18 Jun 2011, Comments (3)

The Tunnel: Location, Location, Location!

Author: Helen

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.


Journalist Steve Dow has visited the tunnels and other secret places in Sydney.

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.

Comments (3) »

  • Mindy says:

    I have heard of tours, but I think they are a special occassion thing and as such booked out months in advance. There are many people taking unauthorised tours and a group dedicated to this, but since two people drowned in a sudden storm in 2009? (swept into a grate, one wriggled through, two drowned) I think people are being more careful.

  • Helen says:

    Mindy, I think I read about that accident but the reason why the people were down there escaped me.

    We have a group in Melbourne called the Cave Clan which explores the underground but that’s old Victorian sewers. I think I had assumed those people were also exploring old sewers. I find the idea of the Sydney tunnels more enticing mainly because of, you know, not being sewers!

  • paul walter says:

    So, this “Blair Tunnel Project” is going to be about how a TDT crew gets bailed up by a lurking humungus thinggie, a giant mutoid albino eel called Eric?
    We were fond of telling our own stories back in the eighties, but the surprise for me is, how surprised I was at the article and the stories he told, as if it should be unusual that media included an Australian story, rather than something half baked, from offshore.
    I do feel better for knowing about the origins of Sydney’s class divide, “pushing a cart up Pitt St” and the Balmain Gold mine andits nice to feel “aussie” for a moment again, in times that have emphasised some of the less likeable traits of Australians.

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