Auckland financial adviser Gavin Busch built a new family house near the beach a few years ago with a most unexpected feature.
He pulls back a rug on his garage floor to show visitors something they would never expect - a secret trap door. With the flick of a switch, that floor yawns to show a winding circular set of stairs to a dark subterranean space.
"I call it my bunker, though at the moment it's more of a room away from the kids," Busch confesses from a five-strong home bubble.
Wine is stored at a constant temperature a full level below the two-storey home. The stairs are a tightly winding spiral, resulting in the solo experience of descending or ascending.
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The 2.5m diameter structure stores 1450 bottles, is 3.5m deep and two people can stand comfortably on its floor. It was installed by Wine and Wood's Brendan Clark and supplied by United Kingdom-headquartered Spiral Cellars.
For Busch, it is a little bit of fun and a whole lot useful.
He has been reading the latest stories about billionaire bunkers with great interest. Other much larger bunkers than his are said to be around Queenstown, in Northland and Canterbury. Fiercely private Doomsday survivalists have reportedly fled here from overseas to wait out the Covid-19 pandemic safely beneath the earth's surface.
We're fascinated by such a concept.
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A worker at the exclusive Wyuna Preserve tells him of a spa pool, plunge pool and sauna under a new house, not a bunker. MacDonald visits one property with two doors beneath a mound of earth or small hill: "This is the garage," he says, pointing to the house. "Then what the f... is this?" he asks, indicating doors in the hillside. That is unanswered and he bemoans the eight or nine billionaires who refused to talk.
Gary Lynch, general manager of Texas-based Rising S Co, got a call from a previously New York-based tech chief asking about his multimillion-dollar New Zealand bunker 3.3 metres underground: the door combination, power, hot water heater and need for extra water or air filters were aspects Lynch answered.
Robert Vicino, the founder of the California-based underground global shelter network Vivos, said his business had already installed a 300-person bunker in the South Island, just north of Christchurch.
Hanmer Springs has been cited in previous publicity, along with Wyuna near Queenstown.
Hurunui District Council Mayor Marie Black, whose area includes Hanmer Springs knew nothing about it. Brooke Benny, a planner for the same council, said there was "no history of any such consent being granted for any type of bunker."
So the Herald on Sunday asked Vivos about its venture near Christchurch: "We didn't say it was in Christchurch. Happy hunting!" came the cryptic reply.
Surely some officials or authorities knew of such a big scheme? The Queenstown Lakes District Council said it had no knowledge of applications for underground bunkers. Christchurch City Council and the Selwyn and Waimakariri district councils concurred.
What about resource consents under various district plans and the Resource Management Act?
Geotechnical reports, engineering studies and plans for large site earthworks would be needed, unless bunkers were built illegally. If hundreds of tonnes of steel or concrete were placed underground, like the Rising S Co and Vivos schemes, working for years, territorial authorities would know. Infamous Kiwi red tape was bound to have caught bunkers.
"I've never seen any single piece of evidence of it," said Wanaka's Lyal Cocks, a former Queenstown Lakes deputy mayor, councillor for a decade and former independent planning commissioner. He would know of legal applications.
For around 10 years, Cocks closely examined resource consent applications, some involving wealthy overseas parties or their lawyers.
He has an inkling of why people might be abuzz with billionaire bunkers: "It was not so much totally underground bunkers as some large secluded houses with parts of them underground."
From 2007-2016, when many wealthy Americans were buying land and developing large homes before a law change in 2018 banned them, Cocks sat on many hearing panels.
He never saw anything even remotely bunker-like and had no suspicions they existed, even secretly.
"There were some pretty big houses. But if there was anything underground - as was the case in about three or four applications around Queenstown, Wanaka and at Roys Peninsula - it was just a wine cellar. Sometimes, people dig out a hillside to put in a garage under the house. Or they put earth on the roof to minimise the appearance of the house."
Underground works were also to offset big-home effects in areas of outstanding natural landscape or beauty, where the house might be viewed from a lake or from a public area.
Could the bunkers rise illegally? "No," he says firmly. People in the area, like concrete suppliers, would have let on about something as big as that. Locals talk and he's got his ear close to the ground.
Texas-based Rising S Co says it is "the biggest and best bunker and bomb shelter manufacturer. All of our bunkers and bomb shelters are built with 1/4 inch plate high grade steel."
Its general manager Gary Lynch seems almost flattered to have his secret Kiwi bunkers questioned: "I am certainly glad that those that live in New Zealand believe the claims are untrue, which means all involved have done their job well," he emails.
He confirms the American article reporting Rising S sent and installed 10 shelters here in the past few years.
Could they be in Canterbury, Northland, Queenstown, Hamilton?
He won't say. It's all part of his company's confidentiality.
Jane Taylor, a Queenstown-based barrister and independent planning commissioner, has heard applications since 2006.
"People come here not just from America but from Europe, Australia, Canada for the area's natural beauty and the environment." She never encountered a billionaire bunker applicant.
"The short answer is no, I've never seen anything like that and I've consented a lot of dwellings. The closest I've seen is a wine cellar underground in the Wakatipu Valley but you wouldn't want to live down there - maybe dinner or a snack but it wouldn't be a pleasant place to live."
Taylor rejects illegal structures: "The geology around here would make this quite difficult. Bunkers would require some form of rock blasting, so I'm sure this would be very obvious to neighbours over quite a wide area."
Lynch is glad Kiwis find no evidence. Rising S Co has featured in Forbes, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic "and literally hundreds of other media outlets. We do not need to generate media attention and, if anything, they make keeping my projects private much harder. Anyone looking for a bunker or bomb shelter will find me as we are the most dominant builder in the world".
The authorities won't be saying a thing either, he says, but that didn't mean it wasn't true.
He wouldn't discuss methods, exact locations, clients, whether he's visited here or details that could disrupt the business. But a representative visited many times to oversee correct installation.
"We have a rep who lives in New Zealand who is only introduced in the final stages of negotiations to keep his identity private and make sure we are dealing with serious clients, not just those being nosey or trying to find out things they have no business knowing. The only proof I could provide would be information deemed confidential so as it stands I guess our bunkers are nonexistent in New Zealand," Lynch said.
"We don't sell fear, we sell preparedness," reads the company's slogan used in advertising for military shelters it says it can deliver and install anywhere in the world.
Doubts remain, given the lack of evidence.
"Sounds like another Seasteading fantasy," a local software expert said of the claims. He was referring to the Utopian concept of creating permanent dwellings at sea.
His company provides services to councils and he says the overseas outfits might just be trying to talk up business, not knowing how the consents process works here. Digging bunkers that far underground would require land use consent for excavation, and the bigger bunkers would need resource consents, he says.
America's Business Insider reported that a US billionaire had fled to New Zealand on a plane that landed at Queenstown on March 11. He was said to be one of the "tiger cubs", protégées of US billionaire Julian Robertson of Kauri Cliffs fame.
Graham Wall, the real estate agent who in 2013 sold our most expensive house for $39 million, was said to be assisting him and another American to buy properties here.
"I'm meant to be doing what?" a startled Wall said when contacted by the Herald on Sunday. "I'm supposed to be doing ... how do you spell that name?"
Although he acknowledged he had met one of the billionaires, he denied any recent links but joked it could be a good idea if the two met: "He's already bought, he's been here for years," said Wall, rejecting any notion of sudden arrivals.
Wall does have links to US billionaire Peter Thiel, who has bought Queenstown property, but is reluctant to talk about that.
Lynch adds: "Since the pandemic, things have gone crazy really, not as much for our New Zealand inquiries but since this is a global concern we are picking up sales from places we had never sold a shelter before. I would be happy to show you our factory and walk you through the steps of the building process if you're ever in Texas," he offers.
What of the doubts expressed by author and geographer Bradley Garrett in his new book Bunker: Building for the End Times? Garrett scoffed at Kiwi bunker suggestions, saying there's no evidence of them.
Lynch fires back: "It's okay, he probably claims he is not a prepper either, like the masses. But when this pandemic began they prepped by purchasing toilet paper, LOL."
Late last month, just before lockdown, lines formed outside Gun City: in a somewhat startling phenomenon, New Zealanders were reported to be stocking up on firearms.
"I love it when people tell me they are not preppers – but when a hurricane or fire or anything else comes along they run to the store," Lynch says.
Claims also emerged this week of a billionaire bunker at Alexander Abramov's new Helena Bay waterfront mansion in Northland. A staff member had told a visitor of the vast hideaway where people could live off-the-grid for weeks.
Chris Seel, Helena Bay Holdings' managing director who headed the development, said initial plans for such a facility had indeed been made but they were ditched.
"There was going to be a corridor from the master villa to the safe room but they closed it off and never built the safe room," he said.
"They didn't think it was necessary in New Zealand and that's absolutely right. In the earlier designers, they came up with something that you might do in the middle of Europe."
Seel rejected the claim that the bunker was on the inland side of the H-shaped main building, although he acknowledged it was possible to walk underground beside the swimming pool structure on the seaward site. That was for maintenance and access purposes, he said, having shown the Herald inside there in 2012.
Andrew Patterson, one of New Zealand's most internationally acclaimed architects, has designed safe or panic rooms in Auckland, Fiji and Queenstown.
"We've done a lot of safe rooms, designed if there's anarchy or crime. All of them have been above ground but hidden in the house - a room that doesn't have an obvious door but the door is armoured and made of steel and the walls are 300mm-thick concrete," he said.
Internal concrete walls were rare: they're usually framed wood. It's usually only external walls that were concrete. Bullets can't penetrate thick concrete nor the steel doors, he said.
"It's not uncommon to be asked for this. It's understandable in Fiji with the political climate there. You can't tell these places are too much different to a normal room, except they don't have windows. People use them as gyms, or offices or TV rooms. They're in case of home invasions or armed robberies."
Food was not usually stored there but they might have a toilet, Patterson said. But reminiscent of the Jodie Foster Panic Room movie, cameras enabled residents to watch other areas of the home. Back-up batteries and separate routers guaranteed communication, even if the power was out.
Panic rooms are usually beside bedrooms for fast and easy access.
Although Patterson's award-winning Hills Clubhouse near Arrowtown was bunker-like in its appearance and eponymously named by locals, it was certainly no pandemic shelter, he stressed.
But lockdown has had one plus.
Owner Sir Michael Hill had said how much he loved the new emptiness of that spectacular cantilevered concrete structure which appears to jut from the surrounding landscape.
"He's been saying he likes it even better without people there," Patterson confides light-heartedly.
John Darby, the Queenstown-based developer of luxury golf resorts such as Millbrook and Jack's Point, says all of New Zealand is a global bunker or safe haven. He regards prepper bunkers as fanciful nonsense. "The type of overseas buyer whose interest in New Zealand is solely driven by their personal safety is unlikely to be the sort we should be welcoming."
Another wealthy Queenstown-based developer, Graham Wilkinson of the Generus Group retirement home chain, is equally dubious: "Rumours are likely to come from real estate agents with over-fertile imaginations."
Bunker-style places do exist, many being historic structures. In Auckland, they are beneath Albert Park, around Mt Albert, on North Head and Takaranga at Devonport and the now-shut Stony Batter on Waiheke Island.
Natural lava caves lie beneath Auckland's volcanic field, sometimes accessed from alongside or beneath houses.
Parliament has its own massive panic room in the form of the National Crisis Management Centre under the Beehive. The Government and Civil Defence can bunker down there if the worst happens and New Zealand is hit with a major emergency or crisis.
Outed Kiwi bunker owner Gavin Busch is not shy like Lynch or his clients. In fact, he's proud of what's beneath the garage floor. But billionaire prepper?
"Not quite - just a few short."