Industrial decay in the City of a Hundred Spires.
While many of the posts you’ll read here focus on grandiose monuments or the notorious scenes of global tragedy, I nevertheless remain an ardent fan of the commonplace; in particular, I’m fascinated by infrastructure and ‘accidental landscapes’. It’s a topic I discussed in a little more detail when I infiltrated the rooftops of a Bulgarian shopping centre, not so long ago.
This time, it’s a historic road bridge that I managed to explore in Australia. It has been featured here before, in fact – you might just have spotted this bridge in the background when I wrote about the ANZAC Drain, preferred meeting place of Melbourne’s Cave Clan chapter.
As chance would have it, a few nights after that first report I passed by again… managing to find my way inside the framework of this iconic structure.
Down by the Yarra
The bridge in question crosses both the Yarra River and the Monash Freeway, connecting Melbourne’s southern suburbs to the Central Business District. And, when I came to research the bridge, I found that it actually had quite an interesting history attached.
I found myself wandering along the riverbank late one evening, as I made my way home on foot from a city centre nightclub. It was the end of summer, and the local wildlife was out in force; more than once I spotted the beady eyes of possums watching me from the trees that grow beside the cycle path. Further along, I almost walked headfirst into an intricate web hanging over the footpath. It was the work of an Australian Garden Orb Weaver, a beautiful golden spider with red legs, working diligently through the night.
I had visited the ANZAC Drain first – wading through warm drain water, cockroaches hissing at me in the darkness – to stop by the ‘Chamber’ and relax with a bottle of beer. Once or twice I had run into fellow adventurers down in the drains of Melbourne, but on this occasion I was alone in the brickwork tunnel. I didn’t linger long.
Immediately after leaving the drain, the pathway ducked beneath the first arch of the bridge – and it was here that I spotted an access hatch high up on one wall, hanging open above my head. A few moments later I was pulling myself up to the metal door, and clambering quickly inside the belly of the bridge.
There was a bridge on this site as early as 1857. That first structure was actually purchased from the British government, after it had been used in the Crimean War. Spanning a length of 64 metres, the original bridge featured three-metre-tall trusses on either side – installed to defend against Russian sniper fire.
Designed by architect Harold Desbrowe Annear, the bridge featured stone buttresses and piled foundations, supporting a series of three reinforced concrete arches. At the time of its opening in 1923 all three of these arches crossed water; the river was later redirected in the 1960s to allow the construction of the South Eastern Arterial though, which left the northernmost arch dry.
In time the Monash Freeway took its place, a four lane road which followed the Yarra, passing beneath the bridge’s final arch. To allow the traffic greater headroom, the arches were later modified during the 1990s resulting in an additional 1.2m clearance at either end, and a further 0.6m of height at the crown. A more recent project undertaken in January 2007 saw a full waterproofing of the concrete deck, along with resurfacing following the removal of the former tram tracks.
The conditions inside the bridge were near insufferable. Australian summer humidity combined with the dustiness of long-disused passages, to create the cloying, choking atmosphere through which I climbed. Worse still, the acrid tang of age-old pigeon shit filled the air and left my eyes sore and watering.
A steel mesh gantry ran the length of the bridge, suspended just beneath the road supports. Some sections were easier to pass than others; one minute I’d be stepping gracefully through steel bulkhead doors, only to find myself wriggling through narrow crawlspaces a few moments later. Inside each arch support, the gantry would pass high across a hollow concrete chamber.
Between these I was often lying face down on a mesh platform, able to watch the river drift slowly by beneath. It was unnerving, at times, to find myself suspended so high above the black waters – and only a fine lattice of steel to support me.
By now the hour was late, and the bridge’s residents were fast asleep. I passed pigeons perched above the lintels of doorways, sleeping on pipes and brickwork supports. A few times my torch beam caught one in the face, illuminating their startled little eyes in the darkness. They were still half asleep it seemed, regarding me with a dreamlike distraction. Passing through a bulkhead door close to the bridge’s crown however, I accidentally stubbed my boot against a doorframe – and the resultant clang woke one of the birds from its slumber.
The pigeon crashed about violently in the enclosed space, catching me completely by surprise, its wings flapping with such vigour that I was scared the rest of them would wake. I watched helplessly as the poor, confused thing dive-bombed a stone buttress, before spiralling clumsily to ground. Shining my torch into the deep space beneath my walkway, I was relived to see it bobbing around on the floor – confused but unharmed.
In the next chamber, a long-dead bird splayed out across the gantry had clearly not been so lucky.
By this stage I knew I had to be nearing the end of the bridge. I passed through a large chamber with enough headroom to allow easy movement; the floor beneath the metal walkway angling up and into another arch. Then, stepping through a low hatch at the end I found myself looking down at the freeway.
The floor here was made from wooden boards, covered in a torn and dusty layer of plastic. A few of those boards shifted as I put weight on them – but the metal crossbeams beneath suggested a firm enough foundation. A narrow gantry crossed my path here, running parallel with the road below.
On elbows and knees, I crawled out to the end of the platform. I had switched my torch to a soft red LED light – here in the eaves of the bridge, large arch-shaped windows opened either side above the traffic and I didn’t want to give my location away with a bright beam. Besides, the narrow chamber was lit well enough already by the passing headlights of midnight freighters.
I stayed here for a while, watching the traffic pass by oblivious. I did toy with the idea of climbing from the window, out to a nearby pedestrian stair and down; it would be an easy climb, but highly visible; here above the freeway, a lone climber was as likely to be reported to the Samaritans as the police. I also ran the chance of distracting drivers from the road, and so I resolved to return the way I had come.
Just as I was leaving the bridge passage, back onto the cycle path beside the river, I spotted my first Huntsman Spider: a pretty docile creature, harmless despite its often intimidating size.
I got home that night exhausted, damp from sweat and plastered in powdery dust. My palms were sore from crawling long lengths of metal gantry, and the rough metal had drawn blood in several places. Still, I was satisfied; having enjoyed a rare glimpse at the underbelly of this iconic piece of Victorian civil engineering.
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