What unearthly chain of events leads you to be ankle deep in trash, squatting on a broken aircon heat exchanger at 1am on a Tuesday morning next to a random Canadian you just met in a hostel, frantically refreshing the live metro timetable on a B-stock smartphone for the last train of the day?
Me and my new mate ‘Backpacking’ George needed this last train, not to take us back to play hostel beer pong with the gaggle of insufferable instagram besties we’d managed to give the slip 2 hours previous, but to provide a temporary obstruction to a particularly irksome security camera that was looking directly into the metro tunnel we were hoping to yomp down. This unfortunate addition to the Sydney Metro’s security inventory had recently seen about 20 care-free cave clanners sent to the slammer for rail trespass, a fate we were both aiming to avoid with the (hopefully) perfect execution of our ingenious plan..
The refrigerator, the electric drill, the atomic absorption spectrophotometer.. Neighbours..? For all the stick they get about being a nation of beer guzzling surf bums, the Aussies are extraordinarily inventive. For one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world, they’ve done a pretty decent job at stamping their mark onto it, and in addition to all of these fantastic creations they also got there first in doing modern urban exploration as a ‘thing’. I know Jeff Chapman seems to get all the credit because he wrote the book on it, but I doubt our man Ninjalicious was even done in 3rd grade before Dougo & Co were charging round the tunnels of Melbourne writing their names on the tunnel walls and inviting others to get in touch via their PO box to come hang out. By the mid-late nineties whatever spark had kindled the interest in a bunch of guys kicking around the storm water systems of Melbourne and Sydney had also caught on internationally, with groups all over the world popping up and getting under the skins of their cities for as an alternative to the pub.
For those in the know, the Cave Clan needs no introduction, and it’s not just in the highfalutin world of urban adventurers. They’re almost a household name Down-Under, an accolade which I don’t think can be said of many other groups of explorers anywhere in the world. Anyone doing this stuff for more than 10 minutes will have almost certainly come across one their loudmouthed, highly prolific ambassadors ripping the fair cities of Europe to bits and making half the locals look like slackers in the process; and while meeting any one of these characters might give you a head start in understanding what the fucking hell they’re putting in the water over there, the only way you’re going to get any sense of what this intensely influential, and now rather secretive bunch are about is if you get off your arse and go.
1 – First Stop
If you’re dead clever or are well into ‘air hobby’ you’ve probably already got logins to Amadeus and fuel dumps coming out your ears, but chances are you’re a chump like me and you’ve got to know someone on the inside to sort you out with the good-stuff on the long hauls. My connection on this particular occasion, slaving away behind a desk in a London travel agent, had managed to sort me out with a 3-day layover in Hong Kong on the same ‘logical’ flight to Melbourne, which afforded me a bit of time to get my head over the appalling jet lag I’d have to deal with and gave me a few days to get into some trouble and catch up with an old mate.
All round good man and permanent SNC international high-councillor Dr Howser has been shored up in Hong Kong for the last 3 or 4 years, and seems to be having a right time of it. The place has turned into a bit of an urbex Benidorm since Vadim and Vitaly showed the worlds down-scrolling teenagers how laughably easy it was to get on hundreds of 60+ story rooftops here, and as a result of that, its not as laughably easy anymore – no bad thing though if you still like a challenge. To be perfectly honest though, I was just as much up for walking round the place and finding out what on earth the largest pre-1999 China-town in the British Empire was all about as well as catching up with the big man. The japes were just a bonus.
Hong Kong is a funny old place, similar to the mishmash of Gibraltar, or any other British territory. It’s like they built it from all the bits left over from making London and Shanghai, then pumped loads of money in and left it to brew. They drive on the left, the police cars look British, the road signs are in the same font and people are speaking English, but at the same time there are live chickens flapping about on the road side and half the shop signs are in Cantonese.
If you’re going for it, you can end up roof-topped-out quite quickly here. There isn’t much under 40 or 50 floors and you quickly find yourself getting blasé about the unearthly heights. On reflection though, I don’t think there are many places in the world with such an intense concentration of skyscrapers, and theres no better way to appreciated it than by being at the birds eye point amongst this endless hive of humanity.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. We had a run of some slightly skewed luck, involving locking ourselves onto the top of a mid-sized apartment block and having to take the lock to bits from the inside with a spoon, and trying to coax a maglock door to open in another 50 story block while looked over by a camera we failed to notice until the last minute, prompting a quick dash from a furious security team.
Thankfully, there is more to do here than boshing high things via the medium of intensely humid 60 floor stair climbs and we had some good success with the new metro system they’ve been churning out to connect the hyper dense and developed North side with relatively chill South.
I don’t think the authorities here are really expecting the likes of us to wondering round their subterranean infrastructure projects, so the access was as simple as a quick hop over a poorly constructed hoarding and a brisk walk through a huge new-build site, presumably a suite of new 50+ floor tower blocks. Weirdly, but thankfully for us, they’d used the construction crane that was to be used for the new site as a ladder down in to the metro station site that sat underneath it, the base of which was around 100ft below our feet. It felt oddly perverse to be clambering onto a big yellow crane in one of the tallest cities in the world and climbing down, but before long, we hit the almost solid block of saturated, stifling air that separated the underground workings from the cool night above.
As if it wasn’t stressful enough climbing down into a live metro construction project in a country where people get disappeared by the government for stepping out of line, the heat and humidity notched it up about 200 points. It was a 24hr construction project, and through having to chuck our sweat soaked bodies on the deck into a grungy mix of cement dust and mud while the worker jeeps sped past in the opposing tunnels, we ended up looking a bit like toxic crusaders by the time we were climbing out the place.
That said, it was a throughly enjoyable walk, and one i’d like to repeat sometime when they’ve put the trains in.
In the couple of years that have followed since this trip, Dr H has pretty much cleaned up the lot of this – have a look at his flickr if you’re interested.
2 – The Wizard of Aus’
I normally have to be extremely conscious of painting too vivid a picture of the people who I end up joining with for these adventures. This is a great shame you understand, as the characters in this sport are some of the most interesting, unusual folk you’d ever hope to meet. It’s not that I don’t want to embellish the ins-and-outs of the journeys with the foibles and eccentric traits of these unbelievable people, its just that you never know who might take umbrage at being laid bare for all to read about on the internet. Its not really on is it? Here though, I will have to perform an ever-so-slight deviation to this rule.
One of the great travesties of the ex/implosion (whichever way you want to see it) of the world wide urban exploration scene as we knew it, is that the youth of today aren’t immediately familiar with the name: Siologen Jeeves Westminster.
There have been many prolific Australian’s to have emerged from the Cave Clan over the last 31 years (I can’t name them all, we’d be here all day), but there are none that captured the international imagination in quite the same way SJW did. He’s from a different school of action than I, less tekkers and wannabe James Bond shit, more 4-pack of Special Brew, leather jacket and crack on with the job, but the intent in our adventures, I think anyway, comes from exactly the same place. Back in the day, you’d see his name pop up again and again and again, smashing new drains and the abandoned tube stations, relentlessly applying his take on the Aussie mode of urban exploration to the unsuspecting cities of England, Europe, Canada, America and beyond. Obviously it wasn’t just SJW storming away on his quest to find ALL TEH DRAINS, but there was always something that set him apart. Maybe because he was constantly on the move, he always seemed to be able to avoid the drama and politics that bogged down everyone else in the local scenes of the world. That lack of pretension and the propensity to give all the infighting a short shrift, set him out as a kind of a permanently half cut Urbex Gandalf, ever wandering the globe in search of BIG FARKEN DRAINZ, belting his enthusiasm for V8 Aussie muscle cars and abandoned metro stations in his three way Aussie/Canadian/Scots accent from the sidewalks, sewers and spires of the great cities of the world.
There should be pages written on this man.
And within 10 minutes of stepping off the last metro train out to the suburbs of Melbourne I was greeted with a HOW YA FUCKIN DOIN!? a can of Flying Horse super-strength spesh, a promise of some marinated kebabs in the fridge and some bomber-classic drains in the morning – all before we’d even got back to his house.
I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome.
I’d kindly been offered a space on a trip up to a recently abandoned aluminium plant with a few Cave Clan guys, involving an early night and a 5.30am start to head out to the middle of nowhere, but after a couple of cones and a can of that special brew there wasn’t a chance in hell I was going anywhere near anything for that time. I was actually relishing the chance to spend the evening shooting the shit and working our way through hours of his synthwave collection and filling him in on the state of the UK scene since he was ousted by the Security Service a few years back.
Maze, and assorted main drainage
An afternoon wandering around some of the Melbourne classics was going to be an absolute treat. It’s not that I’m really really into round concrete tunnels, its whats been done to them by decades of drain exploration that’s interesting. Unlike the graffiti-phobic explorers of Europe (who’ve only been at for a comparatively short amount of time) the Aussies have been happy to decorate these sprawling concrete labyrinths and have been signing their names on the concrete for the last 30 years.
As well as the artwork and installations they’ve made down here (bowling alleys, climbing walls, murals), many of the drains sport guest books at their entrance: large cross hatches of black paint over white boxes, with each new visitor tagging their name and date in a new box. I know scores of Euro-brick-o-philes that would sneer at all this ‘horrible graffiti tagging’ (say it in a French accent), but it makes total sense away from the ancient sewers of Europe. The Cave Clan, remember, came well, well before the internet. Back in the day the only real way to know who had done what, was by writing it on the wall of the tunnel. With very little competition from the council graffiti cleaners, bill posters, other writers or the wrecking ball, and plenty of blank real-estate, brand new tags can happily sit by still legible 30 year old scribbles – an absolute eon in the worlds of both graffiti and the history of urban exploration.
While the internet has long, long since become the de facto method of recording any kind of history in this relatively new game, this physical in-place record of names on walls bring these comparatively dead tunnels to life, screaming a history of both familiar and unfamiliar names.
Maze is a Melbourne original and still one of the best, a sprawling mass of a concrete storm drain that expands out underneath the suburb of Hawthorn.
It’s a truly enormous thing, so much so that if you don’t quite know what you’re doing it really pays to have a map. Thankfully. I had the esteemed drain wizard himself at the helm, who took me a on a whistle stop tour of the ‘famous’ bits of Maze.
In the months since I went here, someone (I think the general consensus is on a very certain someone) pulled in a wheelie bit and set the whole thing on fire, blasting away this cracking little map and a whole load of other old bits and pieces.
After Maze, we had a walk on up to ‘Punctual’. I don’t think i even got any proper snaps on this one but it was nice to see a couple of Little Mike tags on the wall representing the North West of England down the Aussie underground.
I left Siolo not long after, and had a wonder up a few of the other classics on my bill.
There’s ANZAC, the one with the big submarine on the wall and the big party chamber. The one thing thats probably notable about this spot is that the local graffers haven’t gone over all the big sections of clan wall, theres obviously some sort of mutual respect going on here which is dead unusual, as back in the UK the painters and explorers want to kick each others heads in half the time. The big ‘CLANIES’ (theres supposed to be 2 Ns in it..) has been there in pretty much every photo i’ve seen of it, so it must be absolutely ancient!
There’s also 69er and GOD – some bluestone classics which I’d thoroughly recommend having a stroll down for a taste of old-style Melbourne.
With stories of 14 year old kids running off platforms mid-service to get to the interesting bits of the Melbourne Loop (knowing full well they’d just get a bollocking and taken back to their mums if caught), I’d been pretty dismissive of the instacrowd over here. Those scores of obnoxious youtubers trying to make the 9 ‘o’ clock news with shock-horror-danger nonsense, and… well, Bryce Willson, would be enough to put anyone off their cheese and cucumber sandwiches, but in the interests of fairness I thought I’d give a few of them the benefit of the doubt. I met up with a lad I’d been in touch with on t’internet in the weeks before I traveled at Flinders Street station to have a look at a few of the tunnels that run underneath the sprawling tracks on its eastern side. Nothing too serious, but it was good to chat with some guys who weren’t really involved with the Clan to get their side of the Aussie scene.
Refreshingly, Sammy and his mate were actually pretty clued up for a pair of youngens although neither of them had too much time for the Clan, and I can’t really blame them. With thousands of their worldwide contemporaries blatantly doing what they like, posting everything for youtube fame, advertising dollars and seemingly getting away with it all, compared to the stuffy old cave clan with its ‘code of conduct’, a months long initiation wait-list and no-media policy, it’s pretty obvious which path 95% of 17 year olds are gonna take.
Why on earth are you going to wait to be accepted in to a secretive hierarchical old-man club when the primary currency is looking cool to your mates, sticking the middle finger up to the man and well, actual currency? And rules? You starting doing this because you hated rules! Whats’s this code-of-conduct bs?!
You see what I mean..
I have a feeling that these new and old worlds will continue to exist in parallel, but I’ve no idea what the relationship is going to be between them in the coming years. If you’ll indulge me on this slight tangent, one thing I have noticed is that the level of the perceived threat from the authorities towards this new wave is markedly reduced when compared to what we’ve had to put up with. The concept of these secretive, probably terrorist-aiding ‘urban explorers’ (remember when it used to always be written in inverted commas?) possessing dangerous knowledge of critical infrastructure and posing a direct political threat are gone and its pretty much been replaced by one of annoying nuisance and reckless teenage thrill-seeking. Most cite the growing social acceptance of the practise but I’d wager that the complete absence of any higher-order narrative beyond the stream of images, look-at-me videos and hash tags is probably at the root of it. Don’t get me wrong, these kids probably have ‘ruined everything’™ , but it’s probably the numbing gush of endless foot-dangling that has lifted the heat from the secret service and focused their mind onto slightly more important things.
I left the pair of them, and had a walk down the road to go and look at Southern Cross station. Not such an interesting architectural curiosity at ground, but an absolute thing of beauty from its rooftop.
The only way I could see up was over a 9 foot high steel door and its surround, which were heinously deficient in the foot-hold department. I must have been loitering for about 35 mins before I got a decent opportunity, cheating the A-B-A parkour deflection jump with a deftly placed wheelie bin I’d managed to rob from the coffee shop next door.
It was a spectacular rooftop. I spent quite a bit of time sat on one of the lumps just listening to the weird cascading echoes ping around from peak to peak every time the seagulls skwawked, and the strange reverberant swells of crowd noise coming from the station below being mutated by the undulating lines of the station roof.
As I was looking back down from my perch at the top of one of the giant steel dunes, I noticed a pair of backpacked-silhouettes skulk up the fire escape I’d hopped up about 40 mins earlier. After confirming they were a couple of chancers playing the same game as I was following a peak through my long-lens, I thought it’d only be polite to pop down and say hello. I was in full all-black ninja get-up, so the poor lads didn’t see me till I said ‘Alright mate?’ about 15 yards away from where they’d just plonked their tripods to try and take a picture.
I may as well have pointed a gun at them.
I did try and calm them down, but it didn’t matter how much I shouted ‘CHILL OUT, IM NOT A COP’, after them, it only took them about 10 seconds before they were on the other side of the roof and climbing down to get the fuck away from the all-black ninja security super cop they obviously thought I was and off into the streets below. Unfortunately, they’d made so much flippin’ racket in the process of getting off the upper decks they’d alerted the stragglers waiting for the the last tram across the road to their presence, who were now peering up at the roof of one of the busiest stations in Melbourne to try to work out what the fucking hell was going on.
That was probably my cue to leave, and as I slipped off the roof by a different point and walked round the block, I fired a quick text to the lad I’d met up with earlier about my little encounter.
‘That wasn’t you up on the roof of Southern Cross was it? Walked up on two lads, said hello and they shit themselves and bailed’
The replay I got indicated otherwise..
‘No it wasn’t, but they’re staying with me. So funny, they said a security guard dressed all in black appeared from nowhere and almost arrested them!’
As I mentioned before, I’d heard quite a bit about the state of affairs in Melbourne and how the hundreds of instagram scenesters had rendered everything worth looking at in the city insanely difficult to access, and so the next day I thought I’d do a bit of experimentation for myself. The Melbourne loop has a number of emergency exits, all of which are alarmed, but have in times past, proven to be excellent entrances to the system, and it was a system I really fancied a look in. My methodology was quite simple, walk over to an emergency exit door, open it, and then go and bench it at a bus stop over the road to wait and see what would happen.
I came to the first candidate, an unassuming door on a side street with no external markings to speak of, and clicked it open. Immediately after sticking my head in, I saw the sensor click red and gazed up noticing the camera directly above me. I quietly closed the door and walked up the block and idly thought about nipping into a nearby shop to get a can of cold coke while I waited, but I didn’t even have chance to do that. Before I’d even got to the bus stop 2 unmarked cars screeched in next to the door and 6 sweaty plain clothed rail cops, having undoubtedly just had to quickly down their coffee and donuts due to the incoming alert by door-opening had caused, all hopped out and ran in and straight down the stairs. I carried on swiftly up the street.
They were right, this city is on lock-down.
My next few days were spent in the fantastic company of Lxk, Pip and their band of merry housemates (and dogs!), kicking about Melbourne and being on the receiving end of some absolute 5* hospitality. Again, I’m not going to paint too vivid a picture of the lives and times of these stellar individuals out in public, but I’ll briefly cover a few of the highlights of the next day or so:
- One of the best pro-league bin dipping hauls I’d had in ages
- Getting to grips with some live silos looking over the Yarra at the old city + having a wander through some of the old hospital tunnels
- Having a look at some abandoned locos
- Trying to solve a particularly tricky riddle involving a missing selection of dildos (there aren’t any pictures of that).
We also took a trip out to one of the freight depots on the outskirts of town, just driving straight through the front gate and explaining to the security guard we just wanted to take pictures and have a walk around. Apparently thats totally fine..? You’d defo get a pink piece of paper and a £50 quider for that in England.
Just before I left for Sydney, I did have one final interaction with those meddling kids I’d bumped into earlier around Southern Cross. Despite the alarming show of force I witnessed the other day in the town centre, I still had plans to pop down the Melbourne loop using a few tricks I’d gotten from some of the craftier locals, when I got a message from one of said kids saying that they were also planning to go down on the same night in the same place as I was. For reasons I’ll not go into, I decided it might be a good idea to join forces with them to avoid making a potentially iffy situation even worse.
It was a corker of an entrance, and we were stood on the tracks in no time looking up the empty tunnel. I was well up for a little walk, but after overhearing the slightly less salubrious plan of the half dozen or so compatriots who’d popped out, one by one into the tunnel, I had second thoughts.
“Lets walk down to the cool looking junction.. yeah, where the camera is.. get a couple of photos and run back and out the emergency exit before the cops get here”
Having seen how fast they managed to get to the exit the previous day, I was happy to leave them to it, and opted for the far less risky option of leaving the way I’d come and sauntering back on my own, which I swiftly did before they all got giddy and ran off down the tunnel.
It was a bloody good job I did. I got a text the next day saying they’d all been stopped by the cops at Flinders Street Station, 5 minutes after being on that camera and running out the door.
Not so smart after all eh?
My time in Sydney was a bit limited. I spent some time walking around the the big tickets (the bridge, the opera house etc) but the security arrangements on show would have required more tackle than I was allowed in my 15kg of hold baggage to tame sufficiently. I had a nice time popping out to the sticks to have a look at ‘Your Taxes At Work’ (good name, if anything) and the beautiful coastline that surrounds it, as well as a few of the weird urban caving curiosities I got tipped off about around the city centre.
The big hitters here though as far as I was concerned, lay off in the Blue Mountains, although there was one decent sized beast that needed taming before I ran for the hills.
Getting yourself into an abandoned ghosts station always has the makings of a good night out. They normally require a bit of thought to get to, probably involve doing something fun, dangerous and illegal and more often than not have a bit of interesting history associated with them. Sydney has just one such station: St James, a quick jog into a tunnel and down the line from Circular Quay. It’s even got its own water feature! A large cavern, presumably an unfinished tunnel that has since filled with ground water and turned into massive lake.
Now, as interesting as all this sounds, I put the prospect of popping down here to a few seasoned locals over a beer in an up-town boozer and kinda got met with a funny look and a slow intake of breath. The thing was, they had a bit of a to-do the year previous after holding a birthday bash down there and got seen on the camera that looks at the tunnel going in. 10 mins after getting seated and cracking a few tinnies the law shows up and everyone gets sent to the slammer for rail trespass. This obviously needed a bit of thinking about.
The next day, I benched it over the tracks from the tunnel portal and watched for a bit. There are two tracks that go in to the tunnel, and both of these track are indeed watched over by a large security camera. Helpfully though, the camera sits on the far side of the far track. All this means is that you’ve got to hang on till a train comes out the far tunnel and covers the camera, and run in between the driver going past and the guardie coming out the other end on the back of the train. Just under 10 seconds all in all, which is still plenty of time if you’re swift.
I’d been staying in this backpackers hostel in downtown Sydney which had provided a nice (cheap) base of operations, and thus far had managed to rebuff the pleas from the door-to-door fun-patrol to come down to their ‘crazy’ party night and play their ‘awesome’ local variation on beer pong. The usual gadget fondling travellers were well installed in the dorm I was staying in when I awoke on my second day here, silently sapping up the comments on their news feeds and making sure their friends weren’t having a better time than their own Bondi-Beach-bikini-photos said they were. I’d gotten in quite late the night before, being taken under the wing of the right honourable BlakJak to look at some of the other less accessible parts of Sydney’s abandoned underground rail architecture, so my first contact with this lot was straight after waking up at noon. They all seemed engrossed in their phones, and to be fair, I began my day by callously ignoring them for 45 mins, while I read some old Cave Clan ‘Ill Draino’ mags I was given back in Melbourne. I did eventually relent though, I figured learning a little more about my cell mates was probably worth a try..
“Anyone doing anything tonight?” I posited, leaning over the side of my top bunk.
One girl, a young blond in a purple top, spoke without even looking up from her phone, propped up in her bed with a pillow on her lap, one white earphone dangling loosely on her shoulder spewing out some horrendous EDM.
“Probably going out. Maybe have a few drinks downstairs first then go to some bars in town.”
“We went to Bondi Beach yesterday” her mate in the bunk directly underneath me chimed in, “but it wasn’t really what I expected, didn’t enjoy it, not sure what we’ll do before evening though”.
It turned out this poor mite had come all the way from Basingstoke on a bit of a gap year holiday. 3 weeks into a 6 month trip round Australia, 2 of which had been spent with her aunt in Perth, and she was already out of things to do getting home sick. When the conversation turned to what activities I might partake in come the evening, I hesitated for a second, thought up an excuse about seeing a mate and getting an early night, but my mischievous streak got the better of me.
“I’m going to an abandoned metro station underneath St James. No, it’s not a tour. Probably have to leave around midnight, wait for a train to come out of one tunnel to block a camera, yeah, if that sees you you’ll probably go to jail, and run on into the tunnel to find a small gate which may or may not be locked or even be there, before another train comes down our tunnel and kills you. No, theres not much in it, well, except a massive pool of stagnant water. Fancy it?”
Pulling a wide eyed 19 year old into the blackened filth of a live metro tunnel for a bit of lethal train dodging sounded like it’d be just the thing to brighten my night up, and I was really hoping she’d say ‘yes’ and take the bull of adventure by the horns. This was what teenage travels were supposed to be about wasn’t it? Accepting idiotic proposals from random strangers and doing stuff you could impress your house mates with when you started term the following September..?
She paused, I think a little confused more than anything. “errr, no thanks. I think we’ll just got to some bars”.
There’s no hope is there?
You see people like this all over in the hostels of the world, sporting a well-practised look of imaginary busyness, hanging around the backpackers common room or their bedroom aimlessly scrolling an iPhone, hoping someone will come out the blue and whisk them away to the foreign travel adventure they were promised in the window of the STA shop; but when you offer them the chance to do something slightly off the beaten track..? Not a peep.
That said, had I not looked like a coal miner, smelt of drains and just told her she might die, she might have been more inclined.
In any case, I was pretty much resigning myself to another night on my lonesome, when a bloke on a bunk at the far end of the room piped up. I must confess I’d not even noticed that there was anyone in that bed, obviously having been distracted by these now no-use-to-me teenagers on the adjacent bunks. He was George, a Canadian chap who’d been listening to my best-laid-plan about trains and stuff, and fancied doing something daft before he went home in 2 days time.
He’d never done anything like this before, but didn’t need any more persuading He was in!
I let him know that he’d need to be ready around 11.00pm, that I’d see him then, and went to get showered.
I’d come back from a couple of quiet beers and some food with another Melbourne hero who was in Sydney on a work job, and fought my way into the hostel where the beer pong tournament was already in full swing.
Feck. It was the girl from the dorm and a bunch of her new mates, who by the sounds of it, were already a about 55 pints in.
I can’t quite remember exactly what they said, or their names, but it went something like:
“Are you going to do that thing you were talking about before? Tell her what it was again, like, a ghost train thing?!”
I knew I shouldn’t have said anything.
“Yeah, err I’ll be down in 2 mins, just need to go and grab something from the room”
I swerved past them and made it for the staircase, hot-footed it to the top, got my black gear on, gave George a kick to wake him from his slumber (I’m sure I told him 11..?) and headed out via the back fire escape with my new mate in tow, who up to this point I’d said the sum total of about 25 words to.
It wasn’t such a long walk to the point where we were hopping in, and in about 20 minutes I’d relayed the plan in a bit more detail to a point where he seemed happy. We both vaulted the railings and climbed down trackside, crouching in the dark on top of a massive air con heat exchanger surrounded by a pile of antique trash tinged with the smell of stale piss.
A train shot out of our tunnel doing steady 30. George remained remarkably composed, fiddling with his smartphone and I opened my mouth to chastise him for lighting us up with his screen and blowing our cover, but he was actually one step ahead. He’d already got the Sydney rail live app up and was looking at the exact positions and timings of all the trains on the immediate sections of track by ours. I’d been too stingy to buy a SIM card so this was a bonus, turning what I assumed was going to be an educated guess into something a little more scientific.
Even with this precise information, we couldn’t just go for any train that happened to come out and cover the camera. We needed two trains that were close enough together to allow us to cover the considerable distance to the doorway into the abandoned section before another one came up the tunnel and killed us. We’d be running with the traffic coming from behind us, so the first we’d know of our impending death would probably be a 500 ton smack on the arse.
Our moment was coming up. 2 trains about 3 minutes apart, which would give us a cool 7 or 8 minutes to get ourselves to the door 500m down the tunnel.
The first train shot by our noses heading into the tunnel we were about to run down. 2 minutes.
We just sat in silence, the only real input being from the heat exchanger, which chimed in every now and again with a growl and shudder, rattling our teeth for 10 seconds or so before shutting up for another minute.
The rails started to faintly sing with the approaching train, that familiar intro music to a thousand and one leaps of faith. Pairs, New York, Berlin, Kiev, London, Barcelona… Sydney. Another city. Another train tunnel. Another stupid idea about to be put into practise.
I could see the dull grey walls of the far tunnel beginning to yellow with the oncoming lights, the squealing of the rails getting louder, and WHOOOSH! the North bound metro shot out of the tunnel and 2 seconds later we’d jumped from our perch, clattering down the metal framing and cable trays in front of us and and began a long sprint into the tunnel.
It was only now I got the impression George’s initial cool-as-a-cucumber demeanour was either based on a very ill considered notion of what we were about to do, or a brilliant front. As we past alcove after alcove looking for the door that would lead us off the track and into the abandoned section, the seconds ticking down until the next train was due to fly he seemed to get progressively more flustered.
That jog had put the fear of god into him, and as I fumbled with the mechanism on the door lock, the seconds ticking down to the next train, I could hear him behind me trying to catch his breath, bracing himself on the tunnel wall. The lock was a toughy, and for a minute I thought our little outing had already reached its conclusion and we’d have to turn round and yomp it back from whence we came, but after what seemed like far far too long..
Click. The bolt on the lock slid open and we slipped through the door into a large, dark cave.
I clicked my head torch on. The surrounds were radically different to the sleek, smooth concrete running tunnel we’d just come from. To our left, were the remnants of the original stone workings that would have built this place 80 years ago, and a small ladder leading up into a hole in the rock.
To our right, a huge clear body of water stretching farther than my torch could reach, littered with a few beer cans and the remains of a Woolworths blow-up dingy.
The next section, modified after WW2 to accommodate civilians sheltering from enemy bombs and now used as a materials store, gave way to a further section leading us onto the tracks again and on towards the abandoned platforms.
I was a bit wary here of pushing our luck. I assumed the small white box on the far wall of the abandoned platform was a camera, so we only poked our heads in for a quick look before slowly retreating, back the way we came.
We were now well after last timetabled train, so while the chances of being squished against the tunnel walls by a speeding commuter service were well diminished, my thoughts had now turned to the fact that there might be workers or battery trains scooting about the place. We made our way back into the tunnel, clicked shut the door to the abandoned section and began our slow walk back up the tracks to the portal. Without the convenience of another train to block the view of the camera, the exit plan was a simple dash, climb and leg it, and we stumbled out into the street and back towards the hostel, where, if there was any justice in the world, we’d be able to get some sleep.
Misty Mountain Hop
Australia is not unique when it comes to the drive to close down its fossil fuelled power station. All over the country there are more and more coal, gas and oil stations coming off line to be replaced with renewables and it really surprised me that relatively few locals had hit what looked like a monster sized turbine hall at Munmorroh. I could find even less about its cousin, a soon-to-be mothballed coal plant at Wallewrang, 200km to the North West.
I pitched up at the small town of Wallerang not really knowing what to expect. Other than the beauty of the surrounding countryside and the huge coal fired power station that dominates the skyline here, its kind of reminiscent of the American mid-west with nothing much there other than a few rows of houses and a gas station. On first glance, and unlike many of the installations back at home, this one had relatively minimal security measures.
It looked like they’d still had a good go, bless, but without an electric fence of vibration circuit to have to circumvent I was in the grounds of the power station kind of quickly and heading towards the inner perimeter without having to break sweat. Upon assessing the state of the inner perimeter, I cut them a bit of slack. I can only assume they’d had a bit of bother with Greenpeace or something here, as there was a fairly respectable inner cordon with some tasty looking razor wire and a few cameras and infrared bounce beams dotted about, so I opted for a slightly more indirect approach, crawling for 100m underneath one of the ash conveyors in 3 inches of damp sludge, avoid the sensor and 2 cameras by *just* popping out at the end in the blind spot between the two of them.
From here it was a quick squeeze through a 2ft gap between a pipe gantry and a palisade fence and a long log over a flood-lit no mans land into the lower regions of the boiler house.
I spent the next couple of days out hiking alone in the great valley forests that sweep through the lower regions of the blue mountains, scaring the shit out of myself by accidentally walking through giant spider webs and getting annihilated by mosquitos. Fucking nature, lets get back to the turbos.
Munmorroh was a fairly straight forward affair, in through the bush, up a coal conveyer, bit of daft climbing to avoid a load of razor wire, but pretty text book as far as these things go. You don’t really get many of these big English Electric turbos anywhere in the UK anymore as they’ve mostly been consigned to the scrap heap and decommissioned so it was a rather nice surprise to see this merry line of ex-pat generators hanging about in the fading light of the day.
The only thing that did go slightly awry, was as I was leaving. Traipsing though the bush in the pitch dark to avoid any attention, I had the faintest inkling that I was being watched, faint rustling sounds and the like. Looking around me, I saw nothing out out of the ordinary, but figured i’d click my headlamp on all the same, just to check.
It took a brief moment for both parties to appreciate the situation they had just found themselves in.
As I looked around me, all I saw were eyes. Dozens of reflective points amongst the thorn bushes almost completely encircling me. About 20 kangaroos, who had presumably just finished processing this strange interjection to their evening, and decided the most appropriate course of action was to hop around at random and then chase me out. My fond childhood memories of Skippy the bush Kangaroo didn’t seem to apply here, and I had no idea actually how dangerous Kangaroos in the wild could be, so I ran like bilio, scratching my legs to bits on the thorns and heading for the fence. My tenure in New South Wales was about to come to an end, finished with a $4 Dominos pizza (so far winning in the cheapest developed-nation dominos award) and a snooze on Manly beach, waking up to the 5.30am active-wear kenos running down the beach with their dogs and giving their new coal-dust covered neighbourhood hobo some decidedly skewed looks.
I Did Delta
Back in Victoria, I had left myself a couple of days to tie up some loose ends. I had a night booked in to go and clamber round a crane of two with one of Melbourne’s enigmatic solo artists – the lad I had met a few days previous in Sydney, but there was also the outstanding challenge of climbing the tallest man made structure in the southern hemisphere.
The Omega tower (codenamed ‘Delta’ – which I think is probably ok to reveal now for reasons I will come to later), is preposterously tall. Built to broadcast communications to NATO submarines around the world, it formed part of a 9 strong network of relays centred around the Pacific, with complimentary towers in Japan, America Honolulu, Saint Denis. Long since decommissioned, its retirement has provided a popular jump spot for local BASE jumpers and curious climbers, but after the death of one poor lad the year prior to our visit due to a defective parachute, the authorities had changed their ‘meh, prob leave it, hey?’ attitude into that of the traditional Australian ‘dangerous and unlicensed activity’ fun police. I had a quick chat with lxk about our prospects in getting it done, and he didn’t seem convinced it would be worth the 2hr 30 journey. Apparently, in a bid to deter would-be jumpers, they’d stationed a 24/7 security presence at the base of the tower right next to the ladder, offering very little chance of even getting started. It was also, so I had heard, still military land, increasing the likely grumpiness of anyone the might show up to arrest us. Well, I fancied the challenge, I knew just the man who’d be up for joining.
At 432m high and surrounded by nothing but millions of acres of low-lying coastal woodland you could see its glowing red aircraft warning lights beaming out for miles through odd breaks in the trees as we drove through the dense forests. The mast itself consists of a single upright steel lattice, held in place by scores of cable stays at each ascending section, and is capped by an insulated crown of long wave transmission wires that run from its tip all the way down to the earth 1200 feet below.
We climbed over a few fences and through a small spot of bush, passing the guard house at the top end of the huge compound and then going wide, well away from the central access road and through the massive field to the bottom end of the inner compound by the south west cable stay ground termination. The site was lit up by a series of huge orange sodium flood lights located at the bottom of the cables that threw course lines of shadow across the odd stepped terraces of the land around the base of the antenna. Here, by the ladder we needed to take to get up the bloody thing, was a car, containing an obviously bored security guard faffing about with a smartphone. They’d even put in a portaloo for him. We got as close as we could in the shadows and army crawled to a sensible distance away from the car, keeping the lattices of the antenna between him and us as much as we could and surveyed the situation properly. Taking into account the amount of time we’d been skirting the perimeter and the time we’d now been lying in the long grass, the car hadn’t budged in almost 2 hours. I’d kind of been hoping for an hourly patrol drive round or something similar, but if we was going stay here all night, the solution wasn’t obvious. The only real option I could think of was to slowly sneak round the back of his car and very carefully climb the steel work just out of his eye sight, hoping we’d be quiet enough to not get heard through his car window. Neither of us we’re convinced of a good chance of success, although I’d like to think we were both up for giving it a shot.
Still laying in the grass, just watching and thinking whether or not we were about to go for this incredibly risky plan, the car started up, slowly turned on to the central road that linked the tower to the control building 700m away and began driving towards the compound gate house.
As soon as he was a decent distance away from the tower, we bolted from our positions and sprinted through the grass towards to antenna, back lit in bright orange, and hit the ladder. Our only real consideration now was making up to the first platform, 40m above the deck. As we climbed that first stage of ladder we could see the headlights of the guards car driving towards the compound entrance, and by the time we got to the first rest platform (and pretty much entirely out of sight) he had already done whatever it was he was doing and was making his way back toward us. We were basically home-free now though and continued our climb upwards.
The ascent wasn’t difficult, just a bit knackering. Seemingly endless repetitive ladders, probably 11 40 meter sections all in all. Imagine climbing the Empire State Building, and then some on just a single ladder. Yeah.
On the last few sections, the wind and rain really started to pick up and things began to get a bit horrid, and on reaching the top we were already freezing and soaked. You’d think reaching the summit of the highest thing in the Southern Hemisphere would have yielded a pretty amazing view, but to be honest, it was bloody terrible. Pitch black for miles and my lens getting slowly soaked by drizzle, I managed a couple of pretty appalling photographs before the warmth afforded by the 430m of ladders we’d just climbed started to wear off. At such a massive height, one of the things that really impressed my was how little it swayed in the wind. I’d been up solid concrete chimneys half this height that had swayed for meters, this thing kept beautifully steady, gently rocking only a couple of cm as the gusts of wind blasted the tower.
Absurdly, we were the recipients of the same outrageous good fortunate we had enjoyed on our descent. Upon reaching the last platform below the final ladder, we lay down and watched the guard pace around with a torch. I thought there was probably something up with him, and it looked like he was on a bit of a mission.
“COME OUT YOU MOTHERFUCKERS! I KNOW YOU’RE THERE!” he shouted at the top of his voice, sounding more distressed than angry, possibly worried a pair of angry base jumpers we going to run out the bush and tie him up or something for one last jump.
He’d obviously seen some evidence or our stakeout. Maybe the man-shaped patches in the over grown grass we’d probably left. He evidently didn’t know we we’re looking down on him from 40m above, and he paced a bit more flicking his torch all over the place, screeching a final courtesy sign off:
And jumped back in his car and drove like a nutter towards the entrance.
We just looked at each other and shrugged.
“Down we go then!”
and we casually hopped down the last bit of ladder, ran down to the fence line and off in to the fields for a long drive back to Geelong.
As far as I can tell, other than the riggers, we were the last ones up the Omega tower, as a week after I came home, they blew the bugger up!
And after a final night out in Melbourne hitting a couple of quiet cranes with Mr ‘I climb 65 story box hoists for lols’, I got myself back on the airport bus and said goodbye to the Land of Oz for another 10 months.
The Clan’s 30th was coming up, and I was buggered if I was gonna miss that.
Cheers to Dr. H, Silo, Pip, Lxk and the Bent House crew, GAJ, OM2, BlakJak, Scarecrow, Maggot, Lucas and Sam.