History (Part Two)
Brisbane began to grow rapidly from the 1830s onwards, and far more brick buildings were being erected by this time. Many of these replaced the squalid hut-life conditions endured throughout the 1820s. A map offering a rough guide as to what the city would have looked like is included below. However, a major flooding problem emerged around this time, and it threatened to put an end to all that had been accomplished so far. This problem could attributed to the heavy rainfall runoff from surrounding swamps and high ridges. A number of reports from the 1830s detail how rainfall would naturally find its way into the swamps, via a number of lagoons, before passing down through Brisbane where the major river was located. Much of the surrounding land was impassable, especially during wet weather, so very little work could be done to divert the flow of water into the newly developing town. Water supply and drainage thus became one of the new council’s main priorities.
Initially, simple surface and box drains were laid down across the city. The surface drain, which involved constructing a road that was slightly higher in the centre than at the sides (a design that continues to be used today), was designed to carry water from key roads and streets into a ditch located on either side. The simple box drain was a covered flat bottomed drain that would carry a large volume of water away to the main river. The design entailed these drains being wide, but since they were flat they would regularly fill to full capacity, or become blocked by debris swept in from the surrounding swamps. Occasionally, although it was rare since they were so expensive, brick barrel drains would be constructed. These, however, turned out to be less effective than the box drain.
In the 1840s an engineer named John Phillips designed the ovoid drain; drawing inspiration from similar layouts used in London, a city which had a long history of flooding problems but reached a solution by developing various inclinations for the purpose of receiving and carrying away water. Phillips also took note of the efficiency of newer British systems that used separate drains to carry away storm water and sewage. The first ovoid drain was fully completed in 1860; it was built from stone and lay above the ground, rather than below. By 1861, though, a decision was passed to culvert most of the open drains across Brisbane, including the older box designs. While stone was used in the fabrication of most new drains initially, brick was later selected for use because it was a much cheaper material. By 1875, the Department of Harbours and Rivers were entrusted with all responsibility for drainage and sewage control; to take pressure off the council who had may other issues to attend to since the town was expanding at an incredible rate. One of the DHR engineers, William Nisbet, took charge of the project and by 1877 ensured that every drain would be used exclusively, for either surface water or sewage; he guaranteed that neither would be mixed according to his plans.
Our Version of Events
So, to pick up where we left things in the last report, we’re back at the barbeque. We’d just had a look through Brisbane’s ‘Darkie’ and we were enjoying a couple of steaks, chicken kebabs and a few bevvies before heading for Burford’s Batcave. I’ve no idea why it’s named after a Burford, and I never thought to ask at the time, but this particular drain was something myself and Mayhem had set out to do before we arrived in Brisbane because it’s a little different to most drains, as you will see. It was constructed in 1890, to drain waterholes around a railyard which no longer exists. The man-made brick section of the drain was built under the supervision of William Nisbet (that chap I mentioned earlier), and he designed it to flow out through the natural rocks at the base of a cliff face. Although the tunnel has changed over the years, as concrete has been used to reinforce the structure in certain areas, much of the original late 1800s architecture is still visible.
We packed up the barbeque just as it got dark and set off to meet a few more explorers who were keen to come with us. Part of the reason for having the break in between exploring drains was because its tidal, and thus is prone to filling up quickly as it goes from being waterless to above head height (depending on how tall you are of course) in a very short space of time. We’d timed it so our visit would coincide with low tide, so we would hopefully be able to exit when we reached the end.
Half an hour later, following a bit of a scramble, we were soon at the beginning of Burford’s Batcave. From the offset, while the water level was shallow, the going was surprisingly slippery, especially on parts of the concrete base. We could see very visible evidence on the sides of the brickwork where the water had been, so that went some way towards explaining why it was so slimy. As we carried on, walking further into Nisbet’s impressive creation, we began to take note of the ‘fresh’ smeared over a lot of the brickwork. It would seem that not every Australian system separates its fresh from the clean water. Nisbet would be quite disappointed I imagine… Given that it was, once again, like a sauna down there the smell soon became quite noticeable. Nevertheless, we were keen to reach the actual batcave part, to witness the bats for ourselves, so we cracked on.
Once again, the entire drain was alive, moving with various different creatures. The roaches came first, closely followed by huntsman spiders; though by this point we were starting to get used to them. Then we saw a mouse; clearly wondering what the fuck six people were doing down there as it made a desperate attempt to evade us. I was beginning to feel a little like I was on an episode in Attenborough’s Natural World TV series, rummaging around in the depths to see what lives there. We refrained from creating a documentary on the GoPro, to avoid looking like a right pair of tits. As we neared the natural rock section of the drain it became quite obvious that there were many bats down here; it was a fantastic display. You could hear them fluttering around when we all turned our torch lights out, and we could see them dart above our heads with the lights on. Somehow none of them seemed to crash into us, which was quite amazing in itself.
At the cave the water suddenly got deeper, so it was inevitable: we we’re getting wet once again. Climbing on the rocks was possible in parts, but they were even slipperier than the man-made section of the drain. Rather than fall and drop the camera gear I decided to ignore the fact that there was probably plenty of human shit in it the water and just stroll on. I had to look on the bright side, at least we weren’t at ‘balls depth’. As it turned out, that wasn’t the worst part of being inside an actual batcave. Since there were perhaps hundreds of bat fluttering around, including the many clusters of babies clinging to the ceiling, there was a lot of bat shit. This is something that’s not thought about in the Batman trilogy. If Batman’s cave truly had bats in it poor Alfred would have had a hard time sprucing it up. I could go on, but that’s all I’ll say on the matter.
Despite the ‘shitty’ conditions, the whole experience was still awesome. The drain is something unique and I’m glad we managed to tick it off our ‘to-do list’. The cave itself gives you quite a strange, almost tranquil, feeling I found. Probably because you know there’s a whole city sitting just above your head. At the end of the very system you also encounter a spectacular view of Brisbane city, so it was an excellent way to finish an explore. As we’d timed the tide just right, we were able to exit with the water lapping just below knee height.
Explored with Ford Mayhem, Darkday, Darkday’s Accomplice, Deranged and Dangered.