Tunnels Under Terra Nullius

An excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints

This is an edited excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, published by Splice on March 18 and available for pre-order now.

Deep inside the old Prince of Wales mine, with Vazo the Terrible’s whistling (for some reason it was La Marseillaise) filling up the darkness, the tunnel descended rapidly and I found I had to steady myself with my free hand against the by turns jagged and smoothly cut walls as well as keep my head down because the ceiling height was unpredictable and potentially lethal, if anything it was growing lower by the inch as the air grew cooler and once or twice we had to, both of us, duck just as a bat started flapping about in the narrow confines causing me to jump and I caught my scalp on a ridge of rock which immediately brought tears to my eyes. “Careful, mate,” said Vasily without turning around, and in a rush of anger brought on by the sudden pain I asked him what we were doing down here, because I for one did not wish to be here, in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of a town that was barely alive, where nothing at all had happened since the days of the gold rush, and for that matter where we were not even supposed to be — we should have been in Kalgoorlie, for God’s sake, not down a mine on the fringes of the desert! — “We’re almost there,” said my companion, finally turning to me with an excited expression that caught the white light of my torch; perhaps it was the shadows, or perhaps it was just his enthusiasm, or even the narrowing tunnel, but Vasily suddenly seemed larger, more commanding, which was why he was so good in the ring, incidentally, for despite his diminished stature he was able to project something of a dominating presence and hold the audience in the palm of his little hand — it was Vasily who roamed round the ring before my performances, geeing up the crowd, getting them on the edges of their seats or even on their feet before meeting me offstage with an encouraging word, a splash of kerro and flick of a flame — and it was this attitude, this air he possessed, that kept me moving in his wake, not only further into this tunnel but also further into that tour that quite possibly saved my life. Soon the mine opened once more and I was able to stand completely upright (could have even jumped a little if I’d had a mind to) and we now made our way with ease in the cooling air until we came to a fork at which, with a moment’s hesitation as though he was trying to recall directions, Vasily indicated that we should go left then, coming as we did to a dead end, he led us back to now take the right turning, which within about thirty metres opened and revealed, even with our torches going, a pale blue light up ahead, one that intensified as we drew nearer to such a degree that I found I could shut mine off and still see the way perfectly well; Vazo too pocketed his torch as the tunnel opened into a massive chamber that was lit from the ground at five points, the blue security lights shining up the rock walls and over what looked to be heavy duty scaffolding all the way along one side of the chamber; this wall was separated from its opposite by about a hundred metres, easily the size of a football field, and squinting into the brightness I could make out yet more scaffolding down there and a large, black archway opening up in another direction, which Vazo pointed to and said, “That’s how they get all the heavier machinery in,” machinery that was clearly required to build the structures towering above us, for it could not have been done by hand, that’s for sure, and so, according to Vasily, they’d bored out one of the two existing tunnels in order to facilitate the construction of these scaffolds, which turned out to not be scaffolds at all (or at least the majority weren’t) but racking that would soon accommodate underground servers and data storage units. It was still in the early phases of construction and supposedly (though who’s to say?) the first of its kind in the country; there were already several notable underground facilities in other parts of the world — ie. Iron Mountain in the United States, Swiss Fort Knox in Switzerland, The Bunkers in the UK and Bahnhof Pionen in Sweden — many of which made use of abandoned military bunkers, with the exception of Iron Mountain which was built inside an old iron mine and comprised a 1.7 million-square-foot campus some sixty-five metres underground, an enterprise that began stealthily in 1951 and had grown to become one of the most renowned data storage facilities in the world — it was, for instance, where Bill Gates stored his Corbis photographs, a refrigerated, hermetically sealed collection of over one hundred million images and eight hundred thousand videos that form a visual history of the twentieth century; it was also where many of the original Frank Sinatra master recordings were held, as well as countless masters for countless artists owned by entertainment giants like Sony, Warner and Universal, plus the original wills of Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Princess Diana and almost two thousand unclaimed, presumably “lost” cans of nitrate film that made up the Iron Mountain Collection at the Academy Film Archive — “the Mountain” was known as the largest privately owned underground storage facility in the world and was possibly (though we could never say for sure because of the sensitive nature of the data storage enterprise) the first of its kind anywhere; however, as its reputation grew, other companies began seeking out their own underground opportunities, and by the time Vasily and I entered the former Prince of Wales mine outside Coolgardie, many of them were starting to realise the wealth of already-excavated terra nullius beneath the West Australian deserts. Of course, conducting the requisite earthworks themselves would have been far too expensive, prohibitively so, but because the mines were already there, these companies could buy the land cheaply and fit out the subterranean tunnels and chambers for the purpose of storing vast amounts of information in their underground clouds; moreover, so Vasily told me as we walked around the half-constructed facility — he’d been told, so he said, by the manager of the Goldfields Exhibition Museum in Coolgardie the day before, an excitable German, I was to discover, whose name was Otto and who, via his engaging accent, wished to walk you through the town’s history in what felt like real time — there was the ever-reliable Outback sun, the energy from which was to be harvested and used to power, cool, ventilate, dehumidify and protect the site via solar panel farms, meaning that the data storage companies didn’t need to hook up to the grid and would remain self-sufficient and sustainable both economically and environmentally; it was all there just waiting for them. Walking around in the harshness of the powerful halogen lights — in a few more weeks, Vasily said, we would not be able to enter so easily, for it was getting to the stage where they’d have to set up security; they’d only waited this long because no-one ever came out here, which was another advantage of the location: the almost complete absence of people — but for now we moved about freely, and in the metallic-diesel air, vastly different from the wet-rock smell back in the narrow tunnel, I envisaged the future of this place, of the whole country for that matter, a nation founded on natural resources, not invention or ingenuity, but on what could be dug up by those diggers, on holes bored into the earth, minerals extracted and shipped off — how much of Australia is now in other parts of the world? how many of the world’s rich and famous wear markers of their status retrieved from the Australian dirt? — and this mining endeavour not only unearthed valuable resources but also, unwittingly, created another: empty space; for as the world generated more and more information, day in day out, new pictures, videos, documents, programs, software, social media posts; as more and more of history was being archived, it did not all simply vanish into the æther, did not fade away into the past, it required storing, and storage required space; increasingly it will become the world’s most valuable commodity, not for farming or housing or production, but for the storage of information, and the abandoned goldmines will open once again, activity will return to these parts because empty space, negative space, these voids in the landscape, will be worth their weight in gold, maybe even more so, and once again we’ll find ourselves sitting on incalculable riches, potentially every record of every occurrence in the history of existence, for that was the way it was going, every detail of every day in the life of everyone, you and me, tucked away down here, every answer to every question, every fact unarguable, the hard evidence incontrovertible, all knowing kept under lock and key and twenty-four-hour surveillance in an old mine in the Australian desert; this was just the beginning, this gigantic chamber in the old Prince of Wales mine, fitted out with everything it needed to house subterranean mountains of knowledge, was the tip of the iceberg, as it were, for it will undoubtedly trigger a new wave of interest and activity, not so much a goldrush as a voidrush, a new kind of space race, one that doesn’t go up but rather down, into instead of away from, which is to say that those diggers from the old days, the original diggers of the late nineteenth century, the likes of David Wynford Carnegie and Gus Luck and Lord Percy Douglas, were not only getting in while the going was good but also carving out our future, launching us into the age of knowledge, of fact in text, photographs, videos and charts, birthdates and death dates and everything in between, the complete wikipedic history of everything packed into these dusty mines, the landscape murmuring with their ghosts, groaning with the weight of knowledge — which is curious because those men, those great explorers, were insistent about going into the unknown; there was no interest at all in the known; the main objective was to blaze a trail, just as Carnegie had done between Coolgardie and Halls Creek; the lure was not knowing, so much so that in a letter dated 16 November 1898 to an explorer friend in Australia (by now Carnegie was back in England wondering what to do with himself), one William “Harry” Tietkens, he laments: “now that so many tracks cross each other over the interior… there is no great ‘unknown’ left [and] I feel that it is wiser to look to some newer country,” which incidentally he did, sailing for Africa in December 1899 to take up the position of Assistant Resident of the Middle Niger in Nigeria, a position he held for barely eleven months until, in a moment of what some might call poetic justice, in the early morning of 27 November 1900, while searching the village of Tawari for a fugitive by the name of Gana, he was shot in the thigh with a poison arrow and died not fifteen minutes later at the tender age of twenty-nine, having made something of a name for himself, if not quite a fortune, and sought out the unknown the world over until he stumbled across the Great Unknown in that tiny Nigerian village. And now, over a century later, when there are even fewer great unknowns than in Carnegie’s day, data storage companies are making moves to enter the tunnels these men dug in the landscape and to fill them up with knowledge, infinite knowledge, and as Vasily and I surveyed that subterranean construction site, the scents of metal and diesel and industry in the air, I welcomed this development, welcomed it wholeheartedly, because with the wealth of information packed into our soil, mere metres beneath our feet, it was my hope (and remains so) that answers would grow, would grow up through the rock like a persistent vine or soak and break through the burned crust of desert, a sudden burst of life in a lifeless expanse, because someone has to know something, for heaven’s sake, with all the monitoring and data processing and satellite information and radio broadcasts and cell towers and phone calls and selfies and texts and uploads and downloads and radar and protocol and Hubble telescopes and tiny borescopes, with everything monitored all the time —

About Adam Ouston

Adam Ouston is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award as well as the manuscript prize at the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. He holds a PhD and has worked as a copywriter, editor and bookseller. As a musician he performs as Costume. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania.