Mateship Below: Melbourne Drains [Global Undergrounds]

It wasn’t until I visited Melbourne that I first heard the term ‘mateship’. In The Australian Legend (1958), Russel Ward describes this cultural idiom as a concept integral to the Australian character; encapsulating not only friendship, but also loyalty and equality besides [1]. Ward’s own affiliations with the Australian Communist Party might tempt one to liken its usage to that of ‘comrade’; nevertheless, the term is applied broadly in defining the spirit of post-colonial Australia.

In an examination of the notorious Ned Kelly gang, for instance, Philip Butterss has highlighted the characteristics of ‘anti-authoritarianism, egalitarianism and mateship’ as key factors in the invocation of Australia’s national identity; but the term ‘mateship’ could be used just as easily to define the culture of those contemporary outlaws who dedicate themselves to exploring the extensive networks of storm drains beneath Australia [2].

These drains have their roots in nineteenth-century city planning. The Victoria Gold Rush hit its peak during the 1880s, by which point Melbourne was ranked the richest city in the world and second largest in the British Empire, after London [3]. London itself was undergoing a vast overhaul at the time, as the Metropolitan Board of Works – under its chief engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette – constructed more than 1,200 miles of tunnels that were revolutionising the city’s sewers. Australia’s architects took their cue from British urban engineering and set about creating expansive networks of storm water drains beneath their fledgling cities.

In the case of Melbourne – a city built on the floodplains of the River Yarra, and whose early expansion was blocked by broad swathes of marshland – these drainage systems were instrumental in the future growth of the metropolis. Between 1870 and 1910, almost all of the region’s natural streams were redirected into canals, which in time were built over as new developments sprawled [4]. Today, there exist almost 1000 miles of drainage tunnels beneath Melbourne alone; urban caves which spill at regular intervals along the banks of the Yarra, posing what must be an irresistible lure to youngsters with a taste for adventure. On 26th January 1986 – Australia Day – three such youngsters, Woody, Dougo and Sloth, teamed up to form an exploration club known as the ‘Cave Clan’.

One of the Cave Clan’s early discoveries was the brick-lined tomb of the Hawk’s Burn, a former tributary to the River Yarra. Amongst Australian drainers, the culture is one of appropriation; they had stumbled across the underground stream on ANZAC Day in 1987 – the anniversary of the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli – and so it was rechristened the ‘ANZAC Drain’.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Cave Clan would document more than 100 drain systems across the city, with the rule that whoever first ‘discovered’ a drain would earn the right to name it. Thus one finds titles like ‘Bob’s Evil Manhole’, ‘3 Days Drain’, ‘Snake Pit’ and ‘Dougo’s Dunny’. The group’s maps became a phenomenological record not only of geography, but incorporating personalities and experiences into a rapidly developing contemporary folklore of the undercity.

The concept of mateship echoes throughout the Melbourne drains, many of which have been repurposed as social hangouts. Old sofas laboriously dragged beneath the surface of the city, empty beer bottles, guestbooks painted onto walls; even the lines of graffiti that advise of easy exit points or potential dangers up ahead: these are the ephemera of mateship. In the ANZAC Drain, one large space has been re-imagined as a clubhouse. Referred to as ‘The Chamber’, today’s Cave Clan gather here for annual festivities and award ceremonies, a celebration of the achievements of the city’s drain explorers. More than that though, it has become a shrine. On one wall, the names of the fallen are recorded: Michael ‘Predator’ Carlton for example, founder of the Sydney offshoot of the Cave Clan. Another mention goes to Jeff Chapman, aka ‘Ninjalicious’: a renowned Canadian explorer and founder of the pioneering urban exploration zine Infiltration [5].

For deceased explorers though, there can be no more fitting memorialisation than their own hand-drawn marks on the tunnel walls. Predator’s graffitied tags, which appear far and wide beneath the streets of Melbourne, now form a part of the local legend; they sit alongside those of the engineer Alf Sadlier of the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, who, during reconstruction work in the 1940s and 50s, would sign his name in tar paint on the drain walls.

In this way Melbourne’s drains have evolved into something of a cultural scrapbook, the collected thoughts and experiences of countless strangers united by their common curiosity. In ‘Tenth Drain’, graffiti scrawled onto one section of pipe neatly summarises this culture of anti-authoritarianism, egalitarianism and mateship:

‘Hello to adventurers who come to places like this’.


[1] Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: 1958).
[2] Philip Butterss, ‘From Ned Kelly to Queens in the Desert’, in Social Justice: Politics, Technology and Culture for a Better World, ed. Susan Magarey (Kent Town, 1998).
[3] Robert B. Cervero, The Transit Metropolis: A Global Inquiry, (Chicago: 1998).
[4] Gary Presland, The Place for a Village: How Nature Has Shaped the City of Melbourne (Museum, 2009).
[5] See ‘Infiltration’,

Mateship Below

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