Ever since I started Life Done Differently, I had the idea to not only write about my own experiences and journey but to also share the stories of other people who are doing life differently. I’m super excited to say that I’m now finally doing it! Over the last couple of weeks I’ve met with three amazing people and I’ve got more lined up. It’s been amazing to meet these people and hear their stories and I’m excited to share the first one today. Meet Mike Finlayson.
Mike Finlayson: Activist, Politician, and Off-The-Grid Lifestyler
What do you do when living on Auckland’s Queen Street is becoming too busy and noisy for you? While most of us would probably look at relocating to the suburbs, not so Mike Finlayson. He packed up with his partner and young son and moved from the buzzing centre of Auckland to the middle of nowhere in the Far North.
That was 20 years ago. Since then, Mike has been living on his beautiful property surrounded by bush and lush green hills south of Ahipara on the west coast of the Far North. It’s remote living in the truest sense. Entrance to Mike’s property is via a metal farm gate, over a cattle paddock and up a steep gravel road over the hill that seems to form a shield between his land and the rest of the world. There are no powerlines connecting Mike to the grid, you won’t find a TV (by choice more than anything else) and there is no cell phone coverage for miles (but the wifi works fine).
Born and raised in West Auckland by a “slightly religious” family and hardworking parents, trained as a pilot who later turned entrepreneur (among other things, Mike is one of the founders of the world's longest running Hempstore which you can still find on Auckland's K-Road), you would have expected Mike to get married and live the family life in the suburbs of Auckland. But Mike has always been a bit of a rebel and activist at heart, with a strong desire to challenge the status quo and “wake people up”as he puts it. And you can hear the passion in his voice when he talks about his activist days and the different campaigns he’s been involved with over the years.
About 10 minutes into our conversation it was already clear that this is a man who is driven by a desire to make a difference and work for the greater good – something incredibly refreshing at a time where so many of us are mostly motivated by the desire to get ahead and make money.
Even though he was raised in the city, the pull into the wild has always been strong which is probably why Mike found himself touring the country in Ford Escort many years ago, looking for a remote piece of land to buy and to make his base. After many kilometres on the road and countless meetings with real-estate agents across the country, Mike made it to the Far North as the last stop on his trip – only to realise he had saved the best for last. When he talks about the first time he saw the land, you feel like he's talking about the first time he met the love of his life. He says he just knew in his heart that this was the place for him. And when you meet him now, you really can’t picture him living anywhere else – most certainly not on Auckland’s Queen Street.
Initially, Mike used the land for occasional holidays and weekends away, but in 2000 he and his partner decided to leave their busy Auckland life and make the property their home and the place to raise their children. For many years, Mike’s partner was working full-time while he was the stay-at-home dad, looking after their three kids, endeavouring to create a property sustainable in food and energy, all the while getting more and more involved in the local community and environmental initiatives.
Mike’s commitment to his land and the region have only grown stronger over the years. He has long had a keen interest in politics and a passion for social values and community. Living off the grid in such a remote place, not surprisingly, raised his awareness of the need to look after the environment more. All of this led Mike to the decision to take on an even more active role within local politics. Today, he is the Councillor for the Te Hiku constituency of the Northland Regional Council, working on initiatives and issues impacting the communities, environment and economy in the region.
One project that is particularly close to his heart is what Mike calls ‘Environmental Schools’ or ‘Kaitiakitanga (Guardianship) Schools’ where young people, especially from the Maori community, learn the skills to look after the land and the environment while also making a living. Beautiful as the scenery in the Far North might be, the region struggles with a lack of opportunities for young people which results in too many of them living aimless and being bored – which sometimes sends them onto the wrong path in life. At the same time, the region has massive environmental challenges around water pollution as well as weeds and pests killing native wildlife. By initiating programmes that teach young people about their history, the land, the environment and the economy, Mike hopes to give them purpose and a future, and at the same time create new jobs while also protecting and reviving the environment and wildlife.
His life might be remote, but there certainly is no shortage of work and projects to keep Mike busy. From continuing to minimise his carbon footprint, to growing his own vegetables, helping to raise his now (almost) adult children, learning more about optimizing his solar power system and further reducing his already minimalist consumerism, to the many conservation and community projects he is involved with, and of course his work as a Councillor – life might be quiet, but it's never dull. But it’s definitely not the 9-5 lifestyle most of his peers and childhood friends chose for themselves.
When you talk to Mike, you get the feeling he is someone with enormous life experience. Someone whose life certainly isn't always perfect and didn't exactly go as planned, but someone who found fulfilment and meaning in what was available to him. Someone who has come to understand the importance of being true to ourselves.
Mike believes the key to a fulfilling life is to trust our instincts and to find our own path. He says the one piece of advice he wants to give his own children and other young people is to ask questions, to be curious, to seek facts and the truth, to challenge authority and not to do something just because everyone else is doing it. He says, it's important to listen and be open-minded, but if something doesn't sound or feel right, we need to ask questions and challenge authority until we are confident we have all the facts and know the truth to choose the path that’s right for us.
While the grass might actually be greener on Mike’s land in the Far North, living off the grid in such a remote part of the world is not without its challenges. As someone who has always valued close friendships and meaningful conversations around what could be, rather than ‘small talk’, Mike says it can be harder to find those connections in a remote region that is still heavily influenced by old-school thinking and tradition. He says that was one of the adjustments he had to make and he does miss that part of life in Auckland occasionally.
Off-grid living and looking after a property like Mike's also is hard work and a lot of responsibility for one person. He says one thing he would do differently if he could go back in time is to try and find other people or families to move to the remote property with him and his partner to form a community living together, sharing the workload, providing more social interaction and generally supporting each other.
What I learnt from Mike:
Meeting Mike was inspiring and thought-provoking. I had the feeling that we have a lot in common in terms of our values and worldviews, but it also highlighted a significant short-coming of mine; my lack of engagement with politics and local communities. Talking to Mike made me realise that, as much as I love New Zealand, I'm currently not really doing my part to make sure our country continues to thrive and continues to be the amazing place that it is. I’ve been taking it for granted and relied on other people to make sure we support our communities, protect our environment and develop our economy. Sure, I've always been friendly and supportive of others, I don't litter and often pick up rubbish when on walks or at the beach, and I help the economy through my work. But, I have to admit that when it comes to the big ticket items, causes and questions, when it comes to the things that make a real difference in the long-term, I've been mostly passive. Talking to Mike made me realise that's something I want to, and have to change. I have to take responsibility and get more informed and engaged when it comes to politics. New Zealand has given me so much, it’s time I give back more.