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After surviving the Christchurch earthquake of 2011, they made a switch on their lifestyle and love their decision.
World | Christchurch Earthquake '11

How an earthquake inspired one family's drastic life change

Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Monday, March 13, 2017, 7:48 PM - Imagine quitting your job, selling your home, exploring the great outdoors, and falling asleep to an expansive view of the stars, every night. It may sound like musings for a bucket list, but for Amber Mackintosh and Andy Cleverley, it's what real life looks like after a devastating earthquake.

Natural disasters have impacted the homes, businesses, and lives of millions over the past ten years, including the hundreds of thousands who lived in Christchurch, New Zealand on Feb. 22, 2011. Just over six years ago, a magnitude 6.3 quake rocked the city on New Zealand’s South Island, killing 185 people and leaving thousands more injured. For Mackintosh and Cleverley — two survivors — the fatal earthquake fostered a second chance to live life differently.

“It was a 6.3, but it felt much, much stronger than that,” Amber Mackintosh recalls. “And actually the scariest part for us was not the initial earthquake, but the aftershocks.”

Manchester and Gloucester Streets just after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Mackintosh worked a wedding coordinator at the time of the quake, while her partner Cleverley was a hotel manager. The couple was on the 25th floor of a high-rise hotel, Mackintosh says, when the wave of tremors began.

“Because we were up so high, and the building had actually sunken down three metres in one corner, so it was on a total lean,” she tells The Weather Network. “[Y]ou could hear [the aftershocks] coming and you kind of thought, ‘is this going to be the one, maybe, that brings the building down?”

The internal fire escape collapsed soon after, stranding the pair for roughly four hours.

“[W]e were waiting basically to be rescued. But because the rest of the city was completely decimated and so many buildings were down, we kind of didn’t really know if the rescue crews were going to be able to get to us,” Cleverley says.

“Just looking around the city, because we were up so high, you could see so much damage, and you could see that there were rescue teams going on, and you thought, ‘they’re going to prioritize people that are trapped in buildings that have already collapsed, as oppose to the people that are in the building that might collapse,’” Cleverley says.

The pair determined it was time to get themselves out once the second aftershock hit – a magnitude 5.5 temblor.

A team of builders were already at the site repairing the hotel from an earthquake that struck months before, Cleverley recalls.

“The building was already damaged. [The builders] were on the roof fixing some stuff, and after that 5.5 aftershock, basically we realized that we just had to help ourselves, we couldn’t wait any longer,” Cleverley tells The Weather Network. “It was really obvious – particularly, to the guys who were looking around but saying very nice things to our wives about how the building was very strong – we could all tell that it wasn’t.”

The builders managed to use ropes to descend, one level at a time, through the broken stairwells. At each new floor, they’d smash the door into the next floor down.

“Those that wanted to were able to follow them down,” Cleverley recalls. “Not everybody wanted to because it was a risk. We were going into broken stairwells, and if what was left of them did collapse we were falling 25 stories.”

Cleverley and Mackintosh say they waited two to three hours before deciding to take the risk. It then took another hour to get down all 25 floors, slowly making their way through what was left of the stairwell.

Once they reached the 14th floor they smashed a window and climbed out onto the roof of an adjacent building.

‘We have to do life differently.’

For the hours spent trapped in the hotel, Mackintosh and Cleverley began to think about the future in a different way.

“When we were up there we kind of told each other, ‘if we get out, of this we’ve got to do life differently. We can’t stay doing this life that we’re doing now,’” Mackintosh says, adding that by spending a lot of time at work and chasing lofty career goals, she and Cleverley thereby spent less time with each other.

“Everybody that was there was having those moments of ‘if I get out of here this is what I’m changing,’” Cleverley added. “Mine 100% was, ‘I’ve got to stop focusing on work and career it’s just a waste.’ I was sitting there thinking to myself ‘I could die in the next hour, am I happy with what I’m doing with my life?' And I wasn’t.”

In the time that followed Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake, Cleverley developed post-traumatic stress disorder, along with anxiety and depression.

It was around this time that the pair they began considering a trending movement called “Bus Life,” also known as “Van Life,” and the “Tiny House Movement.” The idea is rooted in a few core principles: minimizing material possessions; leaving the constraints of a fixed work life; and downsizing by living in renovated buses, vans, or tiny portable homes.

Cleverley and Mackintosh soon grew their family with the birth of their two children, Jake and Daisy. Their children, the pair say, reignited their will to make a life change.

Amber and Andy with their two children, Daisy and Jake. The family now lives on a hand-crafted mobile home within a bus. Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

“After the earthquake I got pregnant pretty much straight away. So we kind of put the handbrake on [the bus project] until our kids were a bit older,” Mackintosh tells The Weather Network. “But this has been a three-year dream.”

‘Bus Life NZ’

Six years after the Christchurch quake, sitting in a hand-crafted dining space within a renovated 1987 Volvo Turbo Diesel bus, Cleverley and Mackintosh are enjoying a fresh pot of French-press coffee. The bus is now their permanent home, where they live with their two children.

Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

Cleverley had never owned a power tool – yet alone use a tool at all – before building a home within the bus, he tells The Weather Network. While working full-time, he took 12 months to complete the whole project. It wasn’t an expensive feat, the pair agrees, but it was another sort of investment: Every weekend Cleverley spent at least 10 hours a day working on the bus. On weekdays after coming home from his day job, he would work on the bus for an additional four to five hours at night.

“In terms of what it cost, it wasn’t overly expensive,” Cleverley says. “But it cost a lot in terms of time, and sweat, and tears, but we got there in the end.”

Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

It’s Cleverley’s “first Monday of freedom,” he tells The Weather Network in early February, referring to his first Monday without working after resigning from his full-time job.

“I always tell people, I feel like I’m selling the hours of my life to the highest bidder when I go to work,” Cleverley says. “[S]o I wanted to take those hours back and have them to spend the way I want to spend them, with Amber and with my kids, and doing things we want to do, together.” Mackintosh was in her final weeks of employment, and the pair is now on the road full-time.

The bus is camped out in an open field, part of a network of regional parks in Auckland that offer annual use for a fee of roughly $120 CAD. A cliff and view of the water can be seen on one side, while Jake and Daisy, ages 5 and 2, build forts in the grass on the other.

Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

The kids are still adjusting to limited technology, no television, and the lack of on-demand access to devices, Mackintosh and Cleverley tell The Weather Network. But with the change has come a new way to connect.

“[W]e don’t now spend a lot of time doing things like watching television, or spending huge amounts of time on social media,” Cleverley says. “Time the sun goes down – and we’ve got our solar panels and stuff, but you don’t want to be using a lot of power at night – you do tend to kind of talk to each other more, spend more time as a family, and read books. But just the time to do things that you wouldn’t normally do in a house, because you’ve got everything coming at you: Televisions and music and all that sort of stuff. It just actually frees your time and the mind up to do things that you probably wouldn’t normally do.”

The pair stresses that their dream is the product of a calculated and carefully planned process, rather than an impulsive and hasty leap. They’ve started their own YouTube channel, dubbed Bus Life NZ, to encourage and educate others who are considering the switch to bus life. “It’s really hard to get out of the mainstream society of going to work and that sort of stuff,” Cleverley says. “[Y]ou have to sacrifice a lot to get that dream. One thing we try and inspire in people on our YouTube channel is that you don’t have to be the stereotypical type of person that you would think that lives in an RV and on a trailer park – a dirty hippy. We’re just normal people, we used to work in corporate jobs, we have two clean-cut kids, and we’re just living this life and we love it.”

Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

‘Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do’

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) put forth a line that’s now become something of a slogan for deadly tremors: “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.”

The USGS is referring to the high mortality and injury rates related to falling objects and buildings – often a reflection of negligence in the construction process.

After moving to the bus, Mackintosh says she feels more secure in the event of another natural disaster. The main reason? Mobility. “[I]f there is another earthquake or if we’re in something like that again … we can literally just drive our home away from the environment and leave.”

Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

Cleverley adds that their new home is on suspension – an added bonus if a quake were to strike nearby, and an extra security measure they didn’t experience in the past.

“The buildings in Christchurch for example, the ground acceleration was so fast that it just crumbled buildings,” Cleverley explains. “All the power got cut out in the big earthquake. We’re on solar panels, 100% self-sufficient. Our water won’t get cut out, we’ve got 250 litres of fresh drinking water on board at all times. We’re kind of prepared more than what you would be in a home. So I trust this more than I trust a building.”

Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

When asked about whether they miss living in a house, Mackintosh says the feeling hasn’t arisen so far.

“I think there will be times where we do, for sure. And this isn’t 100% perfect all the time, obviously it’s a small space and we’ve got two young kids, and especially if the weather isn’t great, or if it’s cold and raining, then it’s more of a challenge. But so far, I love it. It only takes a quarter of the time to clean.”

And, of course, there are the obvious perks.

“We have a constantly rotating, amazing view out the window for no money,” Cleverley adds. “I think that one day we may want to settle down somewhere, but what that looks like, I don’t know.”

Image Credit: Andy Cleverley/Bus Life NZ.

Cleverley says he likes the idea of having a block of land and putting up yurts or some alternative style of accommodation on it. But for the moment, the long-haul isn’t the centre of their experience. Instead, its now about enjoying the time they’ve been given.

“When you think your life is maybe down to an hour or so you realize what time is, and have you spent it wisely?” Cleverley says. “We got to a point where you realize that you just never know when it’s going to end, why plan for retirement to enjoy your life why not just enjoy it now? For us it was about finding out how to take our time back.”

Watch:  See a virtual tour of Andy & Amber's home on wheels, below. To keep up with their latest adventures, visit Bus Life NZ on YouTube.

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