After dinner finally ended, and I could get away from the whole crazy scene, I got a lift back to my hotel in Double Bay with Jae Wydeveld, a Korean Australian with wide shoulders and big hands. He tucked his shirt into his jeans and wore loafers, no socks, but I liked him a lot. For a start, he seemed perfectly sane. We sat next to each other at Moorish Blue, a Moroccan restaurant up on a ridge at McMahon's Point overlooking Sydney harbour, and both ordered the Wagyu beef with broad beans, minted potatoes and Moorish tomatoes.
I said, "So why do you want to be part of this whole Doomsday bunker thing?"
He said, "Yield for sale."
I said, "What?"
He said, "Money. I want to make money."
Jae ate his steak while maintaining excellent posture. He was ex-military – he'd been a diver in the Navy – and struck me as a man of discipline who adhered to fixed codes of behaviour. I could sense that some of the behaviour at dinner made him uneasy.
We got into his car and drove over the bridge. Down below, the black water was darker than the night sky. "Tell me," he said. "Who the hell was that guy sitting opposite us? Martin."
I said, "You don't know?"
He said, "I've never met him before. We weren't even introduced. He just sat there, yawning, and playing with his phone all night."
I said, "Well, I gather he's Clarry's bodyguard."
He said, "Why does Clarry need a bodyguard?"
"I'm really not sure," I said after a while.
It was a Monday night. Sydney, the city that sleeps: the lights were off all along the city storefronts as Jae drove towards Double Bay, where he lived in an apartment with his partner Agnetha.
He said, "Did you notice how he kept getting up and banging against the corner of the table?"
I said, "Yeah!"
"What was all that about?"
I said, "The way he drove me from Double Bay to Moorish Blue tonight was pretty bizarre, too. It was like Matt Damon in those Bourne movies – you know, changing lanes at incredible speeds, finding narrow gaps, sudden turns of the wheel. But maybe he's just a really good driver."
Jae laughed. We turned down the hill to Double Bay, that lovely, wealthy enclave on the water. I'd told Jae when we set off from Moorish Blue about the circumstances of my return flight, and that Martin and Clarry insisted on picking me up from the hotel to take me to the airport at 5am. Now, when he pulled into the Intercontinental, Jae said, "Can I give you some advice?"
"Sure," I said.
"Take a taxi to the airport. Don't rely on Clarry and his 'bodyguard'." He raised his index fingers from the wheel, and waggled them to make apostrophes.
Clarry was Ian Clarry, but he never once used his first name, and liked his surname so much that he used it twice on all his emails. I received a great many emails from Clarry Clarry. They began in March, in response to a story I wrote as part of my series this year about preparing for Doomsday. He explained he was based in Sydney as "the strategic lead" of Hardened Structures, a US firm specialising in building fortified homes, bunkers and shelters in the event of emergency, including the tragic and violent end of civilisation as we know it.
I had a quick look at the company's website. It was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen, an eyesore with swathes of pages in reverse type, and strangely very little actual evidence of any of its fortified homes, bunkers and shelters. Clarry stayed in touch. It turned out he was a Kiwi. His father ran cattle on an enormous spread in Hawke's Bay. He went to school at Wanganui Collegiate. He worked in the sharemarket until it crashed in 1987, took over a textile company until it crashed in 2008 (Beyer Textiles in Parnell, its liquidation report calculating deficits of $809,026), lay low for a while with his parents in Taupō, then headed for Sydney and sniffed out an opportunity: "End times could be developed into a commercial business model." He got in touch with Hardened Structures, and offered his services as their man in Australia with connections in New Zealand.
I hadn't been to Sydney in a long time. I suggested that he fly me over for an interview. He said he'd get on to it, and eventually sorted out a $231 ticket – one-way. In the meantime he kept up a steady assault of emails, which were long unreadable cut-and-pastes from the Hardened Structures website.
He also mentioned that I'd be followed from the airport by a surveillance team. I reminded him now and then that a return ticket would be helpful. He said he'd get on to it, but nothing had been sorted out up to the day before my flight to Sydney. It was due to depart at dawn on a Monday. I emailed on the Sunday morning, "Sorry to nag but got me a return flight yet?"
He replied a few hours later, "Will process your return flight/accom shortly . . . My eyes are over it."
He made no further contact. I emailed at 10.30pm, "Got that flight sorted? How hard can it be? Unwilling to travel to Sydney without return ticket."
No reply. I emailed at 11.30pm, "Gidday mate – fyi – if when I wake up in the morning and you ain't issued my return flight ticket, then I won't be coming. It's getting a little amateur to be honest."
I set the alarm for 5.10am, and woke to find three emails. The first was sent at midnight: "Sincere apologies Steve will process your return ticket shortly."
The second was sent at 2.52am: "OK worked out the issue – my team were reluctant to process the latest increased fare cost of $773 but I have just found some still available fares of A$599 on SkyScanner.co.au . . . Put through shortly without fail assuming website runs smoothly."
The third was sent at 4.10am: "Transferring extra money as we speak – the fare keeps jumping up – now $721 – please standby Steve."
The fourth email, sent at 5.09am, was a copy of the ticket. The cost was $781.40.
A return fare from Auckland to Sydney on Air New Zealand is from about $500. Clarry Clarry had gone to extreme and really quite aggravating lengths to pay double double.
"You will laugh," he emailed, "because I decided to simply deposit cash into a debit card for this particular transaction, I had to drive to the local St George bank a few times to keep depositing cash re all the constant price jumps. The buggers! But that's ok/life."
I got ready for my flight, and puzzled over the antics of Clarry driving around Sydney at ungodly hours to make repeated cash deposits at an ATM. But I'd got a detail wrong. Clarry wasn't the driver; that was one of the jobs performed by Martin, his "bodyguard", his "security lead".
The bodyguard was a toned, handsome youth who wore shorts and sneakers, and had the tattoo of a cat on each thigh. His legs meowed when he walked. As for Clarry, 53, he wore an open-necked white shirt and jeans, and had a tanned, smooth face, with sandy hair and a ready smile. He kept up a speedy, non-stop chatter as we got in the car and headed to my hotel in Double Bay.
It was a beautiful day in Sydney. The light was thin and settled softly on the delicate branches and leaves of gum trees. I sat in the back seat, and asked Martin about the strange mark tattooed behind his ear.
"It is an M," he said. "M for Martin."
He spoke in a kind of medley of accents – slightly Australian, more so Scandinavian, and possible traces from his parents, who were Russian and Chilean. Clarry said, "He's a famous DJ in Sweden."
I said, "What kind of music do you play?"
"AOR," Martin said. I'd never heard anyone pronounce the initials of album-oriented rock in such a heavy European accent, and in fact had never even heard anyone say the initials since about 1976, when AOR was shorthand for the smooth, dynamic sounds of Steely Dan, Little River Band, Boston, Heart and the inexplicably popular Foreigner.
He had the 1976 Steely Dan album Aja playing on the car stereo.
"Great album," I said.
"It is in my top five," said Martin.
We drove through the beautiful Sydney morning, a watercolour of blue sky and pink terracotta, and grooved to the Dan until Martin pulled over on Bourke St in Surrey Hills. He got out of the car, and swapped seats with Clarry.
I said, "Is there something wrong?"
Martin held his stomach. "I am trying a new diet," he said.
"I have stopped eating meat."
"How long for?"
"This is day one."
Clarry, too, was concerned with health issues. "I'm into anti-ageing," he said, flashing a hopeful smile. He studied genetics, was fascinated by blood transfusions. "Here," he said, and handed over a squat bottle of Omega-3 fish oil capsules. "I buy them in bulk, half-price," he said.
The traffic from Sydney airport into the city on a Monday morning was very thin. I looked for a surveillance team, but no one was following; there wasn't a car in sight.
We pulled into the Intercontinental in sunny Double Bay.
"Great," I said. "Have you booked a room?"
"Not yet," he said.
Martin drove away, and Clarry led me to an elevator. "I love the rooftop bar," he said. It was 9am. The rooftop bar was deserted. "Closed," he said, wistfully. "Well. Let's go and have a coffee."
"I'd quite like to check in and freshen up," I said.
We sat in the hotel lobby for about an hour and made small talk. The waitress, a young Chinese woman, wore black suspenders over her white shirt. Clarry made a number of quick phone calls, then disappeared to make a long phone call.
I asked at reception whether there was a room reserved in my name.
"Yes," I was told. "And how will you be paying?"
Clarry eventually reappeared. I said, "What's going on? I thought you were sorting out a room."
"Just now on the phone," he said. "That was one of my backers. It's gone through."
We stood at reception. "We'll need your card for incidentals," I was told.
"No, that's all been sorted," said Clarry. He flashed a smile at me: "The minibar is all yours!"
"Actually," said the clerk, "the instructions we just received is that the guest will be paying."
"Oh," said Clarry.
Clarry arranged lunch on the North Shore at Moorish Blue. He's a good friend of the owner, and arranges all his meetings there, free of charge, at the owner's insistence. It's a very good restaurant, done in eggshell blue, with tapestries and leather couches. I ordered Pacific oysters and king prawns wok-fried with harissa, and asked Clarry about the ways Hardened Structures are helping the wealthy to build homes, shelters and bunkers in the event of fire, flood, drought, pandemic, asteroids, social collapse, nuclear fallout or whatever else compels people to want to burrow a hole in the ground and sit there for a long time.
He said the company had been operating since 1999, and built "probably hundreds" of structures. How much did they cost? "$4-5 million is not an unusual figure." What was on the go now? "One in Texas, and another is . . . uh . . . in . . . around . . . uh . . . Kentucky."
Anything in New Zealand? "There are a growing number of inquiries." Any from some of the supposed influx of filthy-rich Americans allegedly buying properties near Queenstown in preparation for Doomsday? "Definitely. I can guarantee they are real clients, real projects." New Zealand citizens were among the clientele, too, he said. Was he talking more than 10 people? "Current build and future build, yes. We've had a significant uptake in the last year . . . It's a bit more than 10 but below 20."
But he had no names, no addresses, no specificities which might have backed up his claims. He explained the clients demanded privacy and didn't want the neighbours or anyone really to know they were building an underground bunker with connecting tunnels because that might arouse, you know, undue interest. Secrecy was paramount.
I could appreciate the need for privacy but it posed difficulties in gaining hard information or indeed establishing whether his claims were real or complete bullshit. Who was Clarry, or for that matter Clarry Clarry? Who pulls an all-nighter to buy a return ticket for an exorbitant price, and who then makes a weird, stumbling performance out of booking a hotel room? And who was Martin, the dreamy bodyguard? "He does security checks," said Clarry.
I asked Martin, "Did you do a security check on me?"
"What did you find?"
"I cannot tell you."
Clarry sat there smiling. He always had a smile on his face; it made him hard to be mean to, but I gave it a shot. I said, "You have a very unusual way of operating."
"We follow the Hardened Structures methodology," he said.
"The way you handled the hotel and the flights – is that a methodology, or is that just f****** crazy?"
"Well, you know, like, uh, I chose to be generous, you know."
"I appreciate that," I said, "but you went about it in a very strange way."
"Yeah. Yep," he said. "I tend to a lot of things, like, not seat of the pants, but last minute."
"That's not methodology. That's just you."
"That's me. If I'm travelling internationally, I'll book the flight the day before."
And then in walked an American in cowboy boots and studs on either side of his nose.
My initial dread was that Dr Bradley Garrett, 37, was some kind of kook in cahoots with Clarry, but the truth was stranger: he was an acclaimed author and respected cultural geographer, a friend of English novelist Will Self, who had landed a sweet number as a research fellow at the University of Sydney – no teaching required, simply there to do as he pleased, and what pleased him was to write a book about worldwide Doomsday movements, in particular Doomsday housing. He has coined a snazzy term for underground bunkers: "The architecture of dread".
He'd hooked up with Clarry now and then – at Moorish Blue, of course - for informal conversations about Hardened Structures. We drove to his office in the school of geosciences at the university for the interview. Clarry sat by and looked at his phone.
Garrett said, "What we are seeing now is the rise of bunker communities. They have a post-state politics, meaning they imagine the state will be destroyed. In fact they hope for it. What they want to do is go into their bunkers with a dozen, two dozen, even a couple of thousand chosen people, and eventually emerge from the bunker to repopulate the planet. The phrase that I keep hearing people use is, 'I want to be in there with like-minded individuals'. They imagine it as a kind of cleansing: you go down there with people who you agree with, and then you emerge, and repopulate with your ideology intact."
He spoke about some of the bunkers he had seen around the world, including one in Tasmania. It had been built by a wealthy individual in the 1970s, and since abandoned. Garrett moved around inside its dark catacomb with a head-torch. He discovered a library full of terrible books. He found thousands of empty plastic containers. "A fascinating monument to Cold War paranoia," he said. "It was spooky, unnerving."
I said, "Unnerving? How so?"
"Well," he said, "there was something . . . I don't know . . . It was a failed project, so there was some kind of lingering . . . I don't know . . . melancholy? I don't know what to call it. Someone had invested so much of their life and energy into this thing which never came to fruition. And now it was just rubble in the middle of a valley."
The architecture of melancholy. I wondered: doesn't that describe the entire Doomsday industry? Everyone building elaborate nests, storing food, water, guns, terrible books, for something that might never, ever happen – is The End ever going to be nigh? Isn't the whole thing just a fun waste of time, a game?
I looked over at Clarry. His shirt had ridden up, and a roll of his hairy stomach was on view.
I said to Brad, "What do you make of this fellow?"
"He's a very interesting character," he said. "I haven't actually seen anything that Hardened Structures have built."
"Are they real?"
"I don't know. I don't know. The business of consulting is taking place, but I haven't actually seen a building, any architecture."
"Do you doubt they exist?"
"I can say that generally over the course of this book, a lot of doubts have emerged about a lot of companies," he said.
Clarry flashed his hopeful smile. He repeated the need for secrecy in his business, that Hardened Structures has to "fly under the radar".
We all met up that night for dinner, inevitably at Moorish Blue. Martin drove there at incredible speeds, blasting out Little River Band at high volume. The guest star at dinner was Jakub Zamrazil, a large, dishevelled Czech who had flown into Sydney to have talks with Clarry about selling a massive underground nuclear shelter in a secret location in the Czech Republic. Jakub clutched a plastic shopping bag. Jae Wydeveld came as a potential investor. Clarry smiled and smiled. Martin banged into the table . . . After Jae dropped me back at Double Bay, I texted Clarry claiming the hotel had insisted on giving me a complimentary ride to the airport in the morning, that he could sleep in.
There was a parcel at reception when I checked out. Good old Clarry Clarry had arrived sometime in the night, and dropped off a present: the bottle of Omega-3 fish oil pills I stowed under the seat in his car.