Survivor: New Zealand

by Ruth Laugesen / 06 December, 2012
Whether they're preparing for a cataclysm or peak oil or looking for a different way of life, survivalists and self-sufficiency advocates are thriving in New Zealand.
Jason Kerrison
Jason Kerrison, photo David White

New Zealand’s Got Talent judge Jason Kerrison has grabbed a few minutes in a busy week to talk on the phone about the pending apocalypse. Not that he’s downcast. “I call myself an apocaloptimist, in that shit happens but I’m ready for it if it does.”

Lead singer and songwriter for band Opshop, Kerrison is not entirely sure whether the catastrophists are right in thinking a cataclysm will strike as soon as December 21, 2012 – the date the current 5125-year cycle on the Mayan calendar ends, signalling the end of one age and the beginning of another. “Whether anything happens specifically on that date, I don’t know, but it’s been happening for years – it’s just ramping up in its intensity,” says Kerrison, pointing to the ongoing mass extinction of species, the rapid loss of fish from the oceans and the loss of tropical forests.

“If the shit were to hit the fan as much as some people talk about, you could get a whole crustal displacement of the eight to 20 miles’ worth of crust on this 8000-mile-wide planet, slipping like a peel on an orange,” he says. He detects a shift from a materialistic way of life to one that is “more inner-directed and spiritual. The world is waking up, and whether that’s due to galactic alignment or because we’re heading into a heavy sunspot cycle or any other myriad versions depends on your frame of reference.”

Accordingly, Kerrison and some like-minded friends looked at a map of New Zealand for places as far as possible from known fault lines, and with a high elevation because of the threat of rising seas. They acquired some land in Northland 18 months ago and have been working it since. “We’ve got a site where we will have fresh water available 24/7 – it comes from a massive aquifer. We have got three years’ worth of food stored.” Kerrison won’t divulge much, but it has been reported he hired Taupo firm Hardened Structures to build an enormous hardened-concrete bunker. He won’t reveal where the structure is or exactly how many others are involved – “enough for a community”.

Kerrison is one end of the spectrum of a small but thriving strand in New Zealand society: people who want to be less reliant on modern industrial society and do more to provide for themselves. They encompass the frugal, the independent, the back-to-the land geeks and those who want to ride out whatever dark surprises the future could bring.

“What I’d like to create – I know it sounds hilarious – [is] the idea of an ark park, where people have a fall back option, somewhere they can retreat to,” says Kerrison. And he doesn’t care if people scoff at his premonition of a mounting crisis, signalled by such events as the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the Japanese tsunami of 2011 and Hurricane Sandy this year. “As much as that awareness might pain you, you must accept the burden of the knowledge. I don’t feel downtrodden from the taunts of the short-sighted.”


For Kate Brennan and Geoff Copstick, who are moving towards self-sufficiency on their Northland lifestyle farm, a pending apocalypse isn’t what’s driving their move towards greater independence. “But I do have concerns about peak oil and global warming. If you can be self-sufficient, there is a sense of resilience, that whatever gets thrown at you you’re more capable of withstanding,” says Brennan.

The couple are off the power grid, have their own water and provide much of their own food. Their main spur to make the change came from a wounding five-year battle with Transpower in the mid-2000s. The couple’s Waikato lifestyle block was one of 300 affected by massive new power pylons in the region. Defeated and disillusioned, they left, determined to never again pay for their electricity. “We didn’t want to have to give Transpower any more of our hard-earned cash. We hate their guts.”

Attracted by Northland’s high sunshine hours, they picked their new property to maximise energy independence. Their new house has eight solar panels and three days’ worth of battery power for storage. In the six months since the house was built, they have had to use the backup generator only three times, despite running a fridge and freezer. A third of the property, in Helena Bay, north of Whangarei, is covered with native bush, and kiwi can be heard calling at night.

The vegetable garden is producing leeks, onions, potatoes, garlic, broccoli and herbs, and a heifer was recently butchered and put into the freezer. Stock include a few horses and about 50 goats farmed for mohair. The couple have one 6sq m vegetable bed, with two more and a greenhouse yet to go in. They aren’t yet self-sufficient in food, but the goal is to move closer to that. They plan to buy a cow so they can have milk, butter and cheese.

“Self-sufficiency is something that creeps up on you if you live on the land. It just seems so much more natural and a healthier way to live. There’s something incredibly satisfying in going out to the garden and picking your own vegetables and cooking them. I can never be completely self-sufficient, though,” says Brennan. “I eat a lot of rice and drink a lot of wine.” And there are hazards in relying on your own crops: “I grew far too many zucchini last summer, and now I can’t bear to look at them.”

Financially, the couple live on income from Copstick’s work as an accountant and company director. Brennan has some income from her website, “We would like to live more frugally, but we don’t want any hair-shirt-type stuff. We do live a very nice comfortable life.” Water is collected from the roofs of their house and farm shed – they can store about 75,000 litres. Sewage from a septic tank is filtered out through reeds.


Les Torkington
Frugalist Les Torkington, photo David White

Les Torkington, who also lives off the land, couldn’t be accused of a comfy lifestyle. A frugalist, Torkington has spent much of his adult life on the land in communes and other communities, working with his hands. As a young man, he had the attitude that “if I didn’t have a car, I should make my own car. Or if I didn’t have a boat or a trailer, making it was the option.” Which he did.

Now 65, he has just started getting the pension, and can’t believe how much money it is. “I don’t quite know what to do with it.” Fifteen years ago he bought a 36ha block in Hukerenui, north of Whangarei, covered in bush, scrub and swamp. He spent years breaking it in and now has a mixture of pines and grasslands for 35 beef cattle, as well as fruit trees, chickens and an extensive vegetable garden, nurtured with cow manure. “I haven’t bought vegetables for more than 20 years.”

He eats whatever is in the garden, which at the moment includes broad beans, beetroot, carrots, parsnips. Usually there are about 20 different types of vegetables ready to eat. “I think nothing of having a big plate heaped up with cooked silverbeet. I really like vegetables.” Torkington’s motivation to live frugally is the desire to minimise waste and make efficient use of available materials. “Opting out of the consumer rat race has meant a healthy and fun lifestyle for me. “Independence was born into me. When I was about 10 or 12, I’d fantasise about what it would be like to live on an island or to sail around the world on a yacht.” Surviving some future catastrophe also figures. “If the whole thing should suddenly collapse, like running out of oil, like people talk about, you should be able to feel that you’re going to have a good chance of making it no matter what happens.”

He uses a small amount of electricity from solar power to keep some lights going in the evening. But he forgoes most of the appliances considered essential, such as a fridge, freezer, television and even a washing machine. He does his washing with the help of an old tub and wringer, and he doesn’t need a fridge because he has powdered milk and rarely eats meat. He has his own water supply from a spring. Torkington reckons he spends about $20 a week on groceries and other bits and pieces. Apart from that, he has to pay for rates and fertiliser for the farm. At the moment, he is milling timber to make a fence for a friend. He doesn’t lack for company – he has a long-term partner in town.


While Torkington looks back to his grandparents’ generation for inspiration on how to live simply, another strand of the self-sufficiency movement is looking ahead to frontier computer science. Auckland software developer Vik Olliver and his wife, Suz, plan to put IT at the centre of their long-term plan to move towards greater self-sufficiency, using 3D printers to manufacture essential components for a farming community.

As the first stage of their plan, they bought an industrial unit in Henderson and are preparing their house for sale; they plan to buy a farm in a year’s time. Then the industrial unit and the farm will form the town and country ends of their project. Olliver was part of a British-based team that invented the 3D printer RepRap, a low-cost open-source printer that creates objects out of biodegradable plastic.

The printer can even make its own parts, so it can reproduce itself. At both the industrial unit and the farm, the printers will be available to anyone to use. “I wish to raise the capability of the locals.” Using open-source software available free on the web, Olliver and others will be able to make many of the things they need on a farm, he expects. “I can make pots for my hydroponics system out of biodegradable pots. We can create an irrigation system with fittings and nozzles and sprinklers.”

John Hart, Karen Monks and baby Holly on their Masterton farm.
John Hart, Karen Monks and baby Holly on their Masterton farm.

Business writer Rod Oram isn’t going the whole hog on self-sufficiency, but he says the plunging price of solar power is making it much more economic for those who want to go off the grid. The price of photovoltaic cells has collapsed in the past couple of years, making panels much cheaper. He already has solar water heating, which cut his electricity bills by a third and took three years to pay for itself. He is planning to install a bank of solar panels next year at a cost of $15,000, perhaps more, that will not only provide the rest of the electricity for the house, but also power his hybrid car, a Prius. For the weeks when he is in Auckland, he won’t need to buy any petrol. “I want to show solar energy is the economically rational thing to do,” he says.

He thinks he might have a surplus of electrical power to sell back to the grid. IT specialist John Hart and web designer Karen Monks bought a 20ha farm near Masterton in 2007 and have set it up to prepare for the risk of an energy crisis. “We are focused on having systems that are fairly resilient if the power goes off, or if there is a shortage of oil.”

The house has solar power, and the couple rely on a wood range for all cooking, heating and hot water. “So even when we have power cuts, we can still have hot showers and have a cup of tea and feel quite civilised.” There is also a prolific spring on the property, leaving open the option of a micro hydro generator, which could feed power back into the electricity grid.

“For us, it’s about hedging, if you think of people who like to hedge currency in case of fluctuations. We wanted a lifestyle that was enjoyable and still allowed us to have careers and do the things we wanted to do, so we’re within train distance of Wellington and work, but if things turn to custard, we’ve got skills that are quite useful. “Things like making your own bread and making your own cheese and animal husbandry – they’re all nice to do but they might actually become more important later on.”

The couple raise beef and sheep for sale and for the freezer. They also have dairy goats, a couple of house cows, lots of chickens, plenty of vegetables and an orchard. Pigs are raised in a woodlot on the farm, so they can roam among the trees. The farm covers its costs, but isn’t enough to pay a wage. So Monks works in Wellington, and Hart does IT contract work.


Some argue, though, that in the long term a single lifestyle farm is doomed to fail, because there is too much hard work involved. “Villages are the kind of human settlement that have endured,” says Jack Santa Barbara, who with wife Joanna is living in a new eco-village in Motueka. Atamai Village is based on the idea that villages are more resilient units, because residents can trade what they grow, and develop particular skills.

Within half an hour’s bike ride of the town, the village has five homes built, another six lots sold and in the early stages of design, and planning approval for 40. Two sections are currently for sale on Trade Me. About 10 families are living in the community, but there’s room for up to 50 – about 200 people. The development, based on an expectation of fuel and climate crises, includes orchards and 10ha of commons gardens. The villagers hope that their settlement, which involves consensus decision making, will become a model for other villages. The Santa Barbaras own the farm attached to the development, which has sheep, chicken, calves and vegetables and will become a village farm at the second stage of development. Produce from the farm is sold to village residents. Produce from the communal garden is also sold on site, with proceeds going to the village council.

For Kerrison, thinking about an altered future is a daily discipline. He always carries a bag containing survival essentials. “I would say, ‘Are you ready or not?’ It just comes down to a sense of self-responsibility. It’s almost like we’re relying on the Government or something to step in and look after us, and you only need to look at Christchurch to see that hasn’t really happened. “People sit back and say, ‘It’s not going to happen in my lifetime.’ The people in Christchurch probably thought the same thing.”

All aboard the Kiwi ark

Foreigners are increasingly seeing New Zealand as a safe haven.

Joanna and Jack Santa Barbara with their son Jeff
Joanna and Jack Santa Barbara with son Jeff.

From the time of the early European settlers, New Zealand has offered a fresh start to those who want to escape the crowded industrial world. But according to one report, it could become increasingly popular as a “safe haven” from climate change and ecosystem collapse. The theory is that beset with extreme weather and rising seas, many countries will be less able to feed their people, and conflict will rise.

With climate change predicted to have a relatively benign effect on New Zealand and with our plentiful arable land, the country might be able to be self-sufficient in food, says the report “Navigating an Uncertain Future”, by Rick Boven, Catherine Harland and Lillian Grace of the now defunct New Zealand Institute. Its geographical remoteness would insulate the country from conflict. “More people are likely to want to come to New Zealand, including returning citizens, raising the question of how many and who should be accepted.”

Whether or not the predictions are correct, what is true is that some foreigners are already moving here in anticipation of crisis. American Victor Hatten built a $1 million bolt-hole in the Bay of Islands with a bunker designed to survive a nuclear attack or asteroid strike. However, the disaster that struck was financial – the property was put up for mortgagee sale a year ago. Concerns about environmental and energy crises are a stronger driver for safe haven migrants.

Australian Ben van der Wijngaart and American Sharon Grady, both in their sixties, moved from Australia last year to Motueka’s Atamai eco-village to prepare for climate change and what they expect will be an economic crisis caused by rising oil prices. Two Canadian couples and one other Australian couple also made the move to Atamai so they could prepare for a changed future. Van der Wijngaart thinks New Zealand and Australia will both be hard hit by these changes, but that New Zealand’s people will adapt better.

“If you were to put your bets on a place that’s got a better chance of getting through the hard times, I’d say where we are is one of the better places. It’s about resilience. I think the general population here, particularly in the South Island, will adapt better. We’ll find there are a significant number of people who can produce food from their own land. They won’t be totally reliant on food being imported from China or America.” Australia will be particularly hard hit with water shortages under climate change, says van der Wijngaart, formerly the Green deputy mayor of the New South Wales coastal town of Kaima. “The essential collapse of the Murray Darling basin over recent decades has cut total food-growing capacity by about 40%.”

Jack and Joanna with Atamai manager Bob Dawber and the start of the farm’s dairy herd
Jack and Joanna with Atamai manager Bob Dawber and the start of the farm’s dairy herd.

Jack and Joanna Santa Barbara moved to the Atamai community five years ago from Canada because of concerns of an impending crisis and global instability caused by peak oil. Their adult son Jeff has also immigrated. “New Zealand has a small population and can grow a lot of its own food. Also, it’s geographically isolated,” says Jack Santa Barbara. The theory of peak oil – that we are about to reach peak oil production and thereafter supplies will suddenly dwindle – holds that there will be massive economic disruption as the era of cheap fuel ends. The theory has taken some substantial knocks. Rising oil prices have driven up production as previously uneconomic deposits – including from shale oil and fracking – have come on stream. Rather than diminishing, supplies of oil keep expanding as the price goes up.

A few months ago, Guardian columnist George Monbiot declared that peak oil was unlikely to happen for a very long time, and that climate change would be the more immediate problem. “There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us.” The question now is whether the new boom will come with ever-higher prices of oil, which could be economically disruptive, or whether oil techniques such as horizontal drilling or fracking will become cheaper as the technology is perfected. editor Kate Brennan, herself from Britain, says New Zealand is something of a magnet for those wanting to buy small farms and grow more of their own food. “A lot of people come here for a more simple, more grounded, more natural way of life. It’s a place you can still get a bit of land without too many regulations and live the way you want.” By comparison, anyone wanting to keep livestock in Britain is much more closely regulated because of the BSE scare. “Here you can buy a cow or a calf or a sheep, and no one will ask you to show a bit of paper.”
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