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May 6

Exploring the Storm Drains of Melbourne, a Secret Labyrinth of Tunnels and Creepy-Crawlies

With more than 1,500km (932 miles) of underground tunnels hidden beneath its streets, it’s no wonder Melbourne has grown into something of a mecca for urban explorers. Its complex network of storm water drains is often cited as one of the most elaborate in the world, and the labyrinth has drawn its own string of admirers.

In 1986, three teenagers from Melbourne banded together to form the Cave Clan, a clandestine group dedicated to recreational trespassing in the city’s hidden underworld. Today, the Cave Clan is still going strong, and larger than ever with local chapters in each of Australia’s main cities. 

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Drain explorers beneath Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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A subterranean waterfall in the Melbourne storm drain network (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

Naturally, exploring urban storm drains comes with some obvious risks attached: flash floods, bad air, steep shafts and reservoirs, and of course, the hefty fines that you’ll be served should the authorities catch you in the act. And don’t forget, this is Australia, which means these tunnels often serve as prime nesting or hibernation spots for some of the world’s most deadly creepy-crawlies.

Danger aside, the complex systems of tunnels, waterfalls, gates, ladders, and reservoirs beneath Melbourne combine to create a fascinating — albeit challenging — urban assault course, which draws in visitors from all around the world.

Here’s a quick introduction to five of the Cave Clan’s favorite hang-outs in the Melbourne drain network:

ANZAC Drain

article-imageEntrance to the ANZAC Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

The ANZAC Drain was first charted by the Cave Clan on April 25, 1987, or as it’s known here, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day. Since then this relief drain has served as a kind of local headquarters for the Clan, and it’s one of the easiest drains in the city to access.

Entering from the river outflow, a wide, red brick passage curves gently into the dark recesses — an arched tunnel which rumbles and rings with the sound of traffic passing overhead. The aliases of Cave Clan members appear on the walls like sentries, painted high in block white capitals.

article-imageAt low tide, this is one of the least challenging drains in Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

article-imageOne of the drain’s perennial residents (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

Ten minutes into the warren, you’ll find “The Chamber.”

In this dank subterranean cavern, thin daylight filters down from a grate positioned at the far end, to illuminate walls daubed in panel after panel of painted art. It’s a gallery of sorts, a secret museum of street art where the cockroaches thrive, and the sound of dripping water echoes wet and hollow against concrete walls and old, rusted metal.

article-imageCave Clan welcome sign on approach to The Chamber (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

article-imageThe Chamber in ANZAC Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

More than just a canvas though, the Chamber serves as the venue for an annual event held to mark the close of Melbourne’s draining season: The Clannies.

At the end of each summer, the Cave Clan’s Melbourne Chapter gathers here to celebrate the very best — and the worst — of the year’s explorations. Staggered shelves on either side of the main space offer a kind of tiered seating, while the Chamber is transformed with sound systems, video projectors, fairy lights, and fireworks.

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The Clannies Award Ceremony in The Chamber (photograph by PTC via deviantART

     

Maze Drain

article-imageThe upstream reaches of the Maze Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

One of the more complex of Melbourne’s storm water systems, Maze Drain does exactly what its name suggests. The network has numerous entrances, scattered in a wide spread across the city’s suburbs. There are dry and dusty culverts upstream, where the original stream trickles gently through the basin of long disused drains. Elsewhere, manhole covers open into streets, courtyards, and playing fields. The Maze Drain can be accessed from several open-air stretches midway along its course, or alternatively, by wading in through its semi-submerged outflow onto the River Yarra.

The drain measures roughly 5km (3 miles) from one end to the other — though taking into account the many junctions and side tunnels, alternate routes and overflows, that figure could be multiplied several times over.

article-imageLooking over the waterfall (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

Amongst its more notable landmarks, an upper stretch of the Maze features a slippery waterfall nicknamed the “Pit of Death.” Another chamber is known as the “Tram Room,” and then there’s the “Triple Split,” the “Slide,” the “Skull Chamber,” and so on.

One of the more popular entrances to the Maze Drain lies beneath a city park, where a wide and roomy passage leads straight into a convenient meeting place. Here the graffiti is at its richest, and, as is the Cave Clan tradition, one wall has been given over to form a giant guestbook where visitors are invited to sign their names. 

Completionists will no doubt want to see the outflow, too. The Maze Drain culminates in a pair of massive steel pipes, where twin streams converge into an underground inlet of the river. Wade on into the waist-deep waters of the Yarra, and follow the corrugated tunnel as it snakes away towards the light. Towards its eventual mouth, from where the drain explorer can watch cars and pedestrians pass by on the opposite back, you can stand on the threshold of a secret world, peering out from the shadows towards an unsuspecting city above. 

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The Maze Drain’s first waterfall (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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Piles of dry leaves are a popular hiding place for snakes (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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“Godzilla Point,” one of the Maze’s many landmarks (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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The reasons behind the drain’s title slowly become more apparent (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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One of the many types of tunnels making up the large & varied Maze (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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The Cave Clan guestbook in the Maze Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

 

God Drain

article-imageThe ominous entrance to the G.O.D. Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

This third entry on our list is quite the opposite of the last. Whereas Maze Drain commences with a nondescript culvert which descends into an increasingly taxing labyrinth, G.O.D. Drain starts with a bang before tailing out into a slow and painful sigh.

Entering through a gaping metal mouth beneath the freeway, the visitor first climbs a watery stair; a series of slick stone steps washed by a murky stream. There’s a pool at the top, an overflow into which a waterfall crashes noisily down from a height of perhaps 25 feet. To get to the next section you’re going to need to climb.

article-imageThe watery steps marking the first section of G.O.D. Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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It’s a long drop, but the ladder is more secure than it looks (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

From the bottom, the warped metal ladder propped against one side of the waterfall looks anything but secure. Its rungs are twisted, its limbs buckled, while the top end is held in place by an old chain attached to the tunnel wall.

The chain hangs slack, so as you take your first step up the ladder you find it slipping, leaning suddenly back out above you as if it were about to fall. Then the chain snaps taught, and you’re climbing upwards at an ever-so-slightly unnatural angle.

After its grand entry, G.O.D. Drain soon runs out of tricks. There are a couple of larger chambers early on, space enough for explorers to gather, to drink beer, and to sign their names on a wall. The place is littered with the physical evidence of all three activities.

article-imageThe inevitable Cave Clan guestbook (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

From there on though, this one’s what they call a “shrinker.” You keep walking, and in time the wide tunnel narrows into a square passage. It’ll get smaller still, until you’re walking with a hunch. Keep it up, and you’ll be down here for hours — while the graffiti on the tunnel walls echoes your own doubts.

“The end is not nigh,” reads one pessimistic tag.

“Time to head back!” says another.

Worse still, it feels like you’re running out of air. That’s the claustrophobia kicking in. Luckily, there are a few moments of reprieve — occasional tributaries empty into the main channel of G.O.D. Drain, narrow pipes that jut out of the wall like the roots of trees. Once in a while you’ll pass one and feel a cold breeze on the back of your hand, and just like that you’ll find yourself on your hands and knees, sucking up the fresh air like an addict getting a fix.

If you decide to turn back at this point — to take the long and stooping walk back in the direction of inevitable freedom, rather than pushing on into the ever shrinking unknown — nobody is going to think any the less of you.

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One of the larger sections of G.O.D. Drain, near the entrance (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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These tunnels get smaller and smaller, the deeper you go (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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Not everyone makes it to the end of G.O.D. Drain… (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog) 

 

Tenth Drain

article-imageOne entrance to the massive Tenth Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

Of all Melbourne’s subterranean waterways, the system known as the “Tenth Drain” is by far the largest in volume.

In the early days of the Cave Clan, when Melbourne’s underworld remained uncharted by the emerging new generation of urban explorers, this particular storm drain represented the fledgling team’s tenth major discovery, hence the name.

Whatever storm the drain’s architects had planned, it must have been near-biblical in size. The colossal Tenth Drain largely follows the path of a freeway, a second thoroughfare hidden beneath the first and through whose vast arches it is possible for two vehicles to drive abreast.

It’s not just the size of its main channel that makes the Tenth Drain worth a look though, but a supporting cast of side drains and tributaries that turn a quick walk-through into a full-day trip.

article-imageWading into the darkness (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog

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One of the many tributaries leading into Tenth Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog

Some parts of the network are a bit of a squeeze, such as the tight, cobwebbed passages that lead off to landmarks like “Cactus Island.” Other sections can be walked with ease, and provide a welcome distraction to the cathedral proportions of the central tunnel.

There’s a room where shop window dummies have been mounted beneath an inflow channel, the water splashing and glistening on their dismembered torsos to momentarily conjure the illusion of something wholly unpleasant. Another small chamber houses miniaturized battlefield tableaux, with plastic soldiers, palm trees, oil barrels, and helicopters glued to the walls, to the ceiling, as they act out scenes of warfare.

The wide-open spaces of the Tenth Drain also provide the perfect canvas for graffiti artists, and so it is in this tunnel that you’ll find some of Melbourne’s finest underground (in the most literal sense) exhibitions of art.

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Well, that clears that one up (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog

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Academic graffiti at its best – the chemical formula for methamphetamine (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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Sticker in a side chamber of the Tenth Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog

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This probably falls under the wider definition of “art” (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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More Tenth Drain graffiti (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog

 

Mummy Drain

article-imageMummy Drain starts off with a cylindrical tunnel (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

The last drain on this list, Mummy Drain takes its name from the peculiar hexagonal cross-section of its long and winding passages — cutting through the earth like the outline of a coffin. The current here is slower than in other drains, so that the stream stagnates in the darkness to leave a curd of orange filth along the waterline.

The grime, the rich, rusty colors, and the sarcophagus illusion combine to gives the impression of a catacomb, or some other macabre grotto. 

This drain can be entered from a discreet riverside outflow after which it cuts sharply inland, veering deep beneath the city. It’s another long drain — the mummy passages seem to stretch on forever, the shape and color changing only by increments over time. The novelty will almost wear off, as you trudge on through the slippery drain, head ducked to avoid webs and the tiny brown stalactites formed from who-knows-what.

article-imageLooking up an ornate brickwork shaft in the drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

But the real joy of Mummy Drain is yet to come. Eventually passing through the final section of claustrophobic, funerary tunneling, the ardent explorer is treated at last to a taste of Old Victoria. The passage opens up into a space of beautiful red brick, and here the tunnel begins to split off into new and interesting directions. These low-ceilinged chambers — particularly compared to the last length of concrete tunnel — are a beautiful example of Victorian architecture, complete with decorative details that adorn cornerstones and flues.

It’s remarkable to think how much effort went into the design of this hidden space, into the artful architecture that no eyes were meant to see. But then, perhaps that sums up the whole appeal of exploring drains: the skillful engineering, the long hours of labor, the thoughtful design, all these elements that come together to create a whole subterranean city. A brickwork warren. An uncharted labyrinth where the rules of the world above no longer apply.

It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to escape from the mundane reality of day-to-day life, other than by taking a peek inside the hidden — and often, forbidden — structures that lie beneath our city streets.  

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Melbourne’s River Yarra, into which many of its drains flow (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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The sarcophagus shape that gives Mummy Drain its name (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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A water feature halfway through the drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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A female huntsman spider guarding her egg sac (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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Suddenly concrete is replaced by Victorian red bricks (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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One of the spacious intersections that appear later in Mummy Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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Fresh air and sunlight, at last… (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)


Darmon Richter is a freelance writer, photographer, and urban explorer. You can follow his adventures at The Bohemian Blog, or for regular updates, follow The Bohemian Blog on Facebook.