It’s pitch dark in a way you only get in the bush as I arrive at the property of a man I met an hour ago.
“This is my base”, he says. “I have everything you need.”
I take this the way city people say it, where “I have everything” means “Bunnings has everything”.
But peering through the darkness, I realise he means it. There’s chickens, a veggie garden that’d put Costa to shame, solar panels and septic tanks. And then, “what’s in the basement?”
“Six months of fuel and some basic weapons.”
“Just basic ones.”
Suddenly, I realise what this charming bush cottage actually is.
It’s a “bug out” â€” a well-equipped base that survivalists keep ready for when “TSHTF” (the shit hits the fan).
And this man? He’s a “prepper” â€” someone who’s turned “prepping” for disaster into a way of life.
I’d been planning to fly home to Sydney after a month exploring the outback with a good friend. I couldn’t wait to be reunited with my beloved â€” my shower. But just hours before my flight, my friend received a call from the prepper, who she’d met on a previous adventure.
He needed someone to drive his second car from Perth to the desert, where he lived, deep in a national park, for half of each year â€” could we help him?
I couldn’t resist the lure of a new escapade â€” my flight (and shower) would have to wait a little longer.
Now, I’m faced with the vehicle we’ll drive 17 hours into the outback tomorrow: a floral-patterned 1970s caravan, full of supplies for a nuclear holocaust.
And I’ll be living out of this caravan-cross-bunker for the next 10 days.
I lift the bed to stash my bags underneath. There’s two months of tinned food and an axe.
I open a cupboard beside the bed. An avalanche of toothbrushes and dental floss rains down on me.
Crouched on the caravan floor, gathering up the toothbrushes like an apocalyptic “pick-up sticks”, I stare up at the prepper, waiting for an explanation.
“Gum health and heart disease are linked,” he says. “No-one ever thinks about dental floss. You’re holding apocalypse gold there.”
In my Gollum-crouch, I grab the floss and try to imagine a world where that could be “my precious”.
I’m not convinced it’s a world I want to live in. But in a few days, that all changes.
Aussies are getting ‘prepped’
“Doomsday prepping”, or “survivalism”, is on the rise in Australia, as it is in the US and UK.
This is despite “preppers” being widely met with ridicule or fear (as the New York Times writes, prepping reality TV shows “are full of people lovingly cradling their weaponry, which in many cases is frighteningly extensive”).
Preppers make themselves easy targets, between the YouTube tutorials on how to make a crossbow from a ski, and the graded sequence of Mary-Poppins-meets-Bear-Grylls survival bags.
If you’re a minimalist prepper who’s just read Marie Kondo, you might get by with just the BOB (“Bug Out Bag”, 72 hours worth of supplies) and the INCH (“I’m Never Coming Home” bag). And yes, preppers have more acronyms than the public service.
As we dragged our catastrophe-caravan to the blistering outback, I was a survivalist sceptic.
“What are we even prepping for?” I whinged, hangry from my new diet of raw celery (wasting gas on cooking was sacrilege).
But it was August 2017: the North Korean nuclear crisis was at its peak and the hands on the doomsday clock had inched closer to midnight. I’d been in the desert for five weeks now, and without access to the news, I couldn’t evaluate for myself how the shit was placed relative to the fan.
“Should I be worried about this North Korea thing???” I’d text home in rare moments of reception.
“Probably lol”, my brother would reply four days later.
It turns out that most preppers are motivated by real-world threats, just like the North Korea crisis.
Dr Michael Mills from the University of Kent found that government messaging, reported in mainstream media, motivates more preppers than fringe, conspiratorial sites or religious preachers.
“Preppers’ outlooks reflect a bombardment of reporting around disasters on a daily basis â€¦ so we should pay attention to how speculation around disasters has become part of everyday life in the early 21st century”, he says.
When fear drives the clicks that keep cash-starved newsrooms ticking over, anxiety is virtually built into journalism’s business model.
It doesn’t help that we’ve lost a lot of the visual cues that we’re ready for disaster: while cities were once littered with bomb shelters and nuclear bunkers, in a digital world, our “readiness” is largely invisible.
As Dr Lee Stickell from the University of Sydney writes, “in the context of global climate change, ongoing fiscal crises and pandemics, the survival retreat starts to seem like an eccentric but understandable reaction.”
Dr Simon Henry, whose PhD investigated Australian preppers, says the subculture is a broad church.
“Australian survivalists are not Christian fundamentalists, right-wing nationalists, racist extremists or part of a contemporary militia movement,” he says.
“They are certainly not reflective of those colourful individuals seen in scripted and heavily edited American reality TV.”
The moment I was converted
It was day four in the catastrophe-caravan when my scepticism transformed.
We were deep in a national park with zero reception, despite the plan to retrieve messages by sending our phones up and down on the biggest helium balloon you could buy from Perth.
It failed, but the giant balloon flying above our bunker-caravan like a prepper flag may be what attracted an elderly couple who rushed to tell us a family were stranded in a remote carpark.
When we reached the carpark, the kids were starving. They’d run out of water and were bracing themselves for a night in the bush.
As I performed my important role of “torch holder” in the Wolf Creek-esque carpark, I suddenly got it: preppers exist because the rest of us are critically underprepared.
My survival skills extended to holding a torch. I couldn’t reboot their car, let alone scavenge bush tucker for dinner. Back in the city, I’d somehow managed to kill a plant specially chosen because it only needed watering every three months.
As my prepper friend worked away, silhouetted in the torchlight, I realised preppers are just a variation on the “Aussie bushman” â€” perhaps a dying trope in our urban era, where the “unkillable” fern is my nursery’s fastest-selling plant. The giant balloon now seemed like some classic Aussie bush mechanics.
“If you take a step back, you can see that there is an underlying yearning that is met by [prepping] behaviours,” academic and author Mick Broderick told the Guardian.
“Urbanisation has largely removed the need to get our hands dirty â€” yet there is an almost primal desire to embrace the materiality of things.”
So, who should we really be mocking? Definitely me, and probably you too.
We are all underprepared
And it’s not just on an individual level. My prepping friend’s basement full of fuel seems less crazy when you learn that Australia doesn’t stockpile fuel properly, despite being an island at the end of the Earth.
Dr Samantha Hepburn, an energy security expert from Deakin Law School, says Australia is “particularly vulnerable” as we import more than 90 per cent of our liquid fuel from the Middle East.
“Any escalation in the Syrian conflict, for example, could lead to a global oil crisis. We do not have a sufficient stockpile to deal with this for very long,” she says.
In some ways, prepping is a reaction to how precarious our global supply chains have become, where a Trump tweet from Washington can impact an oil shipment to Esperance.
“If we ran out of liquid fuel, it would cripple domestic industry, military capability and civil function. On current reserves, after about a week we’re going to run into serious problems,” says Dr Hepburn.
“Food would run short in the shops probably in three to four days. Pharmacies would run out of supplies after about three days and our services we take for granted; electricity supply, water supply, none of this can happen without fuel.”
Put simply, my prepper friend’s personal fuel stockpile would last him six times longer than Australia’s would last.
Dr Hepburn points to China, the US and Sweden as countries that take stockpiling seriously, with Sweden stockpiling food and water, too.
The reason so many others are underprepared is simple: prepping can bring upfront costs, even if it’s cheaper in the long-run.
Capitalism and democracy make long-term planning complicated â€” upfront investment skews budgets, not a good look for any politician seeking re-election. And there’s no major measure like GDP or surplus that tracks “how we’ll cope if TSHTF”.
Who gets to be a prepper?
Preppers often believe that government can’t, or won’t, protect them. Many of the preppers that Dr Mills studied pointed to the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina as their evidence.
But this “every man for himself” mentality has its problems.
“We should perhaps be wary,” notes Dr Stickell, “of who has the capacity to be off grid and who remains dependent?”
Popular on ABC News:
While Dr Henry points out that there’s plenty of guides to prepping on a budget, if you’re struggling to put food on the table, planning and purchasing a two month stockpile might be a pipe dream.
Silicon Valley billionaires are building luxury bunkers in mid-west America and snapping up land in New Zealand.
As those who can afford to exit “the grid”, what does it mean for the people left behind?
“If individuals, or isolated communities, take themselves out of the system, then those who are left may have less reliable, poorer quality services,” says Dr Stickell.
But there are signs the “dog-eat-dog” mentality might be changing.
Dr Becky Alexis-Martin identified a new centrist and left-wing wave of preppers in the lead-up to Trump’s election.
“[Survivalism] has moved away from macho culture and the accumulation of stuff,” she wrote.
“These newcomers view resilience as something that demands strong community networks, not a matter of individual toughness.”
As millennial prepper Daniel Spikowski, 26, told her, hoarding alone won’t keep you safe when society falls apart. “If you have a stockpile of things, then you’ll become a target for those things,” he said.
“If you have a stockpile of skills, you’ll be the person that people work to keep alive.”
I’m a failed prepper
After the Wolf-Creek carpark rescue, my prepper friend had transformed in my mind from loveable weirdo to bush hero.
We spent hours in the golden outback light, blanketed in red dust, as he taught me how to fix a car, bandage a snake bite and survive a collision with a wild bull.
As soon as I got home to Sydney, I raced to buy torches, jumper leads and first-aid kits.
I left a hundred bucks poorer and was ridiculed by my friends for my frantic attempt to procure a crowbar on a Saturday evening.
My plans to fix my car, to study first-aid, to volunteer with the Scouts, soon fell by the wayside.
It’s written in the opening pages of the Australian Preppers field manual: “When travelling overseas, people often tick all of their preparation boxes. Day to day, there is a tendency to let things slide.”
Perhaps I failed for the same reasons we all fail, even governments: because there’s an upfront cost, because other people think it’s extreme, because the busyness of everyday life leaves little time for thinking about the future.
But most of all, because the monotony of our comfortable lives makes it difficult to imagine a break from the ordinary.
But complacency about risks doesn’t make those risks disappear. As my prepping friend says, “Preppers are labelled as crazy folk who waste their time and money preparing for outcomes that may never unfold.
“The reality is, those who do prepare are in a great position to help themselves and others for life’s unexpected moments.”
Read more about the federal election: