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There's another world below...

5/10/2008 2:56:00 PM
SECRET Squirrel and Guy Fawkes Tunnel are not in any Canberra visitors' guides, but for urban cavers they're huge attractions.

Below the concrete cityscape, crews of ''urban cavers'' track the stormwater drains, tunnels and unused bunkers to find the ''mother of all tunnels'', Secret Squirrel.

The term ''urban caving'' is used to describe a relatively new activity, where people use rock climbing and abseiling gear to explore stormwater drains. While cave clans are popping up across the country, police and emergency services are concerned this new phenomenon will end in serious injury or death.

According to Wizard (not his real name), an urban caving expert and founder of the website urbantwilight.net, caving began in bigger cities but is spreading to places like Canberra.

''I went to Canberra a few years ago and there were a few people who were part of the cave clan, but it's growing,'' he said. ''It's as simple as people looking into a stormwater drain and wondering what's in there, it's that curiosity that leads you.''

Urban cavers contact each other through Wizard's website and other online forums, often in code, uneasy about giving away too many details lest their identity, or the tunnel they discovered, be revealed. ''I tend not to make any big secret of it, but some people do,'' Wizard said. ''Most people I tell are more curious than anything else.''

Wizard has been urban caving for 12 years, documenting trips with photographs depicting everything from cathedral-like spaces to winding, hand-built stone tunnels.

''There are some interesting sites down there, and I wanted to bring them to people who couldn't go down themselves,'' he said. ''From an urban history point of view, sometimes you can see layer upon layer of development in one stormwater drain.''

He said the underground streetscape provided refuge from the city.

''It's very quiet down there, and dark, there will be little animals, sometimes bats, but generally it's a very peaceful place.''

In the ACT, unused bunkers and war shelters are often spoken about on online forums.

Historian Peter Dunn said he grew up exploring World War II bunkers and ditches near his home in Queensland. He said the notion of urban caving in war-time relics was uncommon.

''I have only explored bunkers that are either above ground or semi earth-covered. There are many stories of tunnels from World War II full of Jeeps and Harley Davidson motor bikes probably 98 per cent of these stories are pure urban myths.''

Wizard said he always checked the weather report of the tunnel location, and the stream it fed from, to avoid a potentially lethal flash flood, but authorities said that wasn't enough.

''ACT Policing discourages anyone from entering confined or disused urban spaces where they may become trapped or injured, especially given that these types of places are difficult for rescuers to access,'' Australian Federal Police superintendent Matthew Varley said.

ActewAGL water field services manager Priscilla Ruddle said the sewer network should only be entered by qualified personnel.

''This is because it is a confined space and is liable at any time to have harmful levels of gases or depleted oxygen levels,'' she said. ''As sewage breaks down it produces hydrogen sulphide which, if inhaled at very low concentrations, can cause death.

''Sewer or stormwater flows can also change rapidly without notice, depending on the nature of the inflow, pumping schedules, rain events or planned activities such as flushing.''

Urban caving can also require people to enter private land to access the tunnels.

''If a person is found to be on private or government property without any authorisation they may be committing an offence of trespassing,'' Mr Varley said.

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Some of the 'urban caves' to be found in various underground locations around Australia
Some of the 'urban caves' to be found in various underground locations around Australia

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