The city of Melbourne is perhaps best known for its green parks and beaches, colourful street culture and glittering modern architecture. For many people around the world however, this bustling metropolis is famed for offering another, somewhat more niche attraction: the Melbourne 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 what better place to start, than with a visit to the headquarters of the world's largest and most notorious community of urban explorers?
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 - who 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.
'The Clannies' Award Ceremony in the Chamber, by PTC on deviantart.com
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 - membership being granted by invitation only. On arriving in Australia I sent another email to the Clan's Melbourne chapter, but still to no avail.
By this stage, I was left with only one option... doing it the hard way, and finding these drains for myself. I didn't waste any time. Eager to understand more about the Cave Clan and their subterranean world, I started by seeking out their main meeting place: 'The Chamber'.
The Cave Clan have a tradition, whereby whosoever discovers a 'new' drain has the right to name it.
The ANZAC Drain (or the 'Prahran Main Drain' as it is known by Melbourne Water) 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 drain flows out into the Yarra River, where it forms a wide tunnel opening in the shadow of a historic road bridge. Access is easy, as you step over the drainage grill and pass between two pillars - which are strangely reminiscent of ancient Egyptian architecture.
From here a large, red brick tunnel disappears back beneath the river bank. It should be noted however, that entering drains is highly illegal here; with the official fine cited at $20,000.*
The drain was built to contain a creek known as the 'Hawk's Burn' - so named by the early owners of the Hawksburn Estate, who incorporated the Scottish word 'burn', meaning a stream. The Hawksburn rises in Malvern and flows out towards the Yarra River, its even gradient guiding a course for the stretch of rail track which later followed along its bank.
For many years the Hawksburn was an attractive local feature, and formed a focal point for the streets which sprung up on either side.
Starting in the 1870s however, the burn was gradually forced underground. As the area became increasingly urbanised, the stream proved to be problematic. It was prone to backing up and flooding, and much of the surrounding land was swampy as a result, and difficult to develop.
The decision was made in 1910 to thoroughly drain the area between Malvern and South Yarra; within five years the Main Drain was complete, and the Hawksburn disappeared from sight entirely.**
After the first 200m or so of red brick tunnel, 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."
We had spotted the Chamber up ahead long before we knew what we were 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 Cave Clan officially distances itself from the act of graffiti tagging; which could seem somewhat incongruent, considering the brightly painted walls of the Chamber. However, a strong differentiation is made between decorating bland concrete, and the respect that the Clan hold for the more traditional, brick sections of these drains.
The walls are festooned 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 ranges as broadly as the subject material - with a few of the pieces standing out from the rest as works of considerable artistic merit.
Painted above the lintel at the Chamber's yawning entrance, a sign reads: "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 announces the "Clanies [sic]", while a panel above introduces the (unwitting) sponsors of the event: Commonwealth Bank, Centrelink, Victoria Police, Melbourne Water and Victoria Bitter. A wall in the far corner of the Chamber has been painted with a grid-format guestbook, to be signed by visitors; a common practice at Cave Clan sites.
While this dank and drippy subterranean space may have appeared somewhat dismal by torchlight, it doesn't take much imagination to see how it comes to life for these special occasions.
A bag in one corner is filled with unused tealight candles, and the countless wax residues that mark shelves and lintels around the vault attest to a completely different atmosphere to that which I experienced. I've even heard stories of projectors being dragged down to this drain, to screen films on the walls of the Chamber.
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. I found it to be an effective metaphor for the Cave Clan itself - a secret subset of society, hidden in plain sight.
Beneath this voyeuristic viewport, the ANZAC Drain continues towards the source of the Hawksburn. A shallow passage disappears beneath the lights, where the central gully spills 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 splits 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 travel further along the ANZAC Drain than the main chamber. These roach infested tunnels could only get smaller and less interesting from here, and so I decided against venturing any further.
As we finally made to leave the Chamber, I spotted a memorial high on one wall. Dedicated to the Big Drain Posse, here were painted a series of 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).
While the ANZAC Drain serves as the Cave Clan's preferred meeting place, it is only one very small part of their domain. Beneath Melbourne alone, there are more than 150 storm drains and tunnels - and many of them considerably harder to access than the Chamber. It's easy to see then, how such a city could spawn what was later to become the largest organised group of urban explorers in the world.
More Urban Exploration...
*This figure is taken from Predator's Approach to Draining, an excellent guide written by the founding member of Cave Clan's Sydney chapter.
**The information here comes from Gary Presland's The Place For A Village: How Nature Has Shaped The City Of Melbourne. Reference books such as this are an invaluable guide to discovering and understanding subterranean water systems.