Bunkers down under

A FEW months ago I visited New Zealand and did all the usual things there – hiked glorious mountains, frolicked on glaciers, marvelled at the sheep (like ours, but with flattened “baaas”) and thrilled at NZ television (highlight: a Highway Patrol repeat with a biker, a chainsaw and a lot of bleeps).

So yes, New Zealand is wonderful, green, gobsmackingly gorgeous and isolated enough that it can seem like a cute, remote safe haven removed from the world’s global problems, apart from occasional disputes with the neighbour over rugby.

But every silver fern has a dark lining, as my Aunt Ethel used to say while throwing down White Russians to pass the afternoon. And New Zealand’s dark lining is rich Americans.

Not that New Zealand is the only country in the world struggling to cope with rich Americans. We’ve all been forced to come to terms with Donald Trump.

But New Zealand has had to deal with a particular subset of rich Americans – the kind who think the end is nigh but they’ll ride it out in a family-sized New Zealand bunker where even a 1000-foot tidal wave won’t reach them.

The “apocalypse now” crowd have bought up so much shaky isles real estate that the New Zealand government is cracking down with legislation to shut the door on foreign buyers. It has argued that overseas wealth has fuelled New Zealand property prices and caused a homelessness crisis, or at least inflated house prices for rich New Zealanders.

“In this world of concentrating wealth, we don’t want this coterie of ultra-wealthy people overseas being able to outbid successful New Zealanders for what is our birthright, not theirs,” said the minister responsible for amendments to the Overseas Investment Act and the protection of successful New Zealanders, David Parker.

Which got me looking at how big a problem this might actually be. And within a few short minutes of googling “New Zealand” and “apocalypse” and “Americans”, I was on a wild and scary trip deep into “prepper” territory.

Every so often I drop in, to see how the gun-totin’, God-fearin’, sometimes polygamy-supportin’ “prepper” crowd are faring. And just in case you’ve missed National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers – congratulations – “preppers” are people preparing for the end of the world as we know it.

Preppers include people preparing for the apocalypse, armageddon, doomsday, a giant tidal wave, asteroid strike, nuclear meltdown, something to do with the sun flaring that I’ve never really understood, something else to do with cyber attack where your computer or phone turns on you, or people fearing how they’ll survive if Justin Bieber ever retires.

Preppers prepare in different ways. Some spend the spring slaughtering chickens to make canned stews that are stored in secret underground locations for when an apocalypse or lesser apocalyptic event – say, a 500-foot tidal wave rather than a 1000-foot one – wipes out global food production.

Others work on their gun-totin’ and shootin’ skills for when we all turn on each other after a “peak oil” global collapse scenario. And others with lots of money head for New Zealand to build bunkers.

More than half its customers want bunkers out of fear of “economic collapse” when, if memory serves me from my National Geographic Doomsday Preppers DVD-watching days, we’re all supposed to turn on each other. Only the gun-totin’, canned chicken stew-storing, bunker-owners will survive.

In the course of my research about why the New Zealand Government is having its “We decide who buys into this country and the circumstances under which they buy” moment, I found an American construction company that used to build shopping centres, schools and wastewater treatment plants, but has specialised in bunker-building since its first urban bunker order in 1991 after the first Gulf War.

One rich American’s backyard bunker order led to another, and another, and before the company knew it, it was building bunkers at the same rate as home theatres and bathrooms with fancy bidets, so that by the turn of the millennium (a very big “prepper” event), rich folks’ bunkers were its biggest sellers.

By 2010 it had set up in Europe, the United Kingdom and had an Australia/New Zealand base because bunker-building had “taken over the firm”.

More than half its customers want bunkers out of fear of “economic collapse” when, if memory serves me from my National Geographic Doomsday Preppers DVD-watching days, we’re all supposed to turn on each other. Only the gun-totin’, canned chicken stew-storing, bunker owners will survive.

The bunker-building company offers bunkers that are “ballistic-rated” to withstand – and I think I have this right, whatever it is – “electric-magnetic pulse protection” and the capacity to cope with the aftermath of a 1000-foot tidal wave, complete with carbon dioxide scrubbers and oxygen machines.

Bunkers cost a lot, but money doesn’t buy happiness. Nor, it seems, does it buy certainty in an uncertain, post-apocalyptic world.

One of the many prepper/survivalist/very weird websites I gambolled through for an hour or so this week in pursuit of bunker knowledge sounded the alarm on them.

“Another bad idea is typically by rich people who want to build bunkers in their backyards in suburbia,” warned a prepper expert, who said they sounded good in theory until the reality of being stuck underground with your kids for too long hit home. Sooner or later you’d come up for sun, fresh air, peace and quiet, or “to grow your garden”, and “eventually you will get caught” by a shadowy person or persons un-named, said the expert.

I missed all this drama on my New Zealand holiday. Too busy eating the fesh and cheps, bro’.

This story Bunkers down under first appeared on Newcastle Herald.