Many of us pass crumbling structures and overgrown fun parks of the past on highways without much of a second thought, the relics of forgotten entertainment and function barely registering in our peripheries. We may on occasion think ‘Huh, what ever happened to that place?’ but the curiosity often ends there, or after a lethargic scroll through Wikipedia. Urban explorers (urbex for short) are a community that does pretty much the opposite, hungrily seeking out deserted places for further investigation. Urbex-ers get right in there, beyond the fences and cracked doors and try to grasp what the place is – or was – all about. It’s a practice that can be quite contentious, both in and out of the community. For starters, it can be construed as recreational trespassing and there’s a whole slew of local and national restrictions on navigating man-made properties. There’s also the tricky socio-politics of fellow urbex participants, which a quick spin around the online forums can show. Mostly though, they’re just curious, enthusiastic people who bother to examine forgotten places, many of them lovingly documenting as they go with photography and recordings.
Gia Cattiva is one-such urban explorer. She catalogues her findings and her appreciation for “beauty in the abandoned” on her blog ShhSydney with an infectious kind of atmospheric wonderment. Particular highlights include her discovery of the Drummoyne Boys club house and the eery abandoned slides of the Magic Kingdom. It’s fascinating stuff and it makes you feel really, really lazy.
We asked her to share a few tips ‘n’ tricks for dabbling in a bit of urbex yourself. Though this doesn’t mean we’re saying you should because it’s potentially dangerous, but you know, just in case you’re theoretically curious.
Pick a pseudonym
Erasing your online identity is pretty much impossible, but going by another name in the urbex world helps when your hobby isn’t exactly legal. Most of us prefer to use nicknames to protect outselves from the po po. My name translates to ‘Naughty Gia’ in Italian, so feel free to have fun with creating your new explorer alterego.
Hide your face
Consider investing in a gas mask to avoid breathing in asbestos (explorer kryptonite). Unless you’re nonchalant about your lungs, or aware of how to look out for places where it might be a problem, it’s handy to have one because you never know what to expect inside a dilapidated building. Many urbexers choose not to reveal their face to protect their privacy, preferring to stay behind the camera, or play up their anonymity by doing their best blue steel while wearing a Jason mask.
Pick your politics
There’s two opposing sides in urbex land to choose from – the traditional types who want to ensure it stays underground and the new generation who use social media to connect with the community and are criticised for mainstreaming. If you decide to be the latter, just be prepared to cop some flack for it and have to go solo.
Pack for the apocalypse
No need to overload your backpack, but always remember to bring some essentials to help your basic survival, should things go south. You can likely live for days on a Summer Roll and a bottle of water. Also sunblock and a hat is always wise because ‘straya. While weaponry is never advised, a golf umbrella looks innocent when you’re scouting the perimeter of a site, plus you’ll feel safer having one when you cross that red belly black snake or rogue kangaroo. They’re also useful for their intended purpose when you’re in the middle of an abandoned amusement park and it starts to seriously piss down, because without one you’re gonna have a bad time.
Please wear practical clothes like pants and Docs, if you got them. Nature takes over the abandoned and long grass which conceals creepy crawlies like ticks or reptiles and the occasional swamp. Bare legs and barbed wire just don’t mix. Also take a jacket, even if it’s stinking hot and you don’t reckon it’s required. You’ll feel more more secure without your bare arms flailing about near that wasps nest. Not to get all mumsy, but better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
Do your research
Just like the stinky kid in school, nobody likes the lazy urbexer. This is the dude who randomly PMs without so much as a hi to hit you up for locations. Part of the thrill of exploring is finding places yourself – putting in many late nights researching online and using up the last of that phone data looking at Google Maps on the loo at work pays off.
Don’t give directions
Why make it easy for anyone else to get there, when they might be the type to vandalise the place you just visited? Be super cautious when sharing information on forums and accidentally through sharing photos that might reveal too much info on how to find it, at least until you can establish some semblance of trust. The urbex scene is a made up of a mixed bag of more nuts than a pack of trail mix and not everyone is into it for the love of history, or cares to preserve heritage places. Most urbexers are highly secretive about where they’ve been and don’t appreciate people publicising places too much.
Befriend old folk
Seniors are an untapped source of urbex potential. Anyone who can remember when all these locations were fields is a friend indeed. Old people usually have knowledge that can’t be Googled and no shortage of fascinating stories, so when out exploring new suburbs it’s both wise and nice to say g’day, have a yarn and try to get acquainted with the locals. They may be able to put you in touch with the owners, or let you know the real story behind the place and how it came to be forgotten. Even if the oldies don’t provide any new leads, chances are they’ll still make you smile and appreciate their generation a bit more.
Own your weirdness
Get used to those who don’t understand the appeal of adventuring to throw quizzical looks your way, or rouse on you for trespassing on private property. You’ll probably have to defend yourself occasionally, but they’ll hopefully just quickly change the topic and allow you to escape an awkward conversation
These are just some general clues – depending on whether you’re drawn to disused railways, drains, redevelopments or derelicts there’ll be different things to be mindful of. But basically, have a ball exploring all the little lost worlds you discover, absorb the beauty of the abandoned and please be careful, you crazy kids.