Cameron James McLaren

The preppers next door

When Tom Doig started reading about doomsday preppers and survivalist subcultures, his first question was: “What if they’re crazy?” His second question was: “What if they’re right?”

Written by       Photographed by Cameron James McLaren

One otherwise ordinary morning in the early 1990s, Paul Flint woke up and hauled himself out of bed. He put on his suit, his tie, his polished black shoes, then trudged outside and fired up his little Honda Prelude. Paul lived in the struggling South Auckland suburb of Ōtāhuhu, and worked at a real estate agency five minutes’ drive away. He was 25. He’d been having a rough time; he and his girlfriend of 10 years had just broken up, and he hadn’t made a property sale in six months. When Paul reached the end of his street that morning, instead of turning left like he always did, he turned right.

“Two hours later, I was in the Kauaeranga Valley,” he recalls, chuckling down a patchy phone line. “I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. I got so upset and fed up with the world, I was like, ‘I need to get home’. And it wasn’t Thames, where I was born, that felt like home—it was the bush. I spent three days just crashing in my car at one of the campgrounds. I found a sense of peace as soon as I got into the trees. I drank out of the streams to keep my fluids up, and smoked my cigarettes. It was sunny, so I ended up walking around topless, in my suit pants, with my pocketknife. I’d walk along a path, looking for areas where I could wander off-track.

“I could have easily gotten lost. I was very unprepared. I didn’t eat for three days—that’s how stressed out I had been. And that’s when I clicked: it would be good to have some stuff in my boot, some food and utensils and stuff, in case this happened again.”

For Paul, this was the beginning of a lifelong journey into the ways—and the contradictions—of the prepper. It was also the end of his career in real estate. When he got back to Ōtāhuhu, he quit on the spot.

[Chapter Break]

Three decades later, Paul is living in Manurewa and working as a signwriter and vehicle wrap installer. I catch a train from Britomart out to meet him. Walking through an unfamiliar suburb, past a garishly painted fence, past a broken mailbox lying on someone’s lawn, I’m not sure if I’m on the right street—until I see a large black van with a small skull-and-crossbones sticker on the back bumper. Paul had told me over the phone that he always kept his supplies packed in his garage, and that he could load his van in 30 minutes tops: army surplus rucksacks packed with essentials, plastic tubs full of long-life food, bows and arrows, abseiling equipment, and even four kayaks in case the roads out of Auckland are closed, blocked, slow or dangerous. The extra spaces in the kayaks are for his children: a daughter, Nikita, in her teens, and a son, Ryan, in his early 20s.

When Paul greets me at his front door, he looks pretty much how I expect a prepper to look: big arms bulging out of his singlet, black baseball cap topped with a pair of mirrored wraparound sunnies squeezed onto his head, haunted eyes above a grizzled grey beard. In his garage, there’s an Old West saloon minibar, and behind it, a swathe of olive-green camo netting. In the centre of the netting, in pride of place, is a vintage replica Colt .45 rifle. Paul takes the gun off its rack and hands it to me, assuring me that while it fires blanks, it still weighs the same as the real thing.

Paul Flint has been collecting army surplus gear since his childhood. In a future where he might have to hunt for food for himself and his children, the bow and arrow is his weapon of choice.

But this is where the similarity with characters from television shows such as Doomsday Preppers ends. Unlike the North American survivalists who feature prominently in news stories, Paul has no interest in fighting off an army of zombies—or an army of anyone.

“I’m not cocky enough to think I’ll smash anybody,” he tells me. “That’s something they taught me in karate: don’t underestimate your opponent. Even the meekest-looking guy—you don’t know where he’s come from, or what training he’s had.”

If and when the SHTF (prepper parlance for “shit hits the fan”), Paul’s plan is to gather his kids and make a run for it. In other words: to bug out.

Like many survivalists, Paul has a keen sense of the fragility of the current social order. As a teenager, he was in central Auckland in 1984 when crowds rioted in Queen Street after a D.D. Smash concert. “Dickheads were smashing windows, people were flipping cars over and setting them on fire—it made me realise what a mob mentality could do,” he says. “This is what people are capable of.”

After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, Paul became increasingly worried about what might happen to Auckland if a similar disaster hit there. He was, and is, hyper-aware of the fact that New Zealand’s largest city was built around, and literally on, 53 dormant volcanoes, which could make a mess of the place in a matter of seconds. Tsunamis, too, could wreak untold havoc.

When Paul imagines a serious natural disaster scenario, he imagines things getting very ugly, very quickly. “People are going to be out for themselves,” he tells me. “That’s human nature. When survival mode comes on, there are no limits a human can’t go to. And that includes killing and even eating other humans. If you have to survive, you have to survive.” He cites the example of aeroplane crash survivors who ate their dead companions rather than starve. It calls to mind a saying that preppers are fond of: “Only nine meals stand between civilisation and anarchy.”

Awkwardly, this topic comes up as Paul, Ryan, and I are making our way through a meal of chicken and rice cooked by Paul’s boarder, Antz. Ryan had been working on one of his many second-hand cars, but he takes a break to join us for dinner.

“Would you eat human flesh?” I ask Paul, between mouthfuls of boiled chicken.

“Meat’s meat,” he replies gruffly. Then, more pensively, “I wouldn’t rule it out.” He turns to his son. “I don’t know about eating Ryan, though. There’s not a lot to him.”

“I’d be some tough meat, because I ain’t fat!” Ryan replies.

“Maybe one of your fat mates?” I suggest.

“Ben would taste like KFC!” Ryan exclaims. “He eats enough of it.”

Paul’s bug-out plan is to head at top speed for one of four secret locations in the dense bush of the Kauaeranga Valley. There, he’ll hunt possums. Not with a gun, either.

“I don’t believe in using rifles,” he says. “You’re going to run out of ammunition. Bullets aren’t light; you can’t make bullets, you can’t retrieve a bullet.”

Instead, he’s been practising hunting with his recurve bow and arrow, and reckons he’s a pretty good shot—and a pretty good cook.

“Possums are easy; they just sit there. They even make a noise to let you know they’re there! It’s like cooking rabbit.” He pauses. “Tastes different to what you get from the supermarket, obviously.”

Paul has a collection of 50 arrows, and reckons that he could make more if he needed to. He tells me he’s watched a few YouTube videos on how to make a new bow from scratch.

About three hours and four cans of Jim Beam and Cola into our interview, I press him about his bug-out scenario. If he was hiding out there—living out there—under the trees, did he think he might miss anything?

He’s silent for a moment, then he says, quietly, “I get the feeling I might be too busy.”

I laugh.

“You’d be hungry,” he tells me. “You’d be hunting and gathering—and when you’re not hunting and gathering, you’re cooking and eating, plus you’d forever be working on your shelter, trying to make it more substantial, more permanent.”

“It’s quite a beautiful dream, isn’t it—just being in the bush,” I say. “When you’re in the moment, and there’s mountains and trees and birds and rivers—it’s magic.”

“When I’m in the bush,” he replies, “all I think about is: ‘Next time I come back, what equipment would I need to get to make this even better?’”

[Chapter Break]

In 2013, industrial designer Richard Hovey and his then-wife Anne* bought a piece of land on the Kāpiti Coast, on a little ridge just back from the Waikanae River and the beach, sitting a few metres above the historical flood zones. There was no house there, just a sloping grassy lawn, and they spent the summer holidays camping out in a tent with their two young kids. They built a little shed as a temporary dwelling, and looked forward to laying in a little garden and designing a more substantial family home.

But things didn’t work out as they planned. Every summer, it was hotter and drier. “We’d spend more and more time on the edge of the river to cool down,” says Richard. “Sometimes we’d even eat dinner just sitting in the river.”

The summer of 2018 was particularly brutal. The native trees Richard had planted were wilting and dying, no matter how much he watered them. The ground was too hot; according to the neighbours, it was actually cooking the ngaio trees’ roots. Meanwhile, the Waikanae River filled with algae. There were three one-in-50-year floods, then a one-in-100-year flood. According to Richard, Anne became “really freaked out about climate change, from a sea-level-rise perspective”. (Richard had already been freaking out about climate change for years.) Even though the block was 13 metres above sea level, scientists predicted higher and higher storm surges—maybe not enough to threaten their property, but enough to knock out the access road. Richard and Anne started wondering if their next house could be designed to sit on piles, in case they wanted—or needed—to move it in the future.

“Our architects basically fired us,” Richard says with a grim laugh. “They sent us an email saying that they didn’t think they were the right people for us to work with. The undertone was, ‘We think you’re crazy’.”

Richard and Anne separated in 2019. They had been together for 25 years. Their anxiety over climate change wasn’t the cause of their divorce, but it was in the mix. They had to sell the Waikanae River property. Richard went back one last time to get it ready for the sale. While he was there, he had a full-blown panic attack.

“The river had warning signs on it: ‘No Swimming, No Dogs’. The water was rank [with algae]. I was up there by myself, and the totality of everything hit me. The grass was brown and crunchy and dying, the trees we had planted were browning. And I saw this future ahead of me with the children, where every year it was just browner, and crunchier. It wasn’t a full apocalypse, but it was a steadily declining future for them: a future with less choices, and more hardship… ”

Richard Hovey trains with his son. It’s good clean fun for now; also, in the event of societal collapse, self-defence skills are likely to come in handy.
The kids are also learning basic gun-handling habits—“definitely BB guns, nothing serious”, Hovey says—and how to use walkie-talkies. They use Nerf laser guns to develop team tactics like taking high ground, covering and moving, and flanking. Hovey’s trying to walk the line between having fun and building up “hopefully not-needed” knowledge and skills.

By early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Aotearoa, Richard was ready for it. Following his dystopian experiences with the Waikanae River section, he had no intention of bugging out; instead, Richard was all about “bugging in” in his suburban house, and weathering any kind of societal collapse from the living room. He had months’ worth of canned food, rice and flour on hand. And toilet paper. And some other stuff. The first time we talk, it’s in the depths of New Zealand’s first COVID lockdown. As our conversation meanders this way and that, I ask him about his thoughts on self-defence.

“I’m standing in my workroom-office,” he replies, chuckling, “and by the door there’s a plastic tub, which has got a bunch of—we’ll just say, ‘weapons’, in it. There are baseball bats, a Viking-style axe, two sizes of wooden medieval swords and quarterstaffs, some wooden katanas [curved Japanese swords], a machete, a couple of fencing foils… basically, that’s all for the kids to play with, but also that I train with. The kids and I do what we just call ‘rough n’ tumble’, which is basically martial arts training—but without getting into it in a serious way.”

I ask him about guns. Richard, like Paul Flint, isn’t a fan.

“My theory on guns, at least in New Zealand, is: yes, there will be people with thousands of rounds. And I don’t plan to cross paths with them. They’re gonna head to the hills, or they’ll be in their bunkers. Meanwhile, a lot of people will realise that guns are quite heavy, and not very versatile. As a product designer, my personal thing is more about multi-use. I reckon a good stick is the thing. You can throw it, you can drop it [on someone], it’s multi-purpose, it’s cheap, it’s cheerful, everyone can have one. A community armed with quarterstaffs and machetes is probably as good as it gets.”

This wasn’t a joke—at least, not entirely. Richard lives on a little street that snakes around the side of a steep hill in a middle-class Wellington suburb. But this street also happens to be the home of a guy who knows eskrima (Filipino-style stick fighting), a guy who does archery (which Richard also does), and a tattooed, Harley-riding Brazilian ju jitsu expert. So, if the proverbial shit really does hit the fan—which Richard fully expects to happen—he and his neighbours are in a surprisingly good position to assemble a paramilitary community-defence cell.

Back in 2019—before the pandemic, but after his climate-crisis panic attack—Richard was highly aware of the vulnerabilities baked into global supply chains. He paid close attention to the speed with which modern-day nation-states could collapse: Venezuela and Syria a few years ago; Sri Lanka at the time of writing.

“I’ve listened to interviews with people from Venezuela,” he explains, “and they say things like: ‘Three months ago, I was an engineer, going to cafes—now I’m hunting through garbage bags. I don’t have a job any more, haven’t been
paid… ’”

Richard’s worst-case bet against the future is that he, his two kids and his new girlfriend, Trish, will have to survive up to 12 months of increasingly dire social collapse, rioting, illness, starvation, mass suicide and killing sprees. He’s building up his stash of food and working on his backyard garden and his supply of seeds. While he’s determined to keep his kids safe, he doesn’t want a “siege mentality to override the need for community… I don’t want to be fighting with neighbours we’ve known for years over a can of beans.” If his family and neighbours can make it through, they’ll emerge into a strange new world, where they’ll have to turn soccer fields into garden beds, and be prepared to trade batteries and antibiotics with the other hardy survivors.

Much of Richard’s anxiety about the future stems from his desire to keep his kids safe. “That practical question—what is their world going to be like, and how soon is it going to be like that?—it terrifies me,” he says. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to turn his children into “hardcore survivalists”. “My friends are already asking me, ‘How much martial arts do you do with them?’ And how much is too much? I mean, I’ve got a note on the fridge that says, ‘Thanks for the throwing knives, Dad, I love them.’

“I’m really torn. It’s kind of hard when they argue like children do, about who gets to play with the Lego—but threatening to use weapons. But then, occasionally, when I see them fighting, I will be slightly proud of their tactics.” Richard lets out an anguished, only partly theatrical groan.

“The other day, my son was at home drawing, and he says, ‘Dad, I want to be an artist when I grow up… ’ And I thought [to myself], I’d love to tell him, with belief, ‘That’s really awesome! You should, yeah! Let’s practise drawing and you could be an artist… ’ But what came to mind [instead] was the day before, when we had been doing some rough n’ tumble. He had a wooden training knife, and I went to disarm him—and he flipped the knife behind his back, from his right hand into his left, and came round and stabbed me with it. And I felt bad that I couldn’t believe ‘artist’ was a better skill for him to have than coming up, spontaneously, with a way to flick your knife from hand to hand, behind your back, and come around with a counter-attack… ”

[Chapter Break]

Before Te Wehi Ratana (Te Arawa, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Raukawa) was a prepper, he was a climate activist. Before he was a climate activist, he was an animal rights activist. And before he was an animal rights activist, he was a dairy farmer.

Six years ago, he was getting up at 5am to milk cows. He didn’t worry about the apocalypse at all. Now, he feels like it’s just around the corner—if it hasn’t already begun.

I meet Te Wehi in downtown Nelson on a quiet Monday afternoon. He has dark brown eyes; eyes that take things in, that feel the pain of the world. He looks younger than his 27 years. Born and raised in Rotorua in the 1990s, he had a “standard Kiwi childhood”: bach on Lake Taupō, trips to Maketu beach, plenty of surf-casting, fire-building and sleeping out under the stars.

Te Wehi isn’t as connected to his Māori heritage as he’d like. “When my koro was seven, he decided that he didn’t want to be Māori any more,” he explains. “At that time [the 1950s], there was a lot of shame around it. Pop was sold the idea that there was nothing to be gained from being Māori, and he was better off to ditch all that. That decision he made has impacted my old man—and me, too.”

Te Wehi’s mum and dad were both schoolteachers, but despite that—or possibly because of it—he wasn’t particularly engaged with the education system. “I was always there just to eat my lunch,” he says, with an ironic grin. After leaving school, and then dropping out of a welding course at Unitec, he and his partner Hannah Kremmer ended up moving back in with Te Wehi’s parents, who had relocated to Taupō. After a couple of aimless months, Te Wehi was offered work on an iwi-owned farm near Taupō, helping out a sharemilker with a herd of 800 cows. He liked it. He liked waking up, hopping straight onto a quad bike and hooning across the frosty paddock to work. He liked the sunrises and the “boys’ toys” (tractors, threshers, miscellaneous heavy machinery; plenty of stuff to weld), but most of all Te Wehi liked the cows—which he saw as “the most incredible creatures in the world”.

In the meantime, Te Wehi is passionate about protesting against what he calls the “bullshit capitalist veil” driving climate change and biodiversity loss.

At the same time, there were jobs that did his head in. If birds were a problem in one of the calving sheds, he had to poison them, then collect the half-dead ones and drown them in a bucket. One time while Te Wehi was working on a farm in Golden Bay, a cow died. The boss’s “idiot” son drove out into the paddock in a tractor with a bucket scoop. He looped a chain around the dead cow’s neck, then hoisted the cow into the air with the bucket. He drove the tractor, cow dangling, up to the milking shed, where he parked it in full view of the other cows, while Te Wehi and Hannah were trying to oversee the milking.

“We started milking away, but there was this commotion,” Te Wehi recalls. “The cows all started attacking the tractor.” They were freaking out at the sight of the dead cow strung up in front of them like a hate crime. “And it was like… they know. They’re experiencing this shit, and they’re f— off’. They’re not just stupid things, there for us to milk.”

Watching the documentary Cowspiracy in August 2016 was a big turning point. “It just made logical sense,” he says: “too many cows equals polluted rivers. Too many cows equals greenhouse gas. After that, we started asking questions like, ‘How can we farm in a way that’s more sustainable?’ We did some research into different kinds of feeds… but we realised we were kidding ourselves. We were just greenwashing it.”

Six months later, Te Wehi and Hannah stopped farming and moved with their two young kids to Motueka, where Te Wehi got a job as a drainlayer. Six months after that, they became involved in animal rights’ protests. “I’m an animal liberationist well before I’m a climate activist,” he says, laughing. “Climate change got in the way.”

Te Wehi was at work when he heard a 20-second news item about Extinction Rebellion protesters who had shut down Waterloo Bridge in central London. That night, he went home and jumped on YouTube. “I ended up watching videos for about three hours—and that was it, I was hooked.”

After Te Wehi experienced that wake-up call (“Another one!” he jokes), the “full reality” of future climate collapse hit him. “It’s going to be f—ing messed up,” he declares. “There’s going to be people starving, killing each other for food, stuff like that. And my kids are going to go through it.”

Te Wehi and Hannah got involved in Extinction Rebellion Aotearoa, and within a few months, they were travelling to Ōtautahi Christchurch to take part in a blockade preventing a coal train from delivering its cargo to Lyttelton Harbour, from where the coal would be shipped to China. Te Wehi was the only person of colour there, and the first person arrested that day, and the last one let out of custody. His parents found out about it when they saw him on the news getting hauled off by the police, “grinning away”.

Every week, Te Wehi Ratana and his fellow Extinction Rebellion protestors picket outside Nelson City Council. They’ve been doing this for about four months. Officials largely ignore the protestors, but they take a lot of flak from the public—like people screaming “f— you” from passing cars.

Since then, he’s been involved in multiple protests and actions; he has glued himself to the steps of the Beehive while calling for urgent climate action, and spent three nights up a tree on Motueka’s main street, trying to save the tree from being cut down. He puts an immense amount of effort and energy into Extinction Rebellion meetings and actions, and feels like he’s making a positive difference in the world—or at least trying to, before it’s too late.

“Me and Hannah both agreed: within five years, we’re going to know whether or not we’re going to be able to do this. That’s the kaupapa we set ourselves.”

By “do this”, Te Wehi means stopping, or even just slowing down, climate breakdown. They’ve given themselves until 2024. If things haven’t noticeably improved by then, they are going to shift into full prepper mode.

“When is the collapse going to begin?” I ask him. He laughs.

“It’s already begun, man! I think COVID showed us how fragile everything is. And this is from just one event—sure, it’s a big one, but it’s just one thing. In five years’ time, we could be hit by big events every couple of months, or at the same time.

“The thing is, with an unstable climate, nowhere is going to be safe. Like, how do you prepare veggie gardens when at any moment they could be destroyed—and there goes your whole food source?” On Boxing Day in December 2020 a hailstorm ruined his garden. “The hailstones were the size of marbles. It makes me think, how can you rationalise setting up in one place, deciding, ‘This is gonna be our place’? You can’t.”

(Facing) The Bug-Out-Mobile: Te Wehi Ratana and his partner Hannah Kremmer have recently converted an old tour bus into a housebus. Apocalypse or no, they plan to travel around Aotearoa with their children (from left to right Rongomātāne, Kahu and Nikau).

Te Wehi doesn’t think bunkers are the way to go, either. “That whole digging-yourself-into-the-earth thing, burying yourself in a hole—what kind of life is that?” Perhaps more critically, he points out that even if you were to spend a million dollars or more on a bunker, hoping to hide out for a few years, by the time you find out whether or not the air ventilation (and everything else) works properly, it’ll be too late. And the bunker salespeople won’t be around to take your complaints.

“Part of me is looking forward to it [collapse], to be honest,” he admits. “Really, I just want all this shit to be over—this bullshit capitalist veil that everyone lives under. I think it would be good for the planet. Such a huge part of me is waiting for the apocalypse to happen.”

“When you think about it,” I ask him, “is it part nightmare, and part fantasy?”

He nods. “I’ve got my apocalypse plan.”

“What is your apocalypse plan?”

“A convoy of buses.”

Housetrucks, to be precise.

“First, you’ve got to figure out the technology to convert them from petrol to electric,” he clarifies. “You’d have one bus which is your living space, and one or two that are big mobile greenhouses. You’d have a big energy bank—a solar panel and battery on wheels—that you can charge the other buses off. Then you could just cruise around to wherever. Like, there’s a big storm coming here, so you’d f— off down there.”

Recently, Te Wehi and Hannah purchased a 1994 Toyota Coaster tour bus. They are converting it into a housebus, and hope to be on the road by Christmas.

[Chapter Break]

In some ways, 48-year-old Martin Thomson* has already bugged out. In March 2020, Martin, his wife, Nina*, and their two young kids bought a house on a remote bush block in an undisclosed location in the South Island—although they had to wait for the first COVID-19 lockdown to end before they could move in. The 25-hectare property has its own creek, pond, water tanks, solar array and veggie garden beds. Perhaps more importantly, it backs onto a vast swathe of wild forest park. If things get really bad, Martin’s family can bug out from their bug out.

But that makes the whole setup sound much too pessimistic. Martin is a cheerful, relaxed dude, with a wicked sense of humour and a knack for storytelling. He invites me to dinner with his family, and to stay the night in one of their spare rooms.

Martin Thomson*, whose 25-hectare block in the South Island is all set for water, power, and veggies—the perfect place to sit tight if things get hairy.

As the chief executive of his own company, Martin can work from home as long as the internet connection is stable, which it mostly is. His wife drives into a nearby town to study psychology, and their older child attends the local primary school, while the younger one goes to kindergarten. They’re getting into gardening in a big way, and generally embracing the tree-change lifestyle. Martin and Nina’s recent move is less The Walking Dead, more The Good Life. At least for now.

Martin grew up in the United Kingdom, and first came to Aotearoa almost by chance. He had been working for MTV Asia in Hong Kong and living in a tiny apartment beneath a freeway flyover. One day, he surprised a burglar, who cracked him over the head with a bottle of wine, leaving him with a “partial corneal prolapse”—an eyeball knocked out of its socket. He was given the option to come to New Zealand to recuperate, so he did.

“Suddenly, I had this whole reconnection with nature—it hit me like a brick,” he tells me. “And I thought, ‘I want to live in this place’.”

After an eventful, not to say tumultuous, adult life—two marriages, two divorces; three children; multiple career changes, including three start-ups that failed and a fourth one that he successfully sold; a third wife, two more children, a fifth business venture—Martin found himself relatively settled in Wellington. He was running a film pre-production company that helped other production firms to write movie pitches, managing 60 employees spread across half of the world’s time zones. But at the same time, he was becoming increasingly worried about climate change. In May 2019, when the United Nations released a long, bleak report stating that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history—and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating”, Martin took it hard. A few days later, the Guardian published an article about how a global temperature rise of just four degrees Celsius would render much of the tropics uninhabitable, driving billions of people away from the equator, towards the poles.

Martin Thomson’s orchard and veggie garden are extensive, organic, and designed for year-round harvests. Martin recently went 40 days straight eating only food that he had grown—or foraged—himself.

Martin searches the article up on his phone and shows me. There’s an angry red band across much of India and all of Southeast Asia, as well as Saharan Africa, Brazil and Central America. Sample sentence: “New Zealand, Tasmania, Western Antarctica and Patagonia: some of the only habitable parts of the southern hemisphere—likely to be very densely populated.”

“You ask me why I’m a prepper,” he looks me in the eye, “and I point you to that map.”

Martin had spent a good part of the 2010s heavily involved in the climate movement, but by 2019, he was burnt out, and frankly terrified. When it comes to averting climate breakdown, he’s “not convinced that there’s any government in the world that can do what it takes”. He has become worried about “what’s going to happen three days after the supermarkets close”, about “the whole just-in-time mentality” of global supply chains. Like many preppers around the world, he feels that “there needs to be a Plan B”.

I ask Martin if he spends much time talking to other preppers. A bit, he replies, although he likes doing things his own way.

“Sometimes I go on the NZ preppers [Facebook] site. There’s a faction in there which are quite unhinged and right-wing, very gun-happy, and I got quite freaked out by them. But generally, there’s a lot of really nice people on there, who are genuinely thinking ahead, in case shit hits the fan, you know, in an unexpected way… like it did with the pandemic. I mean, who would’ve expected that?”

A few months after Martin and Nina moved to the South Island, they found out why their block was so cheap: it was the former residence of local drug dealers, and the site of some recent high-profile police raids. (This also explained the garden’s impressive array of San Pedro cacti.)

Martin isn’t an eccentric Silicon Valley tech millionaire, but he’s halfway there. When he’s not wrangling clients or assigning writing jobs, he can be found elbow-deep in the soil of his organic garden beds, growing tomatoes and broccoli, nasturtiums and kale. “Recently, I did a 40-day stint of ‘If I don’t grow it or forage it myself I don’t eat it’,” he tells me, “and I’ll go 100 days plus next year.” He is a trained yoga teacher and tries to meditate every morning.

After dinner, while Martin puts the kids to sleep, I ask Nina what she thinks of their recent move down south, and Martin’s prepping more generally. She takes a breath. “I grew up in the Soviet Union—a society where people were always buying in bulk, and this was quite normal,” she says. “Everything was in short supply, the stores were pretty much empty—so when something came in, everybody would rush and try to buy a lot.”

San Pedro cacti contain mescaline, a class A drug. Martin Thomson’s property, which appealed partly because of its proximity to a swathe of forest, was formerly owned by drug dealers.

Nina and Martin have grand designs to develop their new property into an intentional community—basically, a commune. On the one hand, Nina wanted them to take their time and do this properly; do research into different legal and ownership structures, into best-practice governance models. On the other hand, she wasn’t confident they had enough time for all that.

“I think there will come a time when everything is going to be so bad that we will stop thinking about, you know, ‘Who is okay to live with as a communal partner?’” she tells me. “I think the whole concept of possessions and ownership will shift, and people will just come and stay where they can. I think a lot of people will open their doors and, just, make it work.”

The next morning, it is clear and fresh and windy up on the hill. Martin takes me for a walk around the property, to a pond where native tadpoles spawn and grow into frogs. He points out edible weeds along the way—plantain, mānuka, chicory, yarrow, sorrel—and explains how to cook and eat them (or drink them; there’s a lot of tea to be made). He takes me off-track, out of the pines and into native forest of dark beech trees, baby tōtara, big fat rimu. He points out the sound of a waterfall from his neighbour’s property. As the day heats up around us, he makes me stop and listen to the sound of broom seeds popping in the sun. Every half hour or so, his phone beeps, then he replies to an email. He’s happy for the money to be rolling in while the global economy is still solvent. He has a large mortgage, but isn’t too worried about paying it off; he expects fiat currency to collapse long before he goes bankrupt. He seems genuinely, deeply happy—like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

[Chapter Break]

When I started thinking seriously about the issues that preppers get obsessed with—overseas harvests failing on a grand scale; food failing to arrive in New Zealand’s supermarkets; people losing it en masse—I became very, very worried about the future myself. Like, really worried. I worried about the end of the world, then I worried about being squeezed out of the middle classes. I worried, compulsively, about coming up with some sort of back-up plan—any sort of back-up plan—in case the COVID-19 pandemic was just the beginning of a greater unravelling. But the more I tried to “take back control” by wargaming different collapse-of-society scenarios in my head, the more out of control I felt. I agonised over the pros and cons of bugging in vs bugging out, without reaching any helpful conclusions. I depressed myself with the realisation that bugging in wasn’t an option, since at the time, my partner, Laura, and I couldn’t afford to buy our own house, let alone a remote bay in the Marlborough Sounds. I became so stressed out about the complexities of prepping that I couldn’t work on my book about preppers. Instead, I applied for an unthrilling full-time job so I could convince the banks to give me a mortgage. I went for a calming walk on the beach and came back with a two-metre piece of driftwood, perfect for dropping on people. I started collecting machetes. I tried, and failed, to win Laura over to the rustic charms of burying caches of canned beans and instant noodles in the forest. One weekend, we went for a bushwalk in the Manawatū Gorge, and I kept pointing out great places to bury cans, until she stopped me.

“If everything really does turn to shit,” she said, “what’s the point in staying alive for an extra week or two, shivering under a tarp?”

I had no response to that.

[Chapter Break]

The stories from Paul, Richard, Te Wehi and Martin—four “preppers next door”—are in no way illustrative of a “typical” or “classic” type of Kiwi prepper, because no such single type exists. They are, however, intended as a counter to the lurid and often embarrassing stereotypes of white-trash US preppers that have dominated global media coverage of this topic, and as an antidote to that other grand cliché of prepping in New Zealand: the Silicon Valley tech bro with the extravagant property in the hills outside Wānaka (or Masterton, or Greymouth, or Raglan).

There are also, of course, plenty of Kiwi women who prep, like Hannah and Nina. They’ve been less keen overall to speak about their prepping on the record, and I respect that. Plus, there are plenty of New Zealanders who do see guns and ammunition as an essential part of their prepping. There are Christian preppers in New Zealand, and extremely wealthy preppers, and anti-vaxx preppers, and any number of miscellaneous conspiracy-theory preppers with grave concerns about electromagnetic pulse attacks, government brainwashing, the Earth’s magnetic poles suddenly reversing—the list really does go on. But those people are all too easy to dismiss. And in doing so, we might miss something important that’s going on right now, just over our back fences. For every US multimillionaire with a private jet on standby, for every misanthrope with an automatic rifle and the safety off, there are literally thousands of middle- and working-class preppers doing their unremarkable thing in the unremarkable suburbs and towns of Aotearoa.

The couple have multiple water tanks and a back-up power generator, in case their solar panels fail. They aim to be fully self-sufficient in a few years.

Is it time for you to join them? That’s not for me to say. But you can also get involved in local politics, and national politics, and activism, to try to make a positive change while there’s still time (if you think there is still time). You can get involved in your local community, connect with your neighbours. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, as the stories above hopefully show.

I don’t have kids to worry about, so the future-angst I feel is less intense than Richard Hovey’s. But my sister has kids, including my teenaged nephew, Kenai, who I love dearly. And when Kenai last came to visit us in Palmerston North, I put a pack on his shoulders and marched him into the Manawatū Gorge bush. I taught him how to bury cans.