PIPE DREAMS21 March 2016
In the mid 1980s three Melbourne teenagers – Doug, Woody and Sloth – formed the Cave Clan: a collective dedicated to exploring Australia’s stormwater systems. The group has since grown into the largest and most organised network of Urban Explorers in the world.
Late last December, Farrago received an invitation from Doug to report on the Cave Clan’s upcoming annual awards night (The Clannies) and 30th anniversary celebrations. Given the traditional depiction of the group in the mainstream press, it’s no surprise the Cave Clan would turn to a student magazine for this: ‘Fears For Lives of Underground Explorers’, ‘Cave Clan Secret: Drain Tragedy’, ‘Investigate the Cave Clan: Death’s Inquest’. Each time someone drowns in a drainpipe (regardless of whether they are a member of the group or not) a story of the “cult graffiti gang” surfaces, claiming the group are actively encouraging youths to risk their lives in the face of flash floods. Although these deaths are real, the media hasn’t ventured any deeper into the nuanced truth behind the subterranean culture of Urban Exploration, or how Melbourne has emerged as a global capital of the scene.
The first of Farrago’s three meetings with the Cave Clan was inside ‘the Maze’, a series of tunnels that we were shown on the condition that we would not publish their location. We were led through the red brick and concrete tunnels by ‘Iso’, ‘Prowler’ and ‘Doug’ (the Clan have a thing for aliases).
The dizzying network of drains widened and tightened as they split apart and rejoined, under passing parks, roads and railway stations until eventually opening into the Yarra River. At one point Doug drew our attention to a plastic “sewerage hatch” locked shut by barbed wire. “These things open up in emergencies so that sewage leaks into the drains rather than the street. I forced myself through one about 20 years ago… entered a junction room and didn’t go any further. It’s just a toxic stream of shitty water and tampons. There’s a lot of hype about poisonous air in drains. It’s not actually true but it does apply to sewers. We don’t go in them.”
The Cave Clan is comprised of around 350 members. Admission requires a six-month probationary period, during which you must attend a set number of explorations and adhere to the group’s code of ethics. This includes not publishing locations online and a handful of safety regulations, the most oft-repeated of which insists that members avoid draining when it rains or even when rain is forecast. Doug tells us how an aspiring-Clanner, ‘Echo’, recently failed admission. “The kid loves drains and he really wanted to be part of the Cave Clan but he just wouldn’t stop tagging tunnels that you’re meant to keep clean or publishing locations on Instagram. He’ll be given another shot in six months though.”
Doug explains that the screening process was introduced after they realised it was more efficient than expelling members who should never have been admitted. He tells the story of ‘Felon’, an “arch nemesis of the Cave Clan”. Felon “was about five foot tall” and “constantly talking about White power”. After being expelled for constantly getting into fights with other members, Felon executed his revenge by tipping off the police about the Cave Clan’s expedition down a utility tunnel that runs beneath the Royal Children’s Hospital. A utility tunnel has lots of smaller sealed tunnels inside it: fibre optics, electricity and steam tunnels. Authorities are particularly opposed to the Cave Clan entering these areas and due to Felon’s tip, “a couple of guys ended up in court”.
Despite this, the Cave Clan’s run-ins with the law are sparse. Even though entering drains carries a $20,000 fine in most states, it is barely enforced. In some instances the police have actually responded with indifference. Doug recounts one night the Cave Clan held a movie night in a drain underneath Prahran when an assault took place somewhere above them. “While the police were surveying the area they spotted one of our members enter a drain and followed him to a chamber where about 100 of us were seated ’round a projector. When we saw the cops we started freaking out and scrambling up manholes. The funny part was the police just told us to ‘calm down’ and said that they hadn’t meant to break us all up and just wanted to know if we’d seen anything.”
In some instances, the police have even requested the Cave Clan’s assistance in their operations. Around the time of the 2005 London bombings, the Sydney faction of the Clan were asked to comment on which tunnels could potentially be used in terrorist plots.
While the Cave Clan have a hot-and-cold relationship with the police, one authority with no sympathy for them is Melbourne Water; the government-owned body responsible for managing Melbourne Victoria’s major drainage systems, water supply catchments, sewage treatment, rivers and creeks. “Spreading information that may encourage drain exploration and entry into the drainage system is irresponsible and potentially dangerous… these self-proclaimed “recreational trespassers” are notoriously difficult to track across our network of some 1,500km of drains,” Melbourne Water Regional Services Manager Cameron Howie tells me.
Searching the origins of Urban Exploration online will bring you to the narratives provided by the scene’s loudest enthusiasts. Bradley Garrett’s adventures with the London Consolidation Crew (a now defunct British Urban Exploration group) have fueled magazine articles, a PhD in geography and multiple lectures, one of which he gave at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. According to Garrett, Urban Exploration, or “Place Hacking” as he calls it, can be “read as a reactionary practice working to take places back from exclusionary private and government forces, to re-democratise spaces urban inhabitants have lost control over”.
Security and surveillance companies, corporate elites and bureaucrats – through selling off public land to developers – have fenced the city off from communities, alienating them from their environment. Like guerrilla gardening, cyber-activism and other countercultures that flourished in the ’90s, Urban Exploration is about individuals transgressing physical and social boundaries to liberate themselves from structures engineered by higher authorities that dictate everyday life. Garrett claims waking up from the neoliberal nightmare of sleepwalking through cities we’re detached from requires scaling skyscrapers and slipping down derelict stations on the London Underground.
Off the internet, face-to-face, Urban Explorers have a far more down-to-earth view of their motivations. As I recite what I’ve read of Garrett’s romantic vision, Iso steps in to tell me “Well sure you can argue it’s a rebellion against all those things and some of our really left-leaning members probably spin it like that too. But the Cave Clan consists of a wide-array of people with lots of reasons for going in drains. For me I guess it’s about discovering all the hidden worlds under our feet.”
Iso’s claim that few urban explorers view their activities through the same political lenses as Garrett is accurate. I converse with various members on the different paths that have led them to the Cave Clan. They are mostly outdoorsy professionals craving an adrenaline-soaked release from the office. Some would rather be shining a spotlight across natural caves or abseiling down a cliff but are too flat out to drive to national parks in their spare time and see drain exploration as an easy alternative. Some have followed their taste for engineering history into Melbourne’s underground with its rich and varied designs. Many clan members can identify the period a tunnel was constructed in based on the type of bricks it is built from. A number of members are graffiti-artists and photographers, although there are checks to ensure members’ main interest is the tunnels themselves. Despite this general political apathy, there is a deceased member who shared in Garrett’s use of anti-establishment rhetoric to describe Urban Exploration, ‘Predator’.
Predator was the Sydney founder of the Cave Clan and a well-known activist who subscribed to anarchism. Predator published an online manifesto on draining, in which he expressed that “We enjoy thumbing our noses at petty bureaucrats and puerile legislators, and their half-baked attempts to stop us going places…places they built with our tax money.”
Not everyone in the Cave Clan has heard of Garrett but those who have speak of him as anything but the ideological figurehead his blog implies he is. In line with their ban on mainstream media and their disdain for photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Doug explains that publicity leads to police crackdowns and entrances beings sealed off. Garrett’s most famous stunt involved uploading photos of himself perched atop of the Shard, the EU’s tallest building. “People that are seen to be cashing in on it end up being hated in the scene,” Doug explains. He adds, “Members of the London Consolidation Crew actually got arrested because of some of the shit he wrote.”
The Clannies are traditionally held at ANZAC Cave, an enormous drain of 33 cubic meters only a two minute train ride from the city. ANZAC has been their headquarters for most of the clan’s duration. However, it has become such a well known location that Doug regretfully informs us that 2016 will be the last year they hold their largest gathering in it.
Dozens of Clan members lug down wheelie bins, lines of assembly chairs, a disco ball, speakers, a projector, nightclub-style laser lighting and enough beer for a small music festival. They number at least 150. Many have travelled interstate or internationally for the event.
A 300-metre walk from the mouth of the ANZAC brings you to a much wider, mural-laden section called the Chamber. In the Chamber, the attendants are seated against one wall with a concrete ledge on the other being used as a stage. Above the stage, members’ movies and photos are shown. Award-winners are handed medals for titles like “worst exploring mistake” and “best short film”.
The professions of the attendants range from PR workers to factory operators to chemistry researchers. The man coordinating the party’s lasers even dubiously claims to be a member of ASIO. Many members have visited international urban exploration icons like the ancient catacombs of Paris or the Viennese drains used to film the final scene of Orson Welle’s cult-classic The Third Man. However, all of them agree that the reason the Cave Clan has grown larger than any other Urban Exploration group in the world is because “Melbourne has the best drains.”
Heading home after the awards night, we chance across a window into the ANZAC. Lights are gleaming from a parting between two steps of a stairwell. The stairwell is behind a large gate locking off a luxury apartment complex. We climb the gate and squeeze a camera into the opening. Attendants have started setting off fireworks, illuminating the chamber in brief flashes of colour. Before long, suspicious clan members spot our equipment poking through the roof. Someone throws an empty beer bottle and we retreat.
Two nights later at the anniversary, when discussing how the Cave Clan has changed over the last 30 years, the two things repeated by all are size and safety. When I put the obvious question to members (how many Clan members have drowned in drains?), the answer is either one or zero. One instance frequently referenced both in the media and by the Clan involved two graffitists drowning in a tunnel in Sydney. Contrary to what was written in numerous tabloids, the deceased were not actually members. The only real link was that the graffitists’ friend who survived the ordeal alleged that the trio had located the tunnel on the Cave Clan’s online maps. This led to the deputy State Coroner recommending that the Cave Clan’s site be taken down and “the shadowy characters” investigated.
Minutes before midnight, Doug gives a speech. He reminisces about how the tunnel we are in became their first hangout and how they eventually merged with other groups like the Drain Dwellers and the Drainiacs, whose tag from 1966 still adorns the entry passageway 50 years on. Doug then admits that the tunnel’s history “has negatives too.” He tells the story of Bryan:
“Bryan wanted to join the Cave Clan but wasn’t able to ’cause he was only 16. This didn’t stop him printing out little stickers with our number on it though. When Bryan went missing, I got this phone call from an old lady with a strong Scottish accent and she’s like ‘it’s Bryan’s mother’. I thought she was gonna go off at me but she just said ‘is there any way you could go down there and find him hiding somewhere ‘cause you know the tunnels.’ And the tunnels were filled to the roof. I didn’t know what to say to her. I can’t actually remember what I said… It was the worst moment of my exploring life… They found his body a couple hours later.”
After some lighter stories, Doug announces, “anyway, the thing is there’s a lot of history in this section and thanks for coming. We are now officially 30 years old.” As a cacophony of hoots, bleats, clashing VBs and a noisy rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ breaks out – bouncing off the concrete walls and reverberating down the tunnel – we climb out an open manhole and into a side pass between two houses. It’s quieter up here but there’s still enough noise spilling onto the streets for a neighbouring couple to be standing by their gate, wondering where the invisible party is.