Why can't you afford a home?

The Tunnel Club

There's a hidden world under the streets of Sydney. Sam Langford talks to the people who've been there.

Artwork by Gillian Kayrooz and Ann Ding Artwork by Gillian Kayrooz and Ann Ding

It was early 2013 or 2014, and Lucas* was in Sydney to see his friend Dick*. Dick was, by all accounts, a bit of a loose unit – the kind of guy who could talk his way out of anything, and often needed to. He had a knack for hearing about interesting places to “visit” (a polite word for “trespass”). He wasn’t much worried about the law.

Dick had a new place in mind. A secret underground railway platform running alongside St. James Station, as though a parallel universe had been constructed hastily, without time to add the trains or the people.

He’d heard about it online, where legends abounded. The tunnel supposedly terminated in a lake, where an albino eel occasionally appeared like a cretaceous apparition. The walls bore the name of dead soldiers beside satanic graffiti and the calling cards of secret societies. A strange angular bell, if struck, was rumoured to create a sound no internet forum user could adequately describe.

There are two ways into a train station without trains. The first requires keys, and is an innocuous door on the platforms at St. James, accessible to security and station staff. The second requires impeccable timing: a gate in the wall of a live train tunnel, accessible by running down a narrow ledge beside the tracks in the three-minute gap between trains. It is, understandably, dangerous – the law is unforgiving these days, as are the metal fronts of speeding trains.

“We should go tonight,” said Dick.

So they did.

tunnel club 2

Rewind to January 1986, where in the lazy expanse of teenage summer, three young Melburnians started calling themselves the Cave Clan. Their definition of ‘cave’ was loose: mines, tunnels and stormwater drains all qualified. The mission was a project of amateur speleology[1] – a jaunt into the unknown spaces of Melbourne’s artificial underground.

Trespass and graffiti have long been bedfellows, and this project was no exception – the Cave Clan tagged the walls of the tunnels they found, inviting any underground passers-by to join. In 1990, they set up a PO box, and started adding the address to the stickers they put up in tunnels. A year later, after a visit to some drains in Sydney, they received a letter.

“I’ve written to you with a certain amount of scepticism,” it read, “but what the hell, it’s only 43c. Yeah, send me some info on the Cave Clan.” The letter was signed “Predator”; the alias of the then-19-year-old who would become the founding member of the Cave Clan’s Sydney branch.

The Cave Clan now has branches in every Australian state, in varying degrees of health. As their website says of Western Australia: “the main problem with Perth is that it is quite sandy which means that much of the water simply soaks into the ground”. In other words: fewer drains.

The spread of the internet has made the Clan slightly easier to contact, but they remain a secretive and (literally) underground society[2]. Aspiring members can get in touch via email to arrange a meetup, but it takes a lengthy (sometimes six month) initiation period to become an official member. The initiation involves a number of guided “expos” to various underground spaces, where members are assessed on their ability to uphold the values and ethos of the Clan.

Among other things, this means being respectful of other members, refraining from damaging or writing graffiti on historic or undisturbed sites, and not revealing the locations of drain entries to the general public (lest less careful explorers die, trash the joint or attract higher security). The Clan emphasise that they’re there to appreciate, not to destroy. In Predator’s words, “We like the varying architecture. We like the solitude. We like the timelessness of a century-old tunnel, the darkness yawning before us, saying ‘Come, you know not what I hide within me’”.

In the case of the St. James tunnels, the more apt question is what hasn’t been hidden within them. The tunnels were built in the early 1920s in a kind of open abdominal surgery on Hyde Park; all the earth and innards scooped out and dumped elsewhere while concrete tunnels were constructed in the pit. In a remarkable and never-to-be-repeated moment of NSW government foresight[3], four tunnels rather than the strictly necessary two were built while the ground was open, in anticipation of the construction of additional railway lines in the future.

For a battery of reasons (the Depression, planning disagreements), those lines never eventuated, leaving the stubs of unused tunnels attached to St. James. Thus began a long and bizarre history of the tunnels’ use for anything but their intended purpose.

A number of sources allege that from 1933-1934, one end of the tunnel housed an experimental mushroom farm, though this is difficult to confirm. In any case, World War Two put an end to any fungicultural dabbling, and saw the tunnels converted into an air raid shelter at one end, and connected to an operations bunker at the other where members of the Women’s Auxilliary Australian Air Force4 tracked suspicious air traffic and other important wartime data in six-hour shifts calculated to minimise contact with the poor air quality in the tunnel.

In Redfern, in an unassuming two-story office, the Australian Railway Historical Society (ARHS) keeps reams of files on this history. Upstairs is the bookshop, filled with intensely specialised tomes; passion projects run amok. Downstairs is a kind of office-cum-internet-café wallpapered with old train tickets and historic maps, where rail enthusiasts congregate to research and reminisce.[5] The sign above the counter is done up like the old wooden station signs, black wooden lettering against white.

John Oakes, a former high school teacher and current ARHS member, has written a book on Sydney’s forgotten railways. From the 1990s until around 2005, he helped run tours of the St. James tunnels, once a month on a weekend. The major appeal for him was the atmosphere, unlike anywhere else. “The tree roots coming down from Hyde Park made it rather eerie. And the old graffiti from the war, where soldiers would write their name, rank and serial number on the wall, and in some cases ask for letters – but only from girls.”

John is familiar with the Cave Clan graffiti too – it spurred him to look the Clan up online. He admires their photos – “they’ve got some terrific shots of the tunnels” – but believes they must be cautious. “They’re probably being watched,” he laughed. “They’re probably on ASIO’s list of suspects. Perhaps they’ve got spies in their midst, finding out what they’re up to.”

Soldiers' graffiti, with some Cave Clan graffiti at the bottom right. Photo courtesy of John Oakes, Australian Railway Historical Society.

Soldiers’ graffiti, with some Cave Clan graffiti at the bottom right. Photo courtesy of John Oakes, Australian Railway Historical Society.

The tunnel tours ceased shortly after the railway bombings in London and Madrid in 2004-2005, as Sydney tightened security in response. The bizarre history of the tunnels flowed on, though. In 2007, mid-drought, NSW Premier Morris Iemma announced a plan to use the underground lake in a flooded end of the tunnel to store and recycle stormwater during the water crisis.

A year later, he announced further plans to incorporate the tunnels into the North West Metro rail project. Gladys Berejiklian, then an opposition minister, misunderstood that the two plans referred to the two separate tunnels at each end of the station, and blasted the Premier in the media. “It takes a certain level of incompetence to double-book an underground rail tunnel, but that is exactly what Morris Iemma has done”, she told reporters at the time, questioning whether the Premier expected his metro trains would run underwater.

Neither government plan came to fruition, though Iemma’s water crisis scheme did inspire art. 2011 indie horror film The Tunnel was filmed in the eponymous tunnel, and centred on a group of journalists investigating why the government mysteriously abandoned the plan. Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Tunnel is that it’s available for free online – the filmmakers released the film on bittorent, appealing to viewers to purchase individual frames to cover filming costs.

The film did well enough for a sequel to be announced in 2012. The title, The Tunnel: Dead End, says it all.

In the late 90s, against a sonic tapestry of dial up internet’s beeps and gurgles, the Sydney chapter of a hacker collective called 2600 began to gain prominence. The group met fortnightly, drawing 30-40 people whose idea of a good Friday night was discussing developments in computer security.

Members of 2600 spent a fair amount of time on IRC (Internet Relay Chat). So did members of the Cave Clan, a number of whom had a background in IT. According to KJ, a member of 2600 at the time, the two groups connected and started going out for beers.

Beers soon escalated to urbex (urban exploration). “Being pretty risk averse, we’d generally take it relatively easy,” KJ says. The Cave Clan took them on expos to what they considered more beginner-friendly locations – Malabar Bunkers, a drain nicknamed “Fortress” in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, and, as KJ puts it, “Blowjob 2000, aka BJ2K…or as you know them, one end of the St. James rail tunnels.”

They generally took the following route into the tunnels: jump a fence near the Domain, then wait for a train to pass, hiding so they couldn’t be seen from the guard’s carriage “As soon as the guard’s door had gone past, you got up and ran down the tunnel after it, making sure that you didn’t go so fast that the guard would see you as the train turned the bend. When you ran down the tunnel it was always pretty nerve wracking, as it’s a single train tunnel only, and there was nowhere that you could go if another train came through unexpectedly.”

Eventually there would be an archway in the wall of the tunnel – get through this, and you were in the abandoned section. The name BJ2K came from a bar above that archway. “When a train was coming, you would jump up and hold onto the bar, and then when the train came past, only a meter or so from your dangling body, the cushion of air it was pushing would blow you backwards,” KJ says. “It was pretty wild”.

Over the years, as urbex became more mainstream, the hackers’ relationship with the Cave Clan began to break down. This may have been to protect locations – Cave Clan has always distanced itself from those who trash or draw attention to sites. Then in 2008, two people drowned in a flash flood at Fortress. They weren’t Clan members, but the incident generated a lot of negative media attention. The deputy state coroner Hugh Dillon recommended that the police investigate the Cave Clan’s “shadowy characters”.

After that, says KJ, the Cave Clan went underground.

Sydney's Nessie: St. James' Eric the eel. Photo courtesy of John Oakes, Australian Railway Historical Society.

Sydney’s Nessie: St. James’ Eric the eel. Photo courtesy of John Oakes, Australian Railway Historical Society.

The tabloid press, in their annual scare stories on kids up to no good in drains, routinely ignore people like Predator. The Cave Clan has long tried to resist being typecast as little more than vandals and kids with a death wish; Predator, the Sydney branch founder, was an especial case study in complexity. “Amongst other things,” says an obituary on the Indymedia.org forums, “[he] was also a dumpster diver, anarcho syndicalist, molecular biologist, squatter, and well known good guy.”

Predator was a member of the CAT collective, also known as cat@lyst – a late-90s group of hackers and IT geeks trying to build a collectively owned and censorship-averse internet service provider. Their website proudly proclaimed their aim: “low tech grass roots net access for real people. Pedestrians, public transport and pushbikes on the information super hypeway [sic]”. In a 2003 blog post, Predator expressed prescient disgust for the direction the ‘net was taking. “[It’s] a corporately controlled wasteland these days…tolls at all the interesting offramps. ”

Predator was a prolific writer. He wrote for the University of Sydney Union Recorder, the precursor to today’s Pulp and yesteryear’s BULL magazine. On his blog, a collection of .txt files uploaded to a bare-bones homepage, he wrote on everything from molecular genetics to police corruption to a meticulous and wrenching account of the seven or so months from his cancer diagnosis to his death in 2004, aged 33. Everything he wrote was detailed, a little dark, tinged with a characteristic dry wit and wry anarchist sentiment. Even his cancer didn’t escape anticapitalist analysis – he wrote of his tumour as “several billion cells, all of whom took time to execute their capitalist genetic imperative of ‘go forth and uncontrollably exponentiate’”.

His best-known piece of writing is on urban exploration: a 21,000 word “sprawling manifesto on the art of Drain Exploring”[6]. It’s the closest thing the Cave Clan has to a foundational text, and utterly dispels the idea of drainers as unprepared teens trespassing on impulse. It covers every aspect of drain exploration in remarkably thorough detail – everything from scouting locations ( “dress up in overalls and go around at night popping every manhole you can find…if you look the part the cops will drive by without batting an eyelid”), to cheerful tips on knowing your manholes (“the nice thing about round manholes is you cannot drop them down the shaft and kill someone”), to basic safety advice (“testing handrails by swinging on them is not a life-prolonging practise for reasons which should be obvious”).

Some of the advice is sound and practical – listing handy vaccinations to seek in advance of expeditions, advising people that it’s impossible to turn around in a tunnel with a diameter smaller than your femur, the longest inflexible part of the body. On staying dry: “you can also take boot-to-armpit waders, however this may not be acceptable to followers of Catholicism who tend not to believe in barrier methods”.

Other tips escalate quickly to dubious spaces: according to Predator, spray paint cans double nicely as pesticides – “since there is never methane buildup in [the] open-aired grille-boxes, you can safely convert your spraypaint to an impromptu flame thrower and nuke the little mothers (gouts of flame emerging from drainage grills may arouse suspicions, however)”. Several parts of the document are devoted to explaining the seemingly obvious in ways that suggest the information wasn’t so obvious to some: “If you’re in a sewer, it’ll generally have small fragments of white paper floating along in the stream. This is toilet paper. Along with this you will also notice there are turds rolling along in the stream… if you are in a sewer, you want to leave.”

The most sobering part of the manifesto is the part on flash flooding. The Cave Clan’s cardinal rule is “when it rains, no drains”, and Predator’s pretty serious about adhering to it. “The last thing you want is to inflict the responsibility of rescue upon some poor SES member or fireman who really doesn’t need to risk his life getting you out. To jeopardise the lives of such people is selfish and stupid.”

The odds of survival are pretty slim if caught in a drain in the rain. According to Predator, though, an alert explorer usually has “between two and four minutes to get out, up a shaft or on a high ledge before the system is primed…a few minutes which, when used appropriately, can make all the difference to the length of the rest of your life.”

There are warning signs. An increase in noise as small tributaries fill and empty into the main canal, a rush of cool air from upstream. His advice: run to the nearest downstream manhole shaft and climb higher than the “bathtub ring” of crap stuck to the wall, the most recent high-water mark. “You may be up there a long time before the raging torrent desists. It will be loud and frightening, but breathe calmly, conserve your airspace.”

There is no indication as to the survival rates associated with this technique.

tunnel club 5

Dick and Lucas’ plan was nowhere near as meticulous: it came together in a day. The pair called two girls they were friends with at the time, and arranged supplies (a bottle of wine and their phones – no one thought to bring a torch). There was no need to prepare for floods; they circumvented the threat of trains by leaving after the last one had departed. They took a different route to KJ, slipping off the end of the platform at St. James and onto a ledge, presumably for maintenance workers, which ran along the edge of the tunnel.

It was around midnight, maybe later, when they slipped through a gate in the wall of the tunnel. There was an eerie ambience to the place – two complete train platforms, never used, with gravel instead of tracks on the ground. By the residual light from the tracks they had just left, the group could see the tunnel stretch into the dark. “Like a classic horror movie,” Lucas laughs, “you’re like ‘don’t go down there’. And then you just start walking down it.”

They lit their way with phone torches. Lucas remembers the walk as about ten minutes, longer even. Eventually, the tunnel abuts a wall or cliff, with a “sketchy” metal ladder running up it. You ascend perhaps five metres, and then pick your way across rocky ground until you hit a sandbank, and start to see reflections in the black. Raise your phone, and you can see Lake St. James.

“It just runs off into the darkness and around the corner of the tunnel,” says Lucas. “There’s a bit of rubbish in it, and on the side there’s a tiny gap in the wall where you can see trains go past. You’re parallel to the actual tracks, so there’s just flickers of light and noise. There are people on that train who have no idea you’re right there.”

Footnotes: 

* Names have been changed for obvious reasons. Honi does not endorse or encourage trespass or similar behaviour.

[1] The study or exploration of caves

[2] While the Melbourne branch is relatively open, and has even invited student publications along to their events, Sydney’s has the strictest media ban of the bunch, and wouldn’t speak to me for this story.

[3] Thanks to John Bradfield, also known for his role as Chief Engineer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

[4] The WAAAF is incredible, by the way – the product of months of lobbying by talented women (trained pilots and engineers among them) who wanted to serve in the war effort.

[5] One point of reminiscence, when I visit, is actually this paper. The office is full of USyd alumni, who remember Honi Soit with varying degrees of fondness. They’re surprised to find us looking into tunnels these days – they remembered the paper as a “cheeky” rag preoccupied with socialism and printing knockoffs of the Daily Tele and SMH. One notable memory was of a cover story featuring a photomanipulation of the Sydney Harbour Bridge collapsing into the ocean. The guys I spoke to were cagey about whether they were among those fooled.

[6] Which is now online here and is well worth the read.