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The Opera House and Harbour Bridge might get all the attention, but there is something big underneath the streets of Sydney that links this modern metropolis directly back to its colonial past.
Standing at Circular Quay’s Ferry Terminal, it’s hard to imagine the sight that greeted Captain Arthur Phillips as he sailed into Port Jackson in 1788, but old paintings and maps show it plain and clear: a fresh water creek flowing into Sydney Cove.
It would come to be known as the Tank Stream, and it would provide the young colony with fresh water for 40 years. It’s the reason Sydney is where it is.
But decades of misuse would have disastrous consequences for the Tank Steam and by 1826, it had become little more than an open sewer, with water-borne disease ripe amongst the settlers. By 1860, the stench had become so bad that the stream was covered over with sandstone blocks by convicts and free stonemasons, turning the beleaguered Stream into a sewerage tunnel. It is now part of the city’s storm-water catchment.
Today, you can still trace the original direction of the Tank Stream, which started as a swamp at the edge of Hyde Park, swept down current-day Pitt St before flowing into Circular Quay. Five translucent blue markers are spread throughout the CBD, indicating that you are walking above the original watercourse bubbling below the city streets.
But for those wanting a bit more adventure, Sydney Water and Sydney Living Museums run twice-annual public tours of the Tank Stream. This year, I was lucky enough to take my camera down on one of these tours.
At 7:30am, we’re ushered into a small staging room and kitted out with a full-body harness, a helmet, a pair of gumboots and a headlamp. Connected to a safety wire, we descend a ladder into the Tank Stream and the smell is musty and damp – the smell you’d expect when you enter a 220 year-old subterranean sewer.
Hunched over, we set out into the darkness and the water that trickles by at ankle height – that’s the Tank Stream. I’m probably too conscious of the possibility of flash-flooding, as a previous tour I was scheduled for was cancelled when a short burst of rain flooded the tunnel. It’s not a place for the claustrophobic, and with an entire city built on top of it, Phil Bennett , the Heritage Program Leader at Sydney Water freely admits the tunnel is under ‘quite a bit of pressure’.
The tour takes us through 65 metres of the Tank Stream tunnel and back over 200 years of Sydney’s history. Our attention is drawn to strange sparrow pecking on the sandstone bedrock ground – signs of the hard-slog convict labour. On the walls we see markings on the block-work which date back to the 1860s. The Tank Stream has clearly passed through many phases; it is the great Sydney survivor.
‘The great thing about the Tanks Stream is that it was the original water supply, then it became a city sewer, and it’s now a storm water drain. So, in its life it’s actually seen all three of Sydney Water’s major systems’, says Bennett.
Halfway through the Stream we stop at a ladder that leads street level. You can hear cars hit the manhole occasionally, I wonder can they hear us down here?
We reach a dead-end as the wide tunnel we’re in turns into a very narrow oviform brickwork duct – which I am told – is a very impressive piece of engineering for its time.
From here we re-trace our steps back through the Tank Stream and up the ladder into the fresh air of a bright Sydney morning.
It may not be the Catacombs of Paris, but exploring Sydney’s Tank Stream showed me a side of the city I’ve never been able to visualise.
If you want to have your own Tank Stream adventure, make sure to enter the ballot for tickets via the Sydney Living Museums website.
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