People leaving cities, going off-grid for ‘doomsday’
They may not be living in underground concrete bunkers, but city-slickers are turning Doomsday prepping mainstream by living off-grid in a 2020-inspired phenomenon known as “COVID flight”.
While it’s too early to calculate the scale of this exodus from the city, some property agents have observed clear trends already with many Aussies fleeing to regional areas, with more than ever choosing to live off the grid.
Survivalist expert Dr Bradley Garrett, from the University College Dublin, believes Australia is in the throes of a second “doom boom”.
During the Cold War, people burrowed underground into impregnable concrete bunkers to survive nuclear bombs – a practice he considers the first “doom boom”. But now, with climate change and global pandemics a more realistic threat, off-grid properties have increasingly captured the interest of the Australian public.
He’s dubbed off-grid houses the modern-day Aussie bunker.
“The bunker mentality is about resiliency,” Dr Garrett says. “So anyone who’s spending a lot of time thinking about going off-grid, digging their own well, going onto septic and disconnecting from infrastructure so that they can become more self-sufficient – that is completely a bunker mentality.”
He has other names for these bunkers – “architectures of dread”, “doomsteads” and “doom dens”. And people are fleeing to them in droves. “Social scientists actually have a term for this,” Dr Garrett says. “It’s called COVID flight.”
A report by property analysis firm CoreLogic found that regional migration was flourishing during COVID-19, especially in Victoria as city slickers in locked-down Melbourne tried to get out of the city.
By June 2020, Australia’s regional property market had increased by 3.4 per cent while its capital city counterpart had only grown by 1 per cent.
Considering an economic recession has swept through the world with an intensity and ferocity that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression, perhaps it isn’t surprising that Australians are making this drastic change.
It’s becoming an accepted – and even expected – practice to work from home, making it easier than ever to try country living. The global death toll from coronavirus is now sitting at 1.78 million with almost a million people dying in just the last three months, there is a mutant virus strain sweeping through the UK which recorded over 41,000 new infections in one day on Monday, and NSW is currently caught in the throes of another virus cluster which came seemingly out of the blue.
‘Prepping’ has now become a multibillion-dollar industry which hasn’t scrupled to capitalise on society’s collective fear of contracting the virus.
In today’s world, off-grid is on trend.
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The Doomsday movement attracts all sorts of people, including those from corporate jobs, according to Dr Simon Henry, the first Australian academic to complete a PhD on Australia’s survivalist community in 2016.
He found that Australian Doomsday preppers number in the thousands – and that was before COVID-19. Since the virus hit in March, he told news.com.au he’s seen a “noticeable increase” in the number of off-gridders joining online forums.
Living off the grid goes beyond people leaving the city – it’s leaving society. Kiss goodbye to unlimited electricity and warm water at the touch of a button. Sometimes you’ll find yourself wading through human excrement to fix a sewage problem.
And popping to the corner store takes on a whole new meaning when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Setting it up can be expensive but once that’s done, water and electricity bills become things of the past. For many, living off the grid is a hideous idea but others are embracing the simple life.
Paul Meloury aka ‘Cockatoo Paul’, decided to do exactly that 10 years ago, disconnecting his home from the grid in 2010. Now he’s making a living teaching others to do the same.
He runs the Kangaroo Creek Survival School close to Grafton along NSW’s north coast and there’s been huge demand for his expertise since COVID-19 reached Australia’s shores.
Mr Meloury teaches survival essentials from finding edible plants in the wild, purifying water and even building shelter from scratch.
According to him, “you don’t need to be Tarzan” to move off-grid.
Mr Meloury was anxious when he first heard of the international travel restrictions because most of his clients were backpackers from overseas. But he needn’t have worried.
“From the domestic side of things, (business) definitely has picked up,” he said.
THE ‘DOOM BOOM’
Doomsday preppers don’t call it “COVID flight” – they have another name for leaving the city in a hurry – “bugging out”. The phrase originated in World War II, to describe soldiers fleeing when their positions were compromised. Etymologists believe the word came about because of the rapid way bugs fly off when threatened.
It’s not the only word tossed around casually in Doomsday dialect. The post-apocalyptic world is referred to as PAW in prepper parlance. TEOTWAWKI stands for The End Of The World As We Know It. Then there’s the INCH bag which preppers will likely bring with them while bugging out – an “I’m Never Coming Home” pack.
COVID-19 is a mid-level event among the Doomsday community, and most wouldn’t consider it an apocalypse.
OFF-GRIDDERS IN THE FLESH
Not all off-gridders predict the end of the world or are obsessive hoarders. Mike Stone, who quit his 9-5 job as an employee relations expert in Canberra after 30 years, insists he’s not a Doomsday prepper.
And he isn’t, in the traditional sense. Although the early days of the pandemic saw some Australians stockpiling canned food, toilet paper and even tasers, Mike didn’t do any sort of hoarding. To survive an apocalypse, the 58-year-old only needs a few vegetable seeds in his off-grid property three hours’ drive from Sydney.
He’s just planted lettuce, tomato, carrots and corn to replace his winter stocks; Chinese cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, silver beet, rocket, garlic, beetroot, onions, spring onions, broccoli, snow peas and leek.
He estimates that 90 per cent of his vegetable intake during the winter came from his veggie gardens. “You name it and we’ve probably got it,” Mike tells news.com.au with a laugh.
Mike sips a glass of red wine with his partner Sharon Law, watching the sun set on their two-acre NSW property. Their cottage is a modern fusion of corrugated iron and wood panelling. Its steep roof suggests snowy, miserable winters.
Inside is a newly renovated bathroom which could be on the cover of an interior design magazine. There’s also an airconditioning unit for the sweltering summer days ahead, where temperatures can soar as high as 41C.
The couple’s two sheepdogs are happily occupied, one sleeping in a sliver of sunlight and the other ambushing a pair of unsuspecting bunnies living under the house. Four chickens waddle around the property freely.
As the couple drink on the balcony, an easterly breeze plays with Sharon’s long blonde hair and the solar panels catch the last of the sun’s rays. A kale quiche, using veggies from their own garden, sits on the table. They cooked it during the day to save energy.
The summer crops, newly planted, fill the place with the smell of freshly turned earth.
The cottage is completely off the grid. Solar-powered and with generator backups, it’s totally self-sufficient. Cheap, too. They have a septic tank, they drink filtered rainwater and grow their own food.
If the world ever goes dark, Sharon and Mike will be ready.
The cottage is surrounded by eight acres of vacant farmland. It’s a half-hour drive to the nearest grocery store. The place is so secluded, in fact, that on a quiet night, Sharon and Mike can hear the scraping of a freight train 11km away. This house is the epitome of social distancing.
This off-grid lifestyle is becoming increasingly popular in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
Just six months ago Sharon worked in a corporate office as an accountant. Now she’s hung up her high heels and replaced them with a sturdy pair of hiking boots. She’s just one of the many Aussies turning “COVID flight” into a social phenomenon.
Sharon lifts up a lid to check on her worm farm. Padding around the bucket provides insulation to protect the worms from winter frosts. She appears at ease with the off-grid lifestyle. But half a year ago Sharon, 50, used to squeeze into a share house in Sydney’s high-density suburb of North Ryde. Visiting Mike was a weekend treat.
Sharon has bronchitis, a chronic inflammation in her lungs that causes coughing and disrupts her breathing. She was told by doctors she couldn’t afford to catch COVID-19 if she wanted to live.
At first, she planned to stay for 10 days when she moved into Mike’s off-grid property in March. The woolshed became her at-home office. But after getting a taste for the fresh country air, she didn’t want to go back to work.
Last month she celebrated her last day as an accountant at the firm. She stopped beating around the bush and decided to stay in the bush permanently.
LIFE OFF THE GRID
Going off the grid is “very different” to the frenetic lifestyle of the big smoke, according to Mike Stone. And he would know. Mike spent 30 years as an employee relations expert in Canberra.
Now instead of donning a suit and tie, he wears layers of clothing to fight the spring chill, smudged with dirt as he completes his gardening tasks with one of his dogs at his heels.
“I get more satisfaction out of picking my tomatoes than I ever did in any job or any project that I finished in the corporate world,” he says.
There’s a “spectrum” of people who move off the grid, according to Mike. First, there’s people who he describes as “wanting to live in a cave” and then those who consider themselves self-sufficient simply because they have solar panels installed on the roof. He and partner Sharon fall somewhere in the middle.
When Mike first purchased the place eight years ago, there was just a run-down wool shed on the property. For the first few months, Mike had to make do without water or electricity. He restored the wool shed and added two more cottages, listing one of them on Airbnb.
He uses solar power panels connected to a lithium battery. A fully-charged battery can last for four days without sunlight, if he uses his electricity sparingly. Consequently, he often cooks his main meal during the day, while the sun is still out, to minimise his usage.
And if the solar power fails, he can always switch to a generator (not that it ever has failed in the past eight years). Human waste goes into the septic tank, which is then dispersed into underground trenches in his backyard. It doesn’t leave a smell. “I’ll do a lot of things, but I won’t touch sewage,” he says with a laugh.
A FIVE STAR EXPERIENCE
As the son of a farmer, it didn’t take long for Mike to grow accustomed to life off the grid. But Sharon struggled at first. The ex-accountant went on a bit of a “learning curve”. She had to reduce her electric output (including living without an oven and turning off power points). Convenience is another big thing she’s learned to do without, having to drive half an hour to the nearest grocery store. “If you run out of milk, you can’t just pop down to the corner store. There is no corner store,” she says.
Sharon also had to give up takeaway food – a big change considering one of her regular shops used to be across the road.
They might be off the grid, but they still have all the convenience and comfort of a normal house. Think of the reality TV show The Block meeting Survivor. Inside their cottage, they have TV screens, computers, flushing toilets and even airconditioning.
The cottage they rent out on Airbnb is clean and stylish, with wooden benchtops and off-white walls. As far as off-grid goes, they’re getting a five-star experience. “We’re actually living very comfortably,” Mike says.
Sharon agrees. “I haven’t missed out on anything because Mike’s set everything up very well,” she says.
“Even though we are on solar power, I can still use my hair straightener.”
For Mike, being self-sufficient is a mindset. You can have an off-grid property and keep working in your corporate job, but that doesn’t make you a real off-gridder, he says.
By way of explanation, he presents three jars. One is filled with a dark pink liquid which is unmistakably beetroot while the other two contain dried eggplant and sauerkraut.
Mike dries, ferments and freezes his own food if there’s an oversupply. As a result, sauerkraut and kimchi have become a staple in their diet this winter, after producing too much Chinese cabbage.
“If you want to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, then your lifestyle does become your job,” he says. “You’ve got to weed the gardens, and you’ve got to plant and things like that. There is a lot of work in doing it, but it’s very enjoyable.”
SO WHY DO IT?
With constant maintenance required, stinky compost bins and limited electricity, why go off-grid? Money is a big factor.
“As soon as you start living this lifestyle, you suddenly realise that you don’t need as near as much money,” says Mike.
He hasn’t been able to rent out his holiday property for the past few months because of the virus and has been living with a “significantly” reduced income. But with no power or water bills, and grocery costs kept at a minimum, it’s been bearable. The self-funded retiree hasn’t tried to get any government support, either.
Sharon has started her own business as an accountant and bookkeeper in the area. But she only does it for a few hours each week, and she’s much pickier about her clients. She can afford to be, when she doesn’t have to pay Sydney’s exorbitant rent.
Money was also a factor for Michael Mobbs, who turned his house in the middle of Sydney into an off-grid property in 1996. Since then, his terrace in the inner west has had energy and water bills costing less than $300 a year.
The former environmental lawyer converted his two-storey Chippendale terrace into one of the world’s first inner-city self-sufficient homes. No sewage or water has left the house in 20 years; it’s all treated and recycled.
Captured sunlight dances in Michael’s solar panels and water from the roof mixes with his recycled sewage to become drinkable. Indeed, other than being a little bubbly at its surface, his water tastes like any ordinary drinking water.
He runs tours of his house every Saturday morning and over the years around 30,000 people have come to see what he’s done.
A truck pulls up to deliver a dozen hay bales to Michael’s residence at 58 Myrtle Street, Chippendale. The 70-year-old is still sprightly and stacks each of the hay bundles in his living room. His elbows are muddied and his black shirt is covered in hay, feathers and dust. For Michael, moving off the grid is about more than money. He’s doing it for the environment.
He grows his own food around the neighbourhood, including paw paws, chilli and tomatoes, as well as having two chickens for fresh eggs. It’s enough for a “modest” meal without going to a grocery store if he makes a traditional Thai dish – paw paw salad.
An environmental activist, Michael has spoken at conferences and even written his own book, Sustainable Food, to champion sustainability. He’s convinced COVID-19 is nothing compared to the climate catastrophe coming our way – which he believes will occur in 2030.
He has been trying to sell his off-grid property for a year, hoping to move to the countryside.
“When things fall apart in 2030, after two or three days they (people) will get really hungry,” he says.
“And if you think fighting over toilet paper in a virus is bad, wait ’til there’s no food. Then it becomes really basic.”
For Mike and Sharon, their reason for moving off-grid has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with freedom. Mike remembers the oppressive “pattern” of going to work; driving to the office in heavy traffic, the drudgery of the job, the workplace politics, the uncertainty of his career, then waking up and repeating everything all over again.
His move off-grid was to be free from all of that. And as an added bonus, he was barely affected by the government’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown in April.
“When they had the restrictions in place, we didn’t notice any difference,” Mike says.
The couple were so isolated in their little bubble of bliss that when they finally did go to Sydney, they were shocked.
It was April. They drove for three hours to pack Sharon’s stuff away for good. When they arrived in North Ryde, there were no other cars around for half a kilometre, all the shopping centres were empty and people were snatching toilet paper off supermarket shelves like it was a matter of life and death.
“It was very alien to us,” Mike says. After weeks cocooned in his off-grid sanctuary, he was now faced with the reality of lockdown. “It wasn’t until then that we realised how much freedom we had, that others didn’t.”
They’re not alone. Queensland mother-of-two Paula Fry lives off the grid because she likes the control. Paula likes to choose what chemicals (or lack thereof) go into her food and water.
Many off-gridders share similar concerns, like retiree Conrad Boyes, who is searching for an off-grid property because he has “no faith in the government”.
TOP SECRET LOCATIONS
“Location, location, location” – so goes the old saying. Off-gridders need to find the right realm of remoteness, rainfall and rays of sunshine for their home to function (as well as not being in an area prone to bushfires), making their location a highly sought-after spot.
Real estate company Domain has listed some popular off-grid hot spots in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Laidley in Queensland, Research in Victoria, Katoomba in NSW, Denmark in Western Australia, Willunga in Southern Australia and Cygnet in Tasmania.
However, listing these locations defeats the purpose, according to Macquarie University’s survivalist expert Dr Simon Henry.
“The retreat location of every Australian survivalist is their most closely guarded secret,” he says.
He says there is no such thing as “safe havens” or “hot spots” for off-gridders. “Many (survivalists) see a potential danger in letting other survivalists know where they will go when a cataclysmic disaster occurs.”
Once Michael Mobbs sells his Sydney property, he’s planning to move to Bermagui along the NSW south coast because “wherever there are trees, there is rainfall”. However, he won’t go into the specifics of the location.
“I’ve found a place that’s about an hour and a bit out of Sydney, which is secret and you wouldn’t know you’re there, but it’s easy to get to,” he says cryptically. To find it, “you’ve got to really be looking”.
Conrad Boyes is the same. He’s been searching for the right place for the past six months, but won’t say where.
Conrad says he found a 100-acre property two hours south of Sydney. But it was too cold to grow as many vegetables he wanted to, and the water wasn’t running fast enough to set up his hydro-electricity. He’s still looking.
For many, spending weeks and months, all alone, isn’t appealing.
Trevor Bull, who has been living off-grid in NSW for five years, is thinking of selling up and moving back to the city because the loneliness has got to him.
“If you’re lonely without the television on, you may not be making a positive decision (by moving off the grid),” he says.
At the moment, Trevor’s sole interaction is with the people he talks to in his computer games. He also hits the shops once a month. He hasn’t seen his three kids for a long time.
He’s not the only one feeling the sting of isolation. “The loneliness worries me a little,” says Conrad, anticipating his move off the grid in the next few months. “You know what my biggest fear is? It’s leaving my family.”
His kids, both adults now, want no part in living off-grid. “I can’t help them,” he says. “They don’t want to hear, they don’t want to listen. They don’t want to see what’s coming.”
Michael Mobbs is the same. He’s divorced and his kids “are sick of” his environmental activism. When he moves to the country, it will be by himself.
“You have to be able to be confident that your own company’s going to be enough. Some people would find it quite difficult,” he says.
“If you’re young, you want to adjust to not having all the stimulus of a city. If you’re old, you might need lots of medical attention.”
Sue Mcinnes likes the solitude of living in her rural property near Mackay, Queensland. She and her husband “don’t do crowds,” she says. But that’s not the problem.
In her early 60s, she underwent double knee reconstructive surgery. Her husband went to work most days during her one-month recovery and she wondered what would happen if she fell over, with no help nearby.
FAR FROM CRAZY
Off-gridders and Doomsday preppers have a reputation for being crazy, but COVID-19 is rapidly changing that assumption.
Michael Mobbs faced a lot of resistance when he wanted to convert his terrace into a sustainable house.
“When I did this in ’96, it was almost enough to get me committed,” he says.
Conrad Boyes experienced similar reluctance when he told his family he was moving off the grid. “My brother thinks I’m quite crazy,” he says.
But survivalist academic Dr Garrett says going off-grid makes complete sense in a post-COVID world. “There’s very little that we can do about those things, like climate change, pandemics, loss of jobs etc,” he says. “And so taking control of our kind of immediate situation, I think is a totally rational reaction to you in an irrational world.”
Sharon doesn’t think her choice is insane at all. She’s called the property her “forever home”. She plans to live out her days in the solar shack, wine in hand, sun searing overhead, Mike beside her. “I’ll visit (the city) for sure,” Sharon says. “But I don’t think I’ll ever move back.”
Zombie apocalypses, nuclear winters, viral pandemics – bring it on.
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