L greets me outside the Woolley Building. We hug, catch up, and then, without missing a beat, he asks if I’m ready to head in. He leads me into the Woolley Building, striding down the carpeted halls with purpose. We talk for a bit. About him, about the building. But as we near other people his voice drops to a low whisper and he gestures for me to do the same.
He beelines towards a door in a perfectly inconspicuous corner. Were you to walk past and not look from a precise angle you would completely miss it. The door opens into a storage room, dark and dusty and stacked full of old chairs. L climbs a metal ladder up to the next level, on which there are blueprints for the University’s Hydrodynamics Lab. I try to steal a closer look at these artefacts but L isn’t interested. He keeps going, up onto the next ladder. This one takes us to a room with what L hypothesises is a mill of some description. L points out a bell from 1884 and the mechanism for the clock on the Woolley facade. I didn’t even know the Woolley Building had a clock. These are all mentioned in passing; L has a destination in mind. We reach a final wooden ladder that leads to a sealed hatch. I use my iPhone as a torch while L climbs this last ladder. With a practised ease, L grips two small handles at the bottom of the hatch and pushes up, lifting the hatch over his head, and lowering it onto the surface above.
We’ve made it onto the roof of the Woolley Building. It’s a low platform tucked in between the peaks of the roof and from up here, the setting sun is an awesome gold against the lavender sky. We can see out to Parramatta Road, the college sports fields. We watch people walk along Manning Road below us and talk in soft voices. L doesn’t stand up, he ducks low in a squat and I mimic him. While the rooftop is hard to find, anyone could spot us were they inclined to look up. We’re hiding in plain sight.
L is the creator of USyd’s very own Marauder’s Map: a handmade map containing only first-hand information about the best hidden and inaccessible rooftops on campus. I met him in 2015 through a mutual friend. While killing time on campus he took us to the Woolley rooftop and showed us the map.
Each spot is marked out on an OWeek map of USyd, with site-specific instructions for each one scribbled in the margins. L found these places on his own, no one showed them to him. The Marauder’s Map was a project of passion, research, and dumb luck. L has something of a reputation among those who know him. When someone placed a sign in the window of the hidden room at the top of the Bank Building reading “Law Revue Sucks”, fingers were pointed at him. He swears he had nothing to do with it though: the Bank Building roof is one of very few he has yet to crack.
L spotted the Woolley rooftop from the Education Building. While at the Education Building gazebo, one of USyd’s not-so-secret-secret spots, he noticed a service ladder on the roof of the Woolley Building that he concluded maintenance must use to access the antennae. L’s mentality is that if someone can access the roof, there must be a way to get there. Instead of studying, L spent a day combing the inside of the Woolley Building for the route he would eventually show me. He smiles as he remembers spotting the Wooley rooftop from the Education Building gazebo, and subsequently from the Woolley rooftop he spotted a way onto the roof of the Education Building. When you’re up there, you see the other places no one thinks to go to.
L remarks that a lot of the offices in the older buildings are completely abandoned because they’re not fire safe, a lesson he learned while exploring. The Madsen Building roof is one of his favourites on the map: there’s a cupboard in one of the abandoned offices which opens up to a staircase which takes you up to a protected castle-style roof with a view of Eastern Avenue. The day L went up there, he found a case of Coronas and a chair. He laughs at the idea of someone just sitting up there and punching beers, unseen by the walkers below.
Before embarking on this expedition I looked into the University’s policy for some kind of Code of Conduct which could get you expelled for going to these places. There are a lot of Health and Safety documents, but nothing explicitly about the ramifications of climbing onto roofs. L says it’s mostly just common sense. The Macleay Building’s roof features on the map but he advises against it, because it requires climbing over a guardrail on a ladder, and scaling a wall, and more leaping and falling than most people are comfortable with. L also tends to stay away from places where falling could get him or someone else killed, which excludes a couple but not all of the places: he once fell from the roof of the Carslaw Kitchen into a pack of students while trying to rescue a football.
In general, avoid places with signs that say ‘Authorised Personnel Only’. When this is not the case, but you’re still uncertain, L’s advice is to walk with purpose: if you look like you belong somewhere, you’re less likely to be stopped.
L recommends going with a friend, not only do you get to share the experience but should you run into trouble or get stuck somewhere you’ll have someone to bail you out. As we walk past the Quad he describes an Ocean’s Eleven type scheme for accessing the belltower, which involves someone acting as distraction while you sneak in through a door that is not so much secret as it is unintentionally guarded by the Quad’s staff.
L has only been caught a few times. In the Quad he once opened the door to an office he thought was unoccupied only to come face to face with the owner. Claiming a wrong turn, he shut the door and bolted. While exploring the bowels of Manning House he somehow found himself behind the bar, during mid-semester break, while the bar was closed. The bar manager spotted him and asked for his name. The first name L thought of was Chris, which is not his name. I asked if he’d often given a fake name to people who’d caught him going about his business and he immediately responds in the affirmative. Never tell them your name and never give them your ID. It might have worked had the manager not immediately responded that L’s name couldn’t be Chris, because his own name was Chris. Unlucky.
Those are the more confrontational experiences. L says that for the most part people are just confused by his wandering around. Part of the way he finds these places is just by asking questions and gathering folklore. The best way to get a free pass while exploring is to claim you’re writing an article. He did a lot of research and asked a lot of people about the tunnels that are rumoured to exist underneath the Quad. These tunnels feature in the map with the suggestion that they’re in a storage room at the Nicholson Museum and might require keys. This spot caught my attention, and I asked L if he’d ever seen the tunnels himself. He hasn’t, and never found anyone who had. He offers the theory that the so-called “tunnels” are probably a sewer pipe that urban legend has blown out of proportion. When I enquired with the staff at the Nicholson Museum they denied the tunnels’ existence, saying they have ghosts, but no tunnels.
Our final stop of the evening is the roof of the Carslaw Building. We take the elevator up, chatting loudly, but as soon as the doors open, L gestures for me to be quiet. This is one of the places that we could get in trouble for visiting. On the top level, L drops his backpack and climbs up onto the handrail so he can swing himself onto the very thin ledge of the window that leads out onto the roof. One false move and he could fall backwards down one and a half flights worth of stairs. He doesn’t make a false move, his form is practised and perfect as he angles himself sideways to slip through the window and out onto the roof. He opens the fire door from the outside for me, grabbing his backpack.
The Carslaw roof is one of L’s favourite date spots, and it’s not hard to see why. Victoria Park is spread out like a picnic blanket in front of us, and at night, the city is lit up in a display of lights and industry; the view spreads from UTS, Centrepoint Tower and the Anzac Bridge all the way out to the Western Suburbs. L says during the day you can even see partway down to the Eastern Suburbs and Bondi Beach. I take a photo of the twinkling panorama of Sydney. L says that from here you really get a sense of the scale of Sydney, the sheer spread of the city in every direction.
When I ask L how he got started and why he kept going, he talks for a bit about the history contained here. Marking ‘L was here 2016’ makes you feel a bit like a dickhead, he says, but there are things like ‘John was here 1916’, and building on the history of that one secret place is pretty remarkable. There’s a mythos about the University, something magical. He says that every single person who attends uni here has walked down Eastern Avenue, and gone to class, but only a handful have seen the things he’s seen from the rooftops of the campus: it feels special and sacred. As we walk around, things come back to him: balconies and corner offices. We try a few of them and they’re mostly locked, abandoned, left to gather dust and have their doorknobs rattled by curious students.
L graduated a few years ago. He says he was going to leave his map to SASS until a stacked election robbed him of the Vice Presidency. Instead, he’s handed it off to another society (he won’t tell me which) leaving the magic of USYD’s rooftops to those out there with the same curiosity he once had.
I ask how he even thought to go looking for these places and his final piece of advice is startlingly simple: just look up. People tend to look just at what’s in front of them. When you look up, you’ll see things others might have missed and ask yourself the question: “Can I get there?”
The answer is usually yes.