This summer we look back at some of the best stories of the year. This one, where Steve Braunias went to Queenstown to see Kim Dotcom, who is convinced the world is coming to an end, was first published in July.
This is the way the world ends: in a candy store. When I asked Kim Dotcom for his address in Queenstown so I could sit with him a while and interview him about his views on how to survive the coming apocalypse, he replied that he would send someone to collect me on a Thursday at 4pm at the Remarkable Sweet Shop on the main street in nearby Arrowtown. I got there early. It was a cold, fresh winter's day, with black ice and low snow, and birds shivered in the trees above the pretty Arrow River. Tourists filled the candy store. I stood there lurking among the trays of Aniseed Twists and Cola Fizzballs, and felt perfectly foolish. I stepped onto the pavement. A big black Mercedes pulled up. It was four o'clock on the dot.
The rendezvous had come about because Dotcom got in touch after reading one of my Herald stories on preparing for Doomsday. "The end of the world as we know it is coming," he wrote. "We are close, I think." I think so, too, and do what I can to lay down provisions and supplies to protect my family when the world spirals towards hell in a fiery and terrifying hat.
The story Dotcom had read was based on a remarkable study commissioned by the government in 1987. It looked at ways New Zealand would – and wouldn't – survive a nuclear war. He asked for a copy. I got a PDF made of the 342-page report and sent it his way in exchange for an interview. And so to the rendezvous in a sweet shop, where I took the opportunity to lay down a few more provisions for Doomsday – who wouldn't be grateful to suck on a tin of Pac-Man Ghost Sours as eternal night closes in?
The drive to Chez Dotcom took about 10 minutes. It was at the end of a long, straight road on a tussock flat. The mountains of Coronet Peak loomed to the north, the mountains of the Remarkables loomed to the south. There was a lot of looming going on and there was more to come as we drew up to the house on a small rise: Kim Dotcom suddenly appeared, vast, mountainous, loomsome.
It was immediately apparent that there was even more of him than the last time we met. That was in 2016, in an Auckland court, during his extradition hearing. A special leather chair was brought into the courtroom to support Dotcom's bulk during the weeks that his legal team argued against the full, awesome might of the United States of America law enforcement complex, which seeks to ship Dotcom to American soil so he can rot in an American jail. Dotcom, as the former head of file-sharing pirates Mega, is accused of copyright infringement, racketeering, money laundering, and fraud. He waited over two years for the Court of Appeal to decide his fate. Like a raven of doom, I flew into Queenstown on the very morning that the appeal court finally made its ruling.
"Sorry," I said.
"Yeah," he said.
His lawyers instructed him not to talk about the court's decision to uphold his extradition to the US, or his intent to take his appeal to the Supreme Court. "But I'm happy," he said, showing me inside his gracious home, "to talk about end of days."
We sat at a large round table and talked for over two hours. As ever, he wore black everything - boots, pants, zip-up top, scarf, with five black hand towels at his side. He's long been crazy about little plastic bottles of Fiji mineral water and crates of the stuff have followed him to Queenstown, where he moved about six months ago. The new house is neither as large or as preposterous as the Coatesville mansion, made famous by the security-camera film of his dawn raid on January 19, 2012, when attack dogs and 72 cops armed with assault rifles arrived to begin the process of ruining his life.
He has spent the past six years in limbo, fighting against extradition to the US, and meanwhile trapped in New Zealand. "I am actually here for 10 years," he said. "My first visit to New Zealand was 10 years ago. I was looking for a home where I could raise a family that I had planned but I didn't have, and I was thinking, 'What is the best place in the world to allow my kids to survive, and comfortably live, after World War Three?'
"New Zealand was going to be a bolthole, a bunker. I never had a plan to live here permanently until we are close to the event, just like many other entrepreneurs who are setting themselves up here. I may have accelerated it, because I told my friends in the Silicon Valley, and I'm very well-connected."
Everything about Dotcom is on the grand scale – his build, his wealth, his boasts ("I'm very well-connected"), his rise and fall. He estimates his legal bill is $40 million. He argues his extradition is a political conspiracy led by Barack Obama and the former US President's servile caddy, John Key. "My main base was in Hong Kong," he said, continuing his narrative of how he came to New Zealand. "My plan was to remain there. I had a beautiful set-up in Hong Kong. You know? A hundred square metres penthouse on top of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, with the full service of a five-star hotel."
I said, "But the Grand Hyatt has a grand disadvantage."
He said, mystified at the prospect of a flaw, "What?"
I said, "You wouldn't want to be stuck in a penthouse at the top of a hotel tower when it's end days."
"That's right," he said. "That's why I was looking for a place. And I thought that if I had somewhere in the South Island, shielded by mountain ranges on both sides, I would install a really sophisticated solar power plant. I was thinking if I had something like that, you could survive. New Zealand strategically is the safest spot in the world. It has everything that is required to sit it out and start again."
I said, "Do you really think the planet is doomed?"
"Eventually, 100 per cent," he said. "No doubt about it ... I don't know if you know my background. I used to be a hacker. I have a very analytical mind; I love statistics, I love numbers. I programme these analytic tools, and just punch in some numbers and see what happens in the simulation, and in my mind it's pretty clear that humanity is heading to a large mass casualty event simply because of the increase in population and the pressures on resources, and the political pressure that causes."
He gave a lengthy disquisition on international politics, and spoke without pause, until he said, "You have the situation in Syria continuing to ... what's the word ... uh ... sorry, my English is not that good ..."
We sat in silence. The afternoon light fell grey and soft outside the window. There was a very big framed colour photograph leaning against the wall; it showed Dotcom standing on the shore at Cape Kidnappers in bright sunshine. It was obviously taken many years ago. He not only looked much smaller - almost petite compared to the large German fellow right now concentrating hard on locating the right English word - he looked much happier, not a sign of woe or distress on his smooth millionaire's face.
"Escalates!", he said, triumphantly. "The situation in Syria will continue to escalate." He spoke of the political situation in the Middle East, and Russia, and China, and said: "There are so many different scenarios how we can get into World War III, it's frightening. I think World War III is the most likely scenario that is going to create the biggest mass casualty in human history, other than the comet that might potentially strike."
Such annihilation, such waste; and then he said, almost singing, "Hi, baby!"
His wife Liz came into the room. They kissed, and he asked her, "How'd it go? Did you think you found some good stuff?"
"I think so," she said, and he gave her a high-five.
All preppers – people who are preparing for end days, shoring up their defences, making cogent or crazy plans to survive – are preoccupied with keeping their loved ones from harm. Dotcom has five children. He shares custody with their mother, his ex-wife Mona. There was a stack of watercolour paintings on the far side of the table; he spoke of the kids with a fierce devotion.
I said, "How will you keep them safe?"
Long before the raid, he picked out the ideal spot: a lodge on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. "I identified that as the spot where I wanted to set up my family," he said. "But my assets were seized, and I'm still fighting my legal battles, so unfortunately I have been distracted from building the infrastructure and having things in place that I would have had by now.
"I can tell you exactly what I would have done. I'd have created a large underground area under the lodge – it's big enough to have maybe even two levels under the ground, and the good thing is you are surrounded by solid rock. You basically create a shelter surrounded by solid rock walls.
"After a nuclear war, there will be a time of fall-out, of stuff you don't want to be exposed to much – yeah, nuclear winter. You can go up and do a few things but you want to have the right suit, and you want to do it no more than an hour, and come back and shower yourself off and be in a safe, radiation-free environment. You know? That's the ideal scenario."
It didn't sound all that ideal – stuck underground, limited time only above ground, life as we know it made extinct by an airborne toxic event. But his vision of the future got much, much worse. He took things to a dark place.
I said, "You'd need a supply of water."
He said, "I'd have a facility that allows you to recycle any kind of fluid waste into drinking water again. These technologies are quite advanced. They basically turn your own pooh and your own pee back into drinking water."
With an answer like that, I wasn't going to ask about food. I quizzed him about power, and he said the plan was to have a network of solar panels and high-storage batteries that would supply enough energy to sustain a compound of 30-40 people.
"I'd have have built all that now," he said.
I said, "Well, what can you do now?"
"Well," he said, "not much." This was the first time in our interview that he said something uncertain, that didn't deal with impressive numbers and grand scales. The moment passed. "I am of course still an entrepreneur," he said. "I built Mega, raised over $40 million for that business, over $20 million went to a family trust, and even after the raid, when they destroyed my entire business, I was still able to make a lot of money for my family. And I have created a new business which is about to launch."
He plans to venture into the brave new world of cryptocurrency. Without irony or shame, he said the name of his new currency will be called KimCoin. "I believe it's going to be big, and that it will allow my family to have assets again that might be some day be utilised for this idea."
In the meantime, his underground bunker is a dream on hold. Life goes on, in limbo, in a kind of void.
All preppers, sooner or later, talk about the right to bear arms. The post-nuclear landscape is always lawless, a state of anarchy, the Wild West. I asked Dotcom what kind of security he had in mind for his fortress of the future.
"I talked about 30-40 people earlier, right. I am going to surround myself with ... with friends," he said, but his pause made him sound like a man who wasn't entirely sure about the concept of friendship. "Some of them will be employees. Some of them will be helping out the family...I have a lot of people interested in coming to join me. I've been talking about this for a long time, I've dreamed about it, and there are many people who agree with me.
"You read that report," he said, meaning the 1987 government document about New Zealand after nuclear war. "I think you know that what I'm talking about isn't crazy. I think it's good to be prepared. If I have the ability to create enough wealth to create something like that, great, but I hope I will never have to use it. I hope it will just sit there idle. That would be the best outcome. Don't think that because I'm a pessimist when it comes to the future of the world, that I'm not hoping I am completely wrong."
I didn't think what he was talking about was crazy. I regard Dotcom as a shrewd operator with an interesting mind. But I still didn't know what he meant by security. I said, "If a major event did come to pass, there would be civil unrest, traditional forms of law and order would be threatened - this is why I am asking you about security. You have to protect yourself, right?"
He said, "You want to surround yourself of course with people and guns, with people who know how to fight, who know how to defend, and that's a necessity in a post-World War III environment."
So there it was: an armed militia, Dotcom's own private army.
"Everyone needs to understand there might be a requirement to defend yourself against attacks," he said. That included Peter Thiel and other millionaires who are supposedly buying up remote fortresses in the South Island. Dotcom scorned them as naïve. "Because it's just not enough to have a nice piece of land. You're a fool if you think your beautiful property isn't one of the first that's going to be taken over by a stronger group.
"If you think you can arrive here in your private jet with four or five people, if you don't have the right people around you, the defence mechanisms, you are just going to be rolled over. You know? I don't think any of them have really spent time thinking what it actually means to survive in a post-World War III environment.
"People are going to be looking for food, people are going to kill for food. They will not be knocking on the door and asking politely for food, they will shoot you in the head and take it. That's the reality.
"You look at Auckland, or other big cities - you will have warlords, you will have gangs forming, you will see the Hells Angels all of a sudden being the most powerful force in New Zealand, or the Mongrel Mob will take over ... It will be complete chaos. How do you think it's going to be in a world where police and everything that provides law and order has completely collapsed?"
But there would still be a form of law and order in a post-nuclear society: martial law, and Dotcom's orders, in his lodge on the lake. I asked him, "What's your position in this underground bunker?"
He said, "What do you mean, my position?"
I asked, "Are you the friendly local despot at the head of it?"
He said, "That's a good question. I would say ... the PC thing to say would be, you know, 'We'll all work together.' But I don't think that's realistic. I think in an environment like that, leadership qualities will become more important than ever, and you need people that can think strategically, that can problem-solve instantly, you can't have long debates over important decisions that need to be made in a heartbeat. There has to be a leader. I would say if I am building that community, and I'm providing for everybody in that community, I should at least have a direction. You know? I should be able to decide what's best for the community to sustain it. So I think its fair to say in that community," he said, merrily reaching an inevitable conclusion, "I would call the shots."
King Kim, ruler of a future society with its armed guard and its regime of having to drink pooh. God almighty. It sounded so supremely joyless. But then Dotcom chuckled, and said, "But here's the thing. This would probably be the best opportunity for me to get some serious weight loss underway. Unfortunately, when you live in an environment like me, dealing with a case like this, and making sure my family can survive this process, it's not easy to shed weight. I've actually gained quite a bit since this happened six and a half years ago. The stress, you know?"
I stole a glimpse of the younger Dotcom in the photograph at Cape Kidnappers. It looked like a different person.
"Well," I said. "Anyway. You need to make haste."
He said, "What is haste?"
"You need to hurry," I explained. "You need to make money from KimCoin, you need to prepare for the end of the world. When's it going to happen, do you think?"
He said, "I can't predict. But when you look at world affairs, and where things are heading, it could be anywhere between now and the next 20, maybe 30 years. Not much more than that."
Night had fallen. I could make out illuminated ski-lifts going up and down the glowing white slopes of Coronet Peak. It was very beautiful. Dotcom didn't turn to look at the view; he was contemplating something else. He said, "If I ever do get extradited, I'll probably die in a US jail, and the last thing I'll hear is going to be on the news how it's all blowing up now. You know?"
The ski-lifts shone like lanterns.
Dotcom's Doomsday bunker
• Ideal spot: underneath a lodge on the shores of Lake Wakatipu.
• Maybe two levels, surrounded by solid rock.
• Enough room for 30-40 people (his wife, five children, employees and friends)
• Dotcom would be the leader.
• The currency would be Kimcoin, a type of cryptocurrency.
• Human waste would be turned into drinking water.
• Power would come from solar panels and high-storage batteries.
• People would be armed with guns and know how to fight.