The Melbourne Underground

On the surface Melbourne is a lively metropolis, but you have to wonder what lurks beneath this city. When typical tourists enter the city of Melbourne, known for its culture, art and spectacular gardens, they are unaware of the fact that like most other large urban cities, there is a vast network of underground tunnels, drains and cavities, twisting and turning in all directions under the busy streets. A different world exists beneath the feet of those who walk the streets of the city and, like the tourists, most Melbournians who live on the surface on the streets are also completely oblivious to this underground drainage system and unused old spaces.  What is not seen is often ignored.  But this extensive network of stormwater drains and cavities capture the essence of cramped, dark and damp interiors that can be explored and discovered by anyone who dares to enter this underground world.

My fascination with the underground system of tunnels and drains beneath Melbourne’s city landscape, developed when my father returned home from his cave diving exploits around Mt Gambier.  His photographs captured slimy, narrow dark tunnels which eventually led to chambers, commonly known as caves decorated with their natural sculptural formations of stalagmites and stalactites. Although scuba diving equipment is not required to explore Melbourne’s network of tunnels and drains, my sense of adventure and curiosity has challenged my ideas of wanting to discover for myself this ‘underbelly’ world of Melbourne’s drainage system.  I have jumped out of an aeroplane and scuba dived with sharks, and I confess to being an adrenaline junkie who is addicted to extreme sports to satisfy my sense of adventure. I wondered if these tunnels and drains that others speak of with such passion, can match the excitement of my past adventures. My only problem was that my leg had recently been  in plaster, and my moonboot restricted me from climbing and crawling. There was also the other real risk of slipping, sliding or falling, which would not only aggravate my leg injury, but other parts of my body as well.  I had no alternative but to rely on the first hand experiences of others who have braved this underground world of damp, dark, eerie places. This led me to contact an organised group who rule the underground.

Apparently, it is not only four legged rodents or ‘twilight’ bats which dwell down below under the urban streets.  To my surprise, ordinary people who live a normal everyday existence and from all walks of life, frequently walk along these underground places (which are funnily enough, just below the feet of others who unwittingly walk on the street surfaces above). These ‘ordinary’ people like to rule this underground.  As urban explorers, they call themselves the Cave Clan who usually make their way through the bowels of the city under the cover of darkness.  The Cave Clan regard themselves as a discovery group dedicated to exploring and uncovering the urban caves, chambers, mines, natural tunnels, unnatural tunnels and storm drains throughout Melbourne. This unusual group was created and founded in 1986 by three teenagers who loved to go exploring. They began exploring the mines  of Diamond Creek, northwest of Melbourne. Soon, they furthered their explorations by venturing into stormwater drains in other areas of Melbourne. Unlike traditional caving groups, the Cave Clan venture into underground spaces (that most people usually avoid at all costs) which are usually man-made. In their early days, the Cave Clan’s numbers swelled as came in contact with other explorers sharing the same passion during their adventures underground.  Others responded to the Clan’s messages scrawled on the walls of the drains. Over the years, this group has discovered and surveyed many places, which are still in use as drains or access tunnels, as well as disused ones. Their main motive is just to discover what is there as long as it located underground.

The clan’s playground territory includes the vast network of tunnels and drains which were primarily designed to carry out the canalization of rainwater, and is completely separate from the sewer network. Many of these stormwater drains in inner Melbourne follow the paths of former creeks. Entrances to a drain usually start at a waterway such as a canal, creek, river, lake or beach. Some drains or surviving original parts of drains were constructed in the 19th century using bluestone, red bricks and concrete, reflecting Melbourne’s hidden underground history. Some tunnels are carved through natural rock and incorporate other materials such as plastic, corrugated steel and sand stone. Geo-technical experts engineered these drains to withstand high velocities of water and to ensure that the effect of flash flooding is minimised. The Cave Clan’s website clearly states that “we do not recommend that you enter drains as it is against the law and dangerous.” Their catch-cry is  ‘When it rains, no drains!’ The Cave Clan emphasis this by stating, “ALWAYS CHECK the weather forecast before exploring the drains”. According to the Cave Clan, they classify ‘a good drain’ as one that changes shape –  mummy (coffin shaped), RCP (round concrete pipe), arch, bowl, mushroom, balloon, square, rectangular, hallway, envelope and many other shaped tunnels. They are attracted to drains which have special features such as stairways, waterfalls, slides, rooms, chambers, splits, junctions, shafts, old graffiti, stations and grilles. “Shrinkers” are known to the Clan as the more “boring” drains as they do nothing but shrink!

By the 1990s, this organization could boast of a post office box address which made the Cave Clan more accessible to others who wanted to join them. Their website now enables the media to get in contact or for people like myself who are just curious to hear their first hand accounts of their adventures in these forbidden dark places beneath our streets.  I made contact with a Clan member, who like his fellow Clansmen, preferred to use his Clan name ‘Ath’ and not reveal his true identity as their underground activities are illegal. Ath was willing to take me on a verbal tour of the ‘ANZAC Drain’ and ‘The Chamber’ based on his many thrilling explorations of these urban underground spaces.  He explained to me, “The three founding members of the Cave Clan decided to name it ANZAC after the public holiday on which they first entered it. I recommend entry at low tide. Its entrance is quite large. The drain is quite impressive though only the first couple of 100m is old.“  Ath also warned me that entrance into the drain – or any drain – is illegal, and that the drain does in fact flood in wet weather, so discretion is well advised. Unlike other tunnels, access to the Clan’s main meeting place, The Chamber, is relatively easy via the Anzac Drain.  However Ath added that you still have to jump over wired fences, crawl through thick shrubbery and walk along muddy areas to the wide concrete drain entrance by the Yarra River. Taking a powerful head torch and wearing sturdy shoes are essential to explore these dark underground passages. The Anzac Drain has a wide arched ceiling on which  colourful, bold inscriptions and endless styles of graffiti decorate this overhead surface.  Officially, the Cave Clan does not actively encourage graffiti or tagging, especially in historically significant areas. However, there are many examples of graffiti by Cave Clan members, who leave details of their explorations on the plain sections of the drains or cavities to mark the location and time.

Half a kilometre into the Anzac Drain, The Chamber is located – a very large underground space where the Clan regularly meet. On entering The Chamber, one’s sense of claustrophobia temporarily fades. Ath noted The Chamber’s with its wide-open space and high ceilings. There is even enough room provided for seating. Seating, I asked? “Yes, as The Chamber generally plays host to the Clannies Award night, which is a annual social event held by the Cave Clan,” Ath replied.  Awards are presented to Cave Clan members for their unique achievements, which include Most Wasted Explorer, Most Hardcore Explore, and the converted Gold Clannie. Ath describes the impressive graffiti backdrops of The Chamber which are changed each year to add to the special occasion of the awards night.  The use of direct torchlight beams highlight various graffiti artworks and forces the viewer to focus only on that particular spot.  Artificial light from these torches create additional shadows and accentuate the formations and interior structure of The Chamber which adds drama to this “forbidden interior”.  My experienced guide Ath claims that most first-time visitors to The Chamber usually stand still in awe of this underground interior as they do not expect it to be so cavernous, especially after wandering through the long narrow drain tunnels to reach this place.  I am not sure it would make them also forget about the stale, damp air in this gloomy atmosphere. However, I image that those uninitiated explorers who dared to venture into this pitch-black world are relieved to see daylight on their return to the ground’s surface.

To the vast majority of us who go about our daily lives completely ignorant of what or who lurks beneath us, the thought of crawling through these rat infested dark tunnels would be unthinkable. My excuse is legitimate! In fact I feel deprived of the opportunity to experience first-hand the confusing maze of tunnels, drains and cavities which exist below the earth’s surface. Believe it or not, I do have aspirations to enter a drain……… just as long as I am participating in an ‘expos’ with a Cave Clan Member who has an intimate knowledge of our destination, and there are no thunderstorms predicted!




the city behind melbourne
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