A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
23 February 2013
When I visited Australia it was pure drain tourism. I was heading down under to check out the ANZAC Drain, and other Cave Clan hangouts. The city of Melbourne might be best known for its parks and beaches, colourful street art and glittering modern architecture… but for me, nothing could have been more exciting than the chance to explore Melbourne’s famous labyrinth of drains.
Like many of the big Australian cities, Melbourne is built on top of an intricate system of storm drains designed to redirect or contain the flow of natural streams. The result is a breathtaking series of tunnels and corridors, stairwells, waterfalls and vast subterranean chambers.
I was intent on discovering this hidden world for myself, and I decided to start by looking for the ANZAC Drain: a spacious storm drain in the city centre, which serves as a kind of clubhouse for the local Cave Clan.
The Cave Clan
Founded in 1986 by a trio of Melbourne teenagers, the Cave Clan has since grown to become the world’s largest organisation of urban explorers.
To date the Cave Clan have charted storm drains right across Australia, in addition to natural caves, mines, old fortresses and a wealth of abandoned buildings. While members of the Clan come from all walks of life, the organisation is famously secretive.
I first tried to contact the Cave Clan several months ago, through their official website, but had no response. Next I attempted to sign up for an account on the Cave Clan forum, but my request failed.
It wasn’t until I left Australia that I would hear back from them – but for now at least, it looked like I would be going in solo.
Luckily for me, the ANZAC Drain wasn’t difficult to find; and so, a couple of days after arriving in Australia I donned my headlamp, strapped on a pair of disposable trainers, and waded into the musty darkness of the drain.
It’s a local tradition that whoever discovers a ‘new’ drain has the right to name it. The ANZAC Drain was so named because it was discovered by the Clan on ANZAC Day; the 25th April celebration which recognises the wartime efforts of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
This particular drain was constructed in 1910. It had once been a natural stream, but as the surrounding area became increasingly urbanised this flood-prone tributary proved to be problematic. So, as Melbourne developed the water was forced underground; to be built over and in time forgotten by the majority of the city’s inhabitants.
Stepping inside the drain at its outflow, the red brick tunnel disappears back beneath the river bank. After the first 200m or so, reinforced concrete appears as the drain passes beneath a main road; here the tunnel rumbles from the sound of heavy traffic above. When the concrete isn’t ringing with the echoes of engines, the still of the underground is punctuated by the regular chirping of crickets and constant dripping water. The walls are thick with spiderwebs, while cockroaches scuttle underfoot.
The names of clan members graffitied onto the passage walls give this place a sense of deep significance, and sets the tone as one approaches the hallowed meeting place. There were a few names I recognised… but many more that I didn’t.
A little further along, a painted sign reads: “TO THE CHAMBER. 38 METRES. CC.”
I had spotted the Chamber up ahead long before I knew what I was looking at. Natural light filters in from above, reflecting off the stream which follows a recessed path along the central gully. On either side of the brook, large, elevated platforms provide spacious seating areas.
The walls were covered with images – ranging from personal tags and signatures (including those left by visitors from other chapters of the Cave Clan), through to full scale murals. The standard of artistry ranged as broadly as the subject material – with a few of the pieces standing out from the rest as works of not inconsiderable artistic merit.
Painted above the lintel at the Chamber’s yawning entrance, a sign read: “CAVE CLAN WELCOMES YOU TO THE CHAMBER”.
The Chamber here in the ANZAC Drain serves as the venue for the Cave Clan’s annual awards ceremony: ‘The Clannies’. Held sometime each autumn at the end of the draining season (that’s spring, to anyone north of the equator), the Clannies celebrate the best and the worst of each year’s underground adventures.
There are awards presented for the “Best First Year Explorer”, “Best Drain”, and the dubiously titled, “Goes Furthest Up Drains”. The final award of the night is the “Gold Clannie” – a gold-painted bowling pin, awarded to the Clan member deemed to have put in the best performance of the year.
A large wall painting commemorated the unofficial sponsors of the event: Commonwealth Bank, Centrelink, Victoria Police, Melbourne Water and Victoria Bitter. On another wall, a painted grid provided a floor-to-ceiling guestbook for visitors to sign.
A bag in one corner was filled with unused tealight candles. Dripping wax stains on shelves and lintels around the chamber gave an idea how they might look, in use. Later, I’d even hear stories of projectors being dragged down to this drain, to screen films up on the walls inside.
From time to time the eerie silence was broken by the sound of footsteps from above. The Chamber’s only source of natural light filters through a set of outdoor steps, located somewhere in a public thoroughfare; occasionally a pedestrian would pass up or down the stairs, entirely oblivious to the yawning cavern directly beneath their feet.
Beneath the steps, the ANZAC Drain continued towards the source of the stream. A shallow passage disappeared beneath the lights, where the central gully spilled out from an enclosed tunnel. I walked a little way in to take a look.
Stooping beneath the low concrete ceiling, the stale-smelling water was soon washing up around my knees. The passage split into two narrow pipes, their ends disappearing in darkness.
Judging by the thick cobwebs and relative lack of graffiti, it was clear that Clan members rarely travelled further along the ANZAC Drain than this main chamber. These roach infested tunnels could only get smaller from here, so I decided against venturing any further.
As I finally made to leave the Chamber, I spotted a memorial high on one wall. Dedicated to the Big Drain Posse, were a series of painted tombstones naming deceased members of the Clan. While many of the names were strangers to me, there were a few that caught my eye… such as founder of the Sydney Clan, Michael “Predator” Carlton (1971-2004) and Canadian urban exploration guru, Jeff “Ninjalicious” Chapman (1973-2005).
The ANZAC Drain might host all the best Cave Clan parties, but it is only one very small fraction of their domain. Beneath Melbourne alone, there are more than 150 storm drains – and many of them are considerably harder to access than the Chamber. Just take a look at the Maze Drain, and see for yourself.