careless you might normally be lucky, but it just takes one opportunist to take advantage of your negligence. I’m extra vigilant of my bag now, no matter where I am, and while I’ve had people call me silly and overly cautious for it, I learned the hard way that bad things can happen when you least expect it and I really don’t need to go through that again.
2. ALWAYS double check that you’ve locked your room, car, etc. This guy was obviously just going around trying doors, and lucked out. Don’t let him get lucky again.
3. Be prepared. Have copies of your passport and some emergency cash stashed in a couple of different places around your bags. I also have digital copies of my passport and cards stored on my computer and online so I can access them from anywhere. In my situation, having the copies of my passport and my travelers’ cheques saved me from having to make a desperate phone call home begging for money to be sent asap. (Although I don’t really recommend travelers’ cheques these days!)
4. The New Zealand police are pretty impressive. I was thrilled to not only get just about everything back (at least all the important things) but to also help catch the guy who did it!
Now I’m back in Oamaru, and I’m staying in the exact same hostel. In fact, I think it’s even the same room!
When so many other places have been quite fuzzy in my memory from twelve years ago, as soon as I drove into Oamaru I recognized everything, and the hostel looks very much the same. It’s amazing how events can make somewhere stand out in my mind so much.
Of course I feel like I may be tempting fate a bit by staying in the same hostel, but lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, right?