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Heading Underground: The secret world of the Cave Clan?

Words by Jeremy Nadal
Photography from Orin Zebest (Flickr)

When two graffiti artists drowned in a Sydney drain in 2008—allegedly after learning about the tunnel from the Cave Clan’s website—Deputy State Coroner Hugh Dillon recommended “that the New South Wales Police investigate the activities… of the Cave Clan” and its “shadowy characters.”

Wikipedia has it that the Cave Clan is a “primarily Australian group dedicated to urban exploration”. However, the internet offers few other clues about the Cave Clan. This is because the group communicates over their own semi-private forums, and because the mainstream media have buried the Cave Clan beneath an entire sewerage system of sensationalist shit about “a cult graffiti gang”. I figured the only way for me to fairly judge the Cave Clan was to speak directly to the ‘shadowy characters’ in question.

My initial email to their homepage, asking for an interview, yielded no reply. So I decided to try and apply to join instead.

As the public section of their forum describes, their initiation program is designed to keep people away who are “just looking to get new locations to make their Flickr account look cooler.” An applicant has to express their interest via email, attend one of three monthly beginners’ expos, get a probationary membership, and attend a certain number of explorations within six months before they can be officially admitted to the Cave Clan.

To my surprise, they got back to me within a week. I was invited to a beginners’ expo at a tunnel, 20 minutes by train from the city, called the Maze.

To be honest, I expected to meet a band of gamers with hunched-backs, greasy hair, and pale skin, who’d just hobbled out of their parents’ attic for the first time in twelve weeks, but it wasn’t like that at all. There were at least 40 attendees and only two of them were members. The others were people looking to join. In age, the applicants ranged from 18 to 40. In occupation they ranged from landscapers to telemarketers to training dentists.

The two members went by the aliases Ath and Black-Lodge. In a very Fight-Clubesque way, the members of the Cave Clan avoid learning other members’ real names. That way, if the police catch one member, they won’t reveal the identities of their compatriots. Despite this, the Cave Clan didn’t have a cultish atmosphere at all. The people who wanted to join were mostly the outdoorsy type, eager to find a new hobby.  Ath, with whom I managed to strike up conversation, was passionate about the rich history of Melbourne’s storm water system. He told me about his adventure through the bluestone, colonial-style walls of the drain, which run from the Yarra River, beneath Flinders Street, and along Elizabeth Street all the way to Carlton. The tunnel was built during the late nineteenth century to contain Williams Creek, which was prone to flooding. He even told me he’d encountered markings on the walls of the tunnels that had been made by the convicts who built them.

The expo through the Maze took about an hour. The tunnel was about three metres in width and height. We entered at an opening in a park and exited near a river. The most memorable section of the tunnel was a ten-metre vertical drop, where we were compelled to descend a ladder. Even when it is not raining, a fast-flowing waterfall plummets down this precipice.

Since the Cave Clan was first established in 1986 by three Melbourne teenagers (Woody, Dougo and Sloth), a whole philosophy has flourished around it. As a lot of Melbournians lose interest in their old theatres, warehouses, and other antiques of the landscape, urban explorers seek to understand and appreciate the past. Cave Claners view themselves as lucky enough to have discovered that between the cracks of our safety-padded city are tiny little manholes that lead to a forgotten universe of underground waterfalls, colourful murals, and a general aura of freedom.