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July 16, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Scratching the surface

Victoria’s Underground Network

Students who have been at Vic since 2002 may have heard the legend of the University’s tunnels, as that’s when Salient last ventured underground in the name of journalism.

Having been denied a guided tour by the University “for safety and security reasons,” Salient writers took it upon themselves to find out what the University was trying to hide.

I first heard about the tunnels earlier this year from VUWSA Education Vice President Joel Cosgrove, who’s read all Salient issues throughout its 69 year history, and advised me to look at the old bound editions.

Reading an article, aptly titled ‘Caving and Misbehaving’, inspired several months of planning to break into the tunnels, trying to convince Salient feature writer Nicola Kean to join me, and that a possible breach of the Code of Student Conduct wouldn’t look that bad on her record. After some time I asked the University for a guided tour and, quite surprisingly, they obliged.

So I put on my sneans (yes, the same sneakers-and-jeans combo I mocked earlier this year) and ventured underground along with Facilities Management Asset Manager Dave Cook to see the sights below the Cotton, Laby, Hunter, Hugh McKenzie and Kirk buildings.

Aside from the Hunter Building, all of the tunnels were constructed at the same time as the buildings above them, to “provide routes between buildings for running hot water, waste, chilled water, power and IT services,” according to Cook.

The tunnels are also occasionally used as training areas for Campus Care and Vic Rescue for “emergency response training – such as recovery of personnel from dark or confined spaces,” Cook says.

Hunter’s tunnels were installed in 1991 during its refurbishment, after the building had been declared an earthquake risk, evacuated, and nearly demolished in the 70s.

Most of the ‘tunnels’ consist of a large room with short corridors running off them. Somewhat disappointing, the tunnels were less dungeon-like than I had anticipated. They are, in fact, varyingly sophisticated, some with painted walls and floors – to deter maintenance workers from graffiting the walls, Cook tells me – complete with electricity, lights and fire extinguishers.

The tunnel connecting Cotton and Laby is the closest to being a ‘real’ tunnel, featuring a ladder or two, several levels, connected rooms and a few leaks.

Interestingly, the Hugh McKenzie tunnels can be reached through the men’s bathroom on Level 0.

Another entrance takes you to a ladder which runs the entire way up the middle of the building, inside the big silver pole with the Maori carving on it.

The tunnels are empty of trolls and hobos, and are fairly tidy aside from the odd discarded Twisties packet and some internal mail envelopes, and graffiti including “[illegible name] is a CUNT”, “CB & Linda 4 EVA” and “Cutfield is a wanker.”

The tunnels exist behind locked ‘Service Staff Only’ doors around the University, and access is restricted to ‘authorised persons’, meaning students probably won’t have the opportunity to go caving. You’re not missing much though; unless you have a thing for pipes, as plenty of those run through the tunnels and up into the buildings – including air, water and sewage. Pipes with chemical waste also make their exit under Cotton and Laby, and one chute under Kirk is marked ‘Autopsy Room Exhaust,’ but is no longer in operation.

The previous Salient caving team challenged the University’s decision not to allow a guided tour, and argued that “students should be free to investigate the tunnels if they want to”.

On the other hand, they pointed out that there’s a drop of several metres somewhere which could spell doom for amateur adventurers, and that the University could be liable if students were injured in the tunnels.

Cook assures me no one has ever died in the tunnels, but says it’s wise to never go down alone. I can imagine it’d be pretty scary solo, especially if the power was to suddenly go out, but the main danger I identified was leaks from the chemical pipes under Cotton and Laby. Apparently if they drip on you, you become a mutant.

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About the Author ()

With her take-no-prisoners, kick-ass attitude, former News Editor Laura McQuillan adequately makes up for her lack of stature. Roaming the corridors (and underground tunnels) of the University by day, and hunting vampires and Nazi war criminals by night, McQuillan will stop at nothing to bring you the freshest news.

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