Billionaires of this world clearly know something that the rest of us don't about New Zealand

New Zealand, the 'lifeboat' at the bottom of the world? Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealand, the 'lifeboat' at the bottom of the world? Photo / Mark Mitchell

The billionaires of this world clearly know something that the rest of us don't, says Peter Foster: it seems that the human race is closer to Armageddon than we mortal wage-slaves ever realised.

Perhaps it's Donald Trump winning the White House that's left them all a-jitter, or maybe the Spanish veggie famine, or the rise of the robots, or the global inequalities finally reaching breaking point. Whatever the cause, tech billionaires and hedge fund titans are all tooling up and making ready to head for the hills.

Most precisely, the hills of New Zealand. Maybe it's all down to watching too many Lord of Rings movies in their private cinemas, but according to recent reports it is to private landing strips in the Mirkwoods of Middle Earth that the flocks of Lears and Gulfstreams will head when the balloon goes up.

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, is among 92 high net worth individuals granted New Zealand citizenship under special terms for high-rollers, the Financial Times reported last weekend, as they seek a "lifeboat" destination to escape to when the rest of us are reduced to hunting and gathering along the shattered streets.

Billionaire American technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel has been granted NZ citizenship.
Billionaire American technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel has been granted NZ citizenship.

Thiel, ever ahead of the curve, owns a 500-acre estate on Lake Wanaka which he is reported to have snapped up for £8.5m in 2015. And to judge by sky-rocketing high-end property prices in New Zealand, there are plenty more uber wealthy types quietly acquiring luxury boltholes.

These are the kind of places, according to the man from Sotheby's International, that "come with their own water supply, power source and the ability to grow food". It was at this sentence that I, as a one-time former resident of New Zealand, started laughing.

You see, we've been here before. Back in 1999 all these people with too much time and money on their hands flocked to New Zealand terrified that the Millennium Bug - remember that? - was finally going to trigger the end of the human race.

There were fears that as the world's computers ticking over from 99 to 00 the would trigger a syntax error of such global proportions that the clocks would stop, the traffic lights would go out and life-critical systems from air-traffic control to intensive care would suddenly blink, blink... then go dead.

Nothing was apparently safe from the Y2K bug, from electronic Japanese toilets with built-in bidets that would start spewing out scalding water (or worse, none at all) to the silos of ageing US nuclear missiles - coded as they were at the height of the cold war in the 1970's - opening their mechanical maws and disgorging their dreaded cargo.

The ever-practical Kiwi authorities spared no expense in preparing their population for the end, creating "Ken the Cockroach" (the Millennium bug, geddit?) to warn of the disasters that might lie ahead. But the clocks struck midnight, and the sky did not fall.

And guess what? All the rich cranks went home. I know, because some four years later, in 2004, I myself retreated from the world for a year, renting a beautiful beachside home in Golden Bay on the New Zealand's South Island that had been built by a Canadian Y2K refugee who had come to see out his days watching the sun set over the Southern Ocean.

The pastoral life may sound idyllic but the reality is a lot harsher. Photo / Paul Taylor
The pastoral life may sound idyllic but the reality is a lot harsher. Photo / Paul Taylor

By all accounts the owner had quickly got bored of tending his veggies and making fruitless fishing trips all while homeschooling his kids and scooping up after his livestock. "He was surprised how much s--- they made," chortled one mirthful local who'd seen a few of these types come and go. The Canadian himself was following in the well-worn footsteps of a bunch of 1980's Greenpeace types who were convinced Reagan was going to incinerate the planet - the same as Donald Trump.

All of which is to say that none of us should be too jealous of the Silicon Valley super-rich, because - penny-to-a-bag of bitcoins - if the world really does go up in smoke they'll be the last to cope. Kiwis are a hardy species who are well-used to surviving. Indeed, from a very early age kindergarten children do their survival drills, ducking and rolling under their school desks when the earthquake alarm sounds and learning how to "get through" if they are cut off from the outside world.

The Government's "Get thru" website explicitly warns that New Zealand "faces many potential disasters", including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis that could "strike without warning". And when it does, where will the billionaires be when all their assorted flunkies - the gardeners, pool-boys, fly fishing guides and the like - have retreated home to look after their own? When the fuel supplies run out, the phone lines are down and the satellites are all off-grid?

Then, the rich guys will have to chop their own firewood and master the art of the "wetback" log burner which heats most Kiwis' houses and must never be allowed to go out. They will learn that when the man from Sotheby's says that their properties have the "ability to grow food", that those veggies don't grow themselves - they must be defended day and night from the pitiless southern hemisphere sun and an astonishing array of voracious bugs and critters.

No matter how much money you have you will not be immune from natural disasters, such as this mudslide in Golden Bay in 2011. Photo / Tim Cuff
No matter how much money you have you will not be immune from natural disasters, such as this mudslide in Golden Bay in 2011. Photo / Tim Cuff

They will have to learn that fishing for sand flounders (a tasty flatfish, also known as a "dab") with a sharpened stick looks easy on a YouTube video, but in truth entails many fruitless hours stalking across the mudflats making holes in the mud, or worse in my case, their own feet.

And when the Bushman bug juice runs out, they'll have to contend with the tiny sandflies that bite and itch like no other biting creature on earth, tormenting all those homeschooled children who will be even less likely to sit still.

All this while in the next door encampment, the locals (immune to the sandflies after a while) are tucking into their fire-grilled flounder, gorging on home-caught wild pig, while being warmed by a woodburner that never goes out overnight (it's the way you stack wood - hard then soft) while the bazillionaire's once-glittering infinity pools turn slowly green, then putrid brown.

No, they'll not last three weeks before they fire up the Learjet and - mercifully to everyone who is not a real estate agent - use their last tank of gas to head back to what remains of civilisation.

• Peter Foster is the Daily Telegraph's Europe Editor. He fled big city life in 2004 to settle with his family in Golden Bay, Nelson. He lasted a year.

- Originally published in Telegraph UK

- Daily Telegraph UK

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