I hired a DVD a couple of days ago, The Tunnel. It’s a new Australian horror movie in the style popularised by Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, although better, we thought, than either; a faux-doco complete with jumpy camera and white-on-black text. It’s interesting in several ways. Visually, it manages the jumpy-grainy-camera style much more gracefully by the simple and inspired move of making the characters a professional TV news team. It’s also interesting in the way the film is made and funded, through the new concept 135K project. But what really grabbed and held me about this film was the location – a network of subterranean tunnels underneath Sydney, which are real, and of which I was completely ignorant.
In the inky darkness, we sweep torch lights side to side and slosh through sludgy earth in Sydney’s great unfinished eastern suburbs subway – which would never actually see a train, but instead become an air raid shelter.
Thin tree roots drape from the ceiling and glisten in the spotlights like spiders’ webs; thicker roots that long ago sprang through wall drainage holes twist across our path. Could these gnarly tendrils really belong to the old Moreton Bay figs guarding Hyde Park above?…
…(A)fter planners and politicians disagreed on the route, work on the eastern suburbs tunnels was abruptly halted close to the ANZAC Memorial. During World War II, the tunnels were converted into a public air raid shelter, which Sydneysiders thankfully never had to press into service. Brick dividing walls were added to create smaller bomb shelter chambers. Australian Imperial Forces officers stationed down here scrawled their messages that can still be seen, including their regiment number and the date, many in 1942.
We step into a rectangular chamber flooded in ankle-deep water, in which stands a rustic steel bell with a pointy top almost as tall as a person. One of our group whacks the bell with a plank of wood: the gong sound is deafening. Sydney sound-sculpture artist Nigel Helyer created and installed the work, known as An UnRequited Space, as part of ArtSpace Sydney’s Working in Public project in 1992, employing a wooden mallet “to sound out the midnight chime on ABC National for 21 consecutive days”, Helyer says. Memo to the ABC: your microphone cable missing for 16 years is still connected between the bell and wall down here.
The bell features in the movie and you can see it in the trailer. I had wondered if it was real. The room it’s in is dry in the film, probably because of the extended drought.
As we trek north, the air becomes more humid. We climb up a rickety metal ladder through a hole only half excavated and slip down a muddy embankment, meeting the edge of “Lake St James”: the drainage system of the city outer tunnel next door, the water stretches left and out of sight for a kilometre, 10 metres wide and about five metres deep.
The NSW Government says it aims to collect rainwater in tanks from the roofs of Parliament House, the State Library and Sydney Hospital, store the water in Lake St James, and recycle it back through the non-drinking system. Well, you certainly wouldn’t ingest this stuff, its fine film of brake dust floating on top.
The lake is home to an eel named Eric: “I’ve seen him, but no-one believes me,” one CityRail employee says. He spreads his palms a metre wide. “He’s about so big. An albino!”
The abandonment of the NSW government plan to use Lake St James as a water storage reservoir for Sydney is the real-life event on which The Tunnel hinges. In the film we see some of the old wartime air raid shelter rooms and hear the story of General Macarthur possibly having an emergency bunker down there. Unfortunately, my googling failed to find any regular organised tours of the tunnels.
This film is a must-see for anyone who likes to think of the strange, secret and eerie places which exist under our feet.