Drain rats

Photo by Amber Curtis.
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A group of Melburnians have made exploring storm water drains their secretive hobby. Amber Curtis accompanies them.

A secretive group of young explorers is going underground, photographing and documenting their way through Melbourne’s storm water drains “without ruining it for everyone else”.

The self-styled “UrbExers” say their focus on conserving the tunnels that feed over 10,000 million litres of storm water into the Yarra River each year, is what separates them from “the old school”.

Nineteen-year-old UrbExers Floyd and Les, who declined to give their surnames, run the Fogarty Avenue YouTube channel where they share their exploits, while advocating for the preservation of underground sites across Victoria.

As far back as the 1980s ‘urban explorers’ have been mapping and often illegally exploring storm drains, sometimes leaving behind graffiti to mark their territory, or to document their time spent in the tunnels.

“UrbExers don’t do that,” says Les. “They don’t break anything, they don’t tag anything, they don’t steal anything.” UrbExers focus on “leaving only foot prints, taking only photographs and breaking only silence”.

For explorers, it can be discouraging to find sites that have been destroyed by opportunists. “Sometimes it can enhance a space, but most of the time it’s just disappointing,” says Les.

Armed with cameras and a dedicated internet following, UrbExers often document their adventures and findings on social media, favoring YouTube or Instagram to connect with other interested parties.

Jay Boston, a blogger whose Boston Vlogs YouTube Channel has quickly gained 5571 subscribers, says graffiti makes Melbourne’s storm drains a unique space for exploring, helping to tell the story of those who have been down there before him.

“When you go down there with someone who knows the drains well it’s fascinating, they can point out certain graffiti and tell you about the artist’s life,” says Jay.

“Sometimes people have dated their tags and you can see how they’ve come back to the tunnels again and again, exploring further each time,” he says.

He also says these markings in tunnels tell a very important story, detailing some of the exploits of Melbourne’s infamous CaveClan.

CaveClan.org states that Melbourne’s Cave Clan first made a name for themselves in the 1980s by marking their territories in storm water tunnels with their iconic C/C symbol.

They are an extremely secretive organisation, sparking an urban mythology that has only further cemented their legacy among urban explorers.

“There is an underground society and they’re extremely protective of who they are,” says Jay, adding that those who are accepted into the CaveClan fold are privy to specialised information about the storm water drains.

“You would be amazed at the maps that are available if you know where to look, they’re kept up to date and are stored on password protected google documents,” says Jay.

Jay also warns that CaveClan can be ruthless with members who break their code of silence, quickly banishing those who are indiscreet. “If you do anything stupid you’re taken off the access list, that’s how CaveClan enforces its code of silence.”

Jay notes that it is out of the desire to protect these spaces that CaveClan is so secretive, especially of those places that are of great importance to members.

“They have buildings that they consider to be sacred and can be wary of outsiders coming into these places,” he says.

Despite the rain, Floyd and Les agreed to take us into one of the storm drains so we could have a first-hand “draining” experience, but not before outlining the potential dangers.

“If you’re in a drain, there’s the potential for water, obviously,” says Floyd. “And there’s gas, it comes from leaks in natural gas lines which then builds up in the tunnels.”

Potential hazards are sometimes identified by fellow UrbExers who share their findings by producing maps. “They often have hazards marked on them,” says Floyd, though Les adds that they can sometimes be outdated.

Les and Floyd suggest never exploring by yourself, though they admit they have done so in the past. “It’s just good to go in pairs in case something goes pear-shaped,” says Les.

Despite the risks, the secrecy and intrigue surrounding the storm water drains keeps people coming back year after year.

“It’s just cool,” says Les. “It’s like going to a museum for free, you look around and everything is from another time, it’s all telling you a story.”