Cover Story: Cautious, or downright crazy? How one man, woman and unborn child are going underground to escape Y2K

If you think you've heard it all when it comes to controversial Y2K myths, think again.

One Australian couple plans to take to the earth in an extraordinary move to safeguard themselves from what they fear could be a potential breakdown in society. And if that isn't contentious enough, they're taking their as-yet-unborn child with them.

He's not petrified by the likes of Armageddon. He's not even the religious type. Yet, grave concerns surrounding the impact of the year 2000 computer problem has often put the fear of God in him.

One other thing, he hates surprises. Especially the kind that come in the guise of a Y2K time bomb.

In fact, it's Richard Friar's uncanny pursuit for total readiness when the clock strikes midnight and ticks over to the New Year that is making him one of Australia's most talked about inventors.

And while some year 2000 doomsayers' cults are frantic with fears of the Apocalypse, New Age prophecies and ancient predictions, Richard's keeping one step ahead. Or rather, he soon plans to be six foot under. Living and breathing within the confines of his revolutionary "Sploat", that is.

The Sploat (space age float) is Richard's unique way of meeting the Y2K challenge head-on. With the aid of his wife Wendy, Richard has put sea containers to earthly use, by converting them into self-sufficient, powered ‘survival' units that can sit in a backyard or be securely left in an isolated, rural hide-away. In Richard's case he's going under. Exactly where, he's not telling. But within the next few months Richard, 55, and his wife Wendy, 38, will be living subterraneously. What's more bizarre, Wendy is some seven months pregnant and regardless, plans to live with Richard and the newborn infant in the Sploat before the end of the year.

Featuring integrated solar power systems, high-tech insulation, organic waste processing units, and water purification and storage system, the Sploat also comes complete with first aid and equipment storage. Living underground doesn't mean going without either. The Friars will have four-course meals ready, on demand, courtesy of NASA's $12.50 vacuum packs, which have a shelf life of 15 years.

The Friars are so passionate in their cause, they've even sold their house and are currently living in the Sploat -- albeit above ground for the meantime.

Some may call them extremists, even crazy. They call themselves cautious. After all, as Richard puts it: "If the nation cannot guarantee the supply and maintenance of infrastructures such as water (remember Sydney!), gas (remember Melbourne!), power (remember Auckland!) without a Y2K catalyst, then we have to be prepared to look after our own bottom line and survival needs should the poo really hit the fan."

He adds that, should the Y2K computer scenario balloon out, those who act now to bolster their energy and self-sufficiency needs will at least be able to "warm the baby's bottle, cook meals and maintain other essential functions until those in power sort the whole mess out".

Friar's philosophy on Y2K and his fervent concerns for the environment haven't gone unnoticed. Television reports all the way from NBN Newcastle to the Nine Network, the ABC and SBS television have covered his views and preparations. Meanwhile, sound waves across the ABC National and (Sydney's) 2GB radio stations have also carried news of his mission.

Leaving it all behind?

While the Sploat has proved the perfect vehicle for drawing attention to Y2K concerns, the Friars have also been kept occupied running their daytime jobs.

They're the owners of King Poo, a compost company that manufactures, supplies and spreads odourless, seedless manure. In fact, King Poo has been supplying media magnate Kerry Packer's estate with fertilisers over the past several years, while also catering to the needs of Centennial Park, The Equestrian Centre and most of Sydney's highly esteemed gardens.

They both plan to continue running the business from underground via the Sploat's telecommunication setup. However, should occasion require them to "come up for air" to attend to business personally, they will. Via the roof of the Sploat of course.

"It's not such a way out move," he said, adding that the atmosphere is much more stable underground.

"It's a lot warmer in winter and naturally a lot cooler in summer. You could have your Sploat above ground if going under is not for you. But to be six foot under, there would need to be deep-rooted plants for your ‘roof' section to hold the soil together. The roof is natural earth; you have your wind generators and solar panels above ground and your airflow is channelled through from there."

And with sponsorship backing of Telstra -- providing the Sploat with its satellite telecommunication set-up; Ford -- supplying him with the latest 4WD to promote the Sploat and Apple Computer supplying them with laptops, the Friars are taking their message on the road.

In fact, they have spent the last year touring the nation with the mobile unit featuring the sort of technology that, for a full year, kept Don and Margie MacIntyre alive in Antarctica where they lived isolated from the world, in an environment comparable to a butcher's freezer!

His mission is to help ordinary people "win self-sufficiency benefits from the millions spent by government and large corporations on the kind of high-tech development used to build space stations".

Interested? Well you too could have your very own Sploat, according to Friar, for the sum of $45,000 (excluding food).

Stumbling across the bug

When Richard and Wendy first learned of the Y2K computer glitch, he wanted to know more. He even hired technologists who commanded $600 an hour to get the full rundown. Through this came the understanding that the Y2K problem was based on embedded computer chips incapable of recognising the last two digits, 00, within software code as the year 2000. Instead, it would interpret the date as 1900. It was then that Richard realised Y2K was a time bomb just waiting to go off.

"Reaching Y2K compliance for most nations and businesses around the world is now an impossibility -- time has simply run out. Even the best-case scenarios still represent a significant threat to our normal day-to-day lives."

Whether Richard is an authority to spread the urban Y2K myth shouldn't matter either. To his critics, he says:

"I don't have to be totally computer literate to realise those in authority still don't have an answer. I know directors of two of the largest energy companies who are taking insurance in paying a lot of money for solar-based systems because they are not sure about the power-based systems.

"And they should be sure. There's no confidence there. You have strategic companies trying to put in some safe, breakdown responses should something go wrong; some have only just started up in the last year. At least it's a positive sign that things are progressing."

End of the world?

Richard is well familiar with some of the other kind of extremists who point to Y2K as the end of our times. But surely Y2K isn't the beginning of the signs of the times?

"I've heard a lot of people say that Y2K will be the first stage of Armageddon. In fact, some say that it's been prophesised across most religions that the year 2000 is time for squaring up, and that the meek will inherit the earth. And no, I'm not religious. But when you consider some experts are saying that all the degrees are out of whack in the ocean, you can understand why we're taking some insurance by going under ground."

And the Friars' and baby Friar won't be alone. "There are some who have been living underground for up to 15 years based on principles of potential problems."

While the Friars are not fixated on the worst-case scenario, they are adamant that it is time for Australians to prepare. "I hope nothing does happen. However, when you consider Australia imports so much of our food and many computer-based supply chains around the world could be broken, then you must realise it's time to prepare. Now.

"Just take a look at Auckland. It all went haywire and took them a week to work out what the options were. Since that time some of the radio stations over there have put in generator backup systems."

United we stand

"I would say it's a great opportunity to get together," Richard points out, adding: "Crisis is what brings people together. Even if it doesn't end up causing a crisis, it's a good opportunity for people to come together. If people think the world is resting safely, think again."

And if you think your safety is resting secure in the hands of the Australian Federal Government, think again, according to Richard.

"The average Joe hasn't a clue of what to do. Everyone has been waiting for some kind of direction from the Howard Government. I don't think they are handling it well at all. It's fine not to create panic so that it can go away. But it won't. From an educational viewpoint, the Government should be teaching Australians about alternative power, wind, water and solar energy."

As for how every man, woman and child should prepare . . . just in case: "Stock pre-packaged food parcels that will last from two weeks to 15 years. Put aside some candles, medical kits and food. As a best-case scenario, try growing some organically yourself. Keep some spare cash readily available. If you wish, you should also consider setting up a self-contained, emergency bunker made out of sea containers."

And just in case you think that all this is nothing but hyped-up hysteria, take heed, warns Richard.

"This is real. It's happening. And those who don't prepare, will prepare to fail."

Richard Friar's Y2K SURVIVAL TIPS:

Stock up with prepackaged food parcels;

Arrange reserve water supplies;

Store medical supplies;

Consider alternative insulation for warmth;Pull some money out of the bank and stash it under your blanket!

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