Sep 1, 2005

Conquering the Riverside Dungeon

Two mornings ago, I experienced an adventure of a lifetime. I wouldn't say it was the adventure of my lifetime, for that would be discrediting past adventures that have made me feel comparably captivated. It was, however, one I shall remember for a long time, and one that is worth writing about in detail.

A year ago, I first walked across the Wainaku Bridge, which was on my way to the downtown post office, about half a mile from my apartment. Being in no hurry, I took a long gander over the bridge railing in the direction of the sea, impressed by the view. The dark river water seemed to fuse with the deep blue sea seamlessly, between two lush, verdant banks and beneath two historical highway bridges. When I scurried over to the other side of the bridge, however, I witnessed something that greatly intrigued me. Beside two lovely cascades, nestled up on the steep bank was a large structure composed of heavily weathered, moss-coated stone and concrete, almost intimidating in appearance and strikingly esoteric in matter and function. I recall staring at the building for a few consecutive minutes, taking in every minor detail of its features. It was almost unfathomably surreal; something straight out of Myst or Riven, and I found it inexplicable why this ... ancient, ramshackle-looking development was standing there before me. From its worn walls shouted many dark openings, and a heavy stream of whitewater was bursting out of the lowest. The several large, rusted pipes that climbed up the walls and past the roof resembled oversized exhaust systems, for what I could only wonder. To me, the establishment was very dungeonlike in appearance. On the landward side of the building, up the street, I could see it contained in a confined area all the equipment of a typical electrical substation, enclosed by a chain link fence lined with three strands of barbed wire and topped with razor wire so sharp-looking it's difficult to inspect closely without gritting one's teeth. Not to mention, all those "No Trespassing" and "Danger: High Voltage" signs posted all around the perimeter must certainly keep the lawyers from staying awake at night. It looked much more like an ancient, forgotten dungeon than an active powerhouse, though, especially from the river side. It seems only natural, then, that I came to know it as The Riverside Dungeon.

I had passed by The Dungeon countless times, whether by driving, riding my bike, walking, or running. It had become a deeply engrained habit to always take at least a passing glance at it, paying it my respect for the day. There always was something about it that commanded my respect, just as many old, sturdy buildings do. That one had most likely stood up to high river floods, at least one or two tsunamis, and an extremely high rate of rainfall, humidity, and decomposition. Only a few months ago, I found obscured by the trees a spiraling staircase which led halfway down the river bank. It ended at a small, roofless concrete shed, but a quick scramble down the rock below led the rest of the way down. From there, I could make my way along the dry edge of the river back closer to the bridge, so that The Dungeon was directly on the opposite side from me. It was only when I looked up at it from this new perspective that thoughts of someday infiltrating and exploring it crossed my mind. To imagine doing so brought on pleasant little tingles of anticipation and delight. After studying it for a few more moments, I made my decision: I would explore it someday, no matter what the risks involved were, even if it meant die trying. Something about it beckoned me. Above the roar of the river, I could seemingly hear it calling my name, begging me to brave the rushing water and dispose myself to its long forgotten mysteries...

To make one's way across the river and approach it that way seemed to be the only practical way of getting into it. The front street entrance to the grounds was much too conspicuous both by day and night, for it was guarded by bright street lamps and resided right across the street from busy apartment complexes. And that razor wire, oh, how frightening it looked. I had considered accessing the building straight from the bridge, but they made that a little too difficult, as well. A ledge extended from the building to the bridge, but was quite a plunge from the sidewalk, and a dense web of barbed wire assembled atop the concrete guardrail complicated things further. In short, it was either enter via the river or say hello to certain injury or maybe a bored cop or two, who don't mind harassing those who just like to do a little harmless exploring.

Interestingly, I hadn't worked up the incentive to cross the river until a few weeks ago. The moon was out in full force, and it was the final morning before Ian's departure. I felt like I had to do something "daring," out of celebration, tribute, whatever. Without much forethought, I chose the calmest area of the river in the vicinity and jumped in. The water was chilly, but still far from excruciatingly cold. It felt nothing short of incredibly refreshing. I reached the opposite bank and made my way down to The Dungeon, finding it difficult to keep my balance on the slick rock. When I touched The Dungeon's concrete foundation for the very first time, I could feel its energy. It seemed positive and forlorn at the same time. I was thrilled by the fact that I had finally reached it, but I quickly discovered that I wouldn't get far exploring it. Two huge, thunderous streams of water burst out of twin concrete chutes in the building and quickly joined the river, negating any manageable path farther along the bank. A rough scramble up the side of the building opposite the bridge brought me to a colossal, antiquated-looking pipe and a new perspective on the dungeon grounds (I could even see part of the street from there), but afforded me no access to the building- the fencing here seemed even more severe here than toward the street. Satisfied with having reached the building itself, I headed back home, promising it I would be back.

Just this week, I decided to take a typical walk down to the bridge, not expecting at first to make an adventure of a lifetime out of it. When I scrambled down to the bank and noticed that the twin jets of water that had restricted my access last time were completely absent, the first thought that crossed my head was, "this is your chance to go farther." Visions of actually looking up into those dark tunnels which were only recently dry, and perhaps even climbing up into themcrossed my head, and made me both excited and somewhat nervous. It was all the motivation I required to throw myself into that river again and swim across, making my way back to my favourite local wonder.

For once, the ground wasn't slickened by recent rain, making the journey along the edge much easier. I had brought only one possession along, my TekTorch (a flashlight of sorts that emits a very focused steelblue light) which I had to carry in my mouh as I crossed the river. As I approached the first chute and stood before it, I half-expected a sudden surge of water to begin blasting out of it, as I have seen so many times before. It was admittedly somewhat exhilarating to lift up the heavy rubber flap that hung over the entrance and poke my head up there, acknowledging that I was directly in the path of a potentially violent, deadly force. I quickly left it alone, however, deciding I would explore its depths later if I had enough leftover time, energy, and nerve.

Progressing a little farther down the river, past the two dormant chutes and the twin cascades on the other side of me, I was now so close to the bridge that a couple street lamps illuminated my path. I jumped across a small concrete canal and waded through some thin vegetation, eager to return to the shadows so that I could remain as covert as possible. The rocky bank became hazardously narrow and steep under the bridge, plunging right down into the swiftly moving current. Fortunately, I didn't need to go that far. The branches of a gargantuan banyan tree grew up The Dungeon's concrete walls like thick, sturdy tendrils. Navigating my way through and between its mesh of aerial roots was much like negotiating a maze. My one and only goal for the time being was to discover a way up to the concrete platform about 25 feet above me, the same one I had looked down upon from the street many times, contemplating how I would ever get to it. As luck would have it, in the very corner where the ledge met the bridge, a network of roots were scurrying down, offering enough handholds and footholds to allow for some very unorganised climbing. I enjoyed the fact that the tree's tremendous crown offered me protection from the light and sightings by humans. The aerial roots of banyan trees are remarkably sturdy and durable; one could never expect them to bend or snap no matter how hard they are pulled upon. I didn't feel nervous about relying on them entirely to help me up to the platform safely, and they did. I ducked beneath an old rusted railing and stood up, thankful to be on some flat, solid ground again. Traveling parallel to the railing was yet another chain link fence with barbed wire, but *gasp* no razor wire! I walked along the narrow corridor back toward the building until the chain link fence crossed over to meet the railing, and hardly believed how easy getting around the big, formidable fence looked. It was simple as standing atop the old iron railing, using the corner fence post to support myself, and swinging right around the fence and over to the walkway that extended around the front and side of The Dungeon. I was dumbfounded by the obviousness of the security breach, and even more taken aback that I had almost made it into The Dungeon's intimate confines.

Going along the side of the building, away from the river, was a narrow iron staircase which I followed up to the front door. The entrance was, of course, securely padlocked, but I had little interest in going back outside anyway. The stairway led past a couple dilapidated old rooms, many of the window panes yellowed and shattered, and remnants of old, rusted tools and appliances littering the concrete floors. It smelled of decay and abandonment, much like a dungeon would. On the opposite side of the walkway was a towering iron door that stood between me and immersion into the true heart of The Dungeon. Unsurprisingly, it didn't budge. They wouldn't make it that easy, would they? Next to the door was another window, several of its pains busted out. My curiousity getting the best of me, I shined my light through one of them, desperate for a look inside. What I witnessed left me completely spellbound.

It looked more like a dungeon on the inside than on the outside! Three or four rows of giant, rust-coated machines consumed most of the floor space, but the room was still incredibly spacious. Giant chains and hooks descended from the ceiling in various places, beyond the eerie old overhead lamps and cobweb-tangled rafters. On the far side of the room, two lamp lights were burning, focused on a large slab of machinery covered with a white sheet. I could make out a staircase leading upwards, and through the dome-shaped window of the upper story I could see a running fan and several flashing LED's. Stacked against the northern wall were piles of rusted rubble, dilapidated display cases full of wilting tools that if touched by a feather might collapse into a heap. As exotic and ghastly as the place seemed, it did not seem particularly foreboding so much as simply... fascinating.

I gave up on the door and explored one last avenue- the walkway that led along The Dungeon's river-facing side. I turned the corner and passed by a couple large exhaust pipes, speculating on how noisy the area would be if those machines were actually running. Imagine my delight when I arrived at a sizeable opening in the wall, reached by climbing over a large muffler. A pipe ran across the horizontal median of the opening, but still left me enough space to squeeze through. If they really wanted to keep me out, I determined, they would have nicely lined the opening with vertical bars or grating. Perhaps centuries ago, when it was operating as a normal dungeon, all the windows were barred, but in contemporary times, they were left open as a subtle invite for curious wanderers such as myself. Gaining entrance to the inside was so easy it felt almost unnatural. The floor was out of safe dropping-down distance, but I was able to balance along a large pipe and onto a steel walkway leading around the perimeter of the gigantic engine. For some reason, I felt the need and desire to be as quiet as possible, afraid to disturb the place as if it was still wrapped up in a peaceful slumber. I circled back to the large iron door I had inspected earlier, and noticed that it had been welded shut from the inside. Clearly, this place was closed for business- at least from that entrance. I crept down another narrow stairway leading to the base floor, which was littered with bits and pieces that had broken off the heavy machinery looming above. The machinery actually reminded me of a locomotive engine in its breadth and exterior appearance, and could only but gaze in awe. It was sporting eight large pistons, each of them much larger than me, and I had to wonder just how much horsepower such a massive invention could put out. A giant iron wheel with large inner teeth was located at the northern end of it, its bottom quarter rusting away in a small well of stillwater. I could easily see it as a deadly trap that had more business being in an action-adventure video game, and could imagine it somehow starting up and coming to life before me. The room was filled with three other machines that looked much like this one, rivaling it in size and perplexing mystery. The floor seemed unsafe to walk on, as much of it was composed of rusted grating covering a large pool of water- and who knew what was lurking in its depths. I wasn't discouraged by the notion that what I was doing was unsafe, but rather, very aroused.

I was still perplexed regarding those two burning lamps in the corner, though. It crossed my mind that someone might have been working there recently, and had wandered off for a short coffee break. I was fairly certain it was my paranoia talking very loudly, but I still decided to approach with stealth. As soon as I crossed over a strand of yellow "do not enter" tape and passed the large machines, the floor became much more well-kempt, and everything seemed much tidier. At the same time, though, it still felt distinctly like a dungeon, especially with the eerie yellow light creeping up the walls, emitting spooky shadows. All senses alert, I padded up a few stairs to the raised floor and proceeded to explore the western area of the room. The largest wrench I had ever seen hung from the wall, along with a few other arcane, rusted inventions. I looked down on what the two lamp lights were focused upon, yet another esoteric piece of machinery apparently in the design stages, and harboured furry thoughts of destroying it for the common good. Actually, what I could not stop doing was staring at the ethereal red light that shone upon the teeth of its gears. From a distance, they nearly resembled the ribs of a human skeleton.

Near the stairway leading to the upper floor was a grid whose intimidating innards featured a tangled web of power wires, switches, levers, and other electrical devices. It was in an extremely ramshackle condition, apparently having not been touched in years. From the outside in, it seemed like some sort of over-elaborate death trap, maybe something a hedgehog or golden fox would happen upon in Death Egg Zone. On the front of the grid several identifiable place names were listed, beneath them missing switches and gaping holes. Little did I know that venturing upstairs would bring me into a much different atmosphere. The upper floor less resembled an old dungeon and more of a modern bunker. Nearest the top of the stairs was a clipboard with a few logs and a phone and phonebook resting on the table. Towards the other side was a humongous power console center; bulky, square boxes whose surfaces were lined with myriad switches, buttons, and glowing, blinking LED's of many colours. There were even three plastic chairs sitting in front of them in case I developed the sudden urge to lounge around. Amongst all the power boxes and metres, I noticed what appeared to be a surveillance camera, so I took the precaution of ducking underneath it. A large fan rested on the window ledge, left whirring away for some reason or another. From the window, I could look down upon the entire dungeon, realising what a far cry it was from the modern surroundings I had just recently stumbled into. I felt like quite the dominant one up there, watching over everything from my high vantage point; my position of authority.

The last major room I stumbled into happened to be the newest of them all. In fact, it reeked of that unique and very distinct "brand new machine" smell. As I stood atop a grated walkway leading down to the concrete floor, my TekTorch revealed a massive turbine occupying the room. I located the label on it and noticed that it was dated "2005." The contrast was rather extraordinary- I had gone from rusting ledge to cutting edge. I was fascinated by this giant machine, an invention capable of producing so much power, of producing thundering cascades of water that could easily take a life. I marveled at the supposition that I could just throw a few switches and somehow alter the flow of the river.

At the same time, though, my mind became immersed in a Goldeneye 007 videogame-reality-fantasy. The conditions, after all, were nearly ideal for it. I almost felt as if plastering the turbine with remote mines was an objective of mine, along with shooting out the fire alarms with my PP7. From there, I could take out a couple surveillance cameras and take a covert photograph of the main console display readout before attaching a plastique to the entire system. I would grab the clipboard containing logs of all the poor prisoners fed to the mangling machines along with a couple other items of evidence, then use the old radio on the corner table downstairs to contact Jack Wade. After shooting out both of the lights, I would strafe back to the opening I had originally crawled into, inadvertently setting off the alarm system. Knowing that the fly-swatting guards loitering around the front entrance previously talking about next week's Cradle of Vomit concert were now in pursuit of me, I rushed along the platform, back around the chainlink fence, down the aerial roots of the banyan tree, along the base of the dungeon wall (avoiding the roving searchlights, of course!), and past the twin chutes. Being so obsessed with danger, I decided to crawl up into one of the chutes, looking up at the base of the royal blue turbine as it trickled water. The air felt hot, wet, and heavy, and the "newness" odour was strongest of all in here. It smelled almost like... the future. A clean, technologically advanced future. Remembering I was in a hurry, I scrambled back out the opposite chute, scurried up the bank a ways, jumped into the river and swam to the other side. Just as the guards were beginning to spill out of The Dungeon opening like termites, I pressed a button on my wristwatch. Kaboom. The guards went flying, and a brilliant explosion could be seen within The Dungeon's confines. The ever-respectable building survived, but its evil operations within did not. Mission accomplished.

I wouldn't say my imagination gets the best of me so much as I get the best of my imagination. I can turn the completely mundane into an adventure, so it's quite fabulous what my imagination can do with something that is already an adventure. I feel as if I have accomplished a major life goal by finally infiltrating the famous Riverside Dungeon. Last night, I went back in there, this time armed with a camera with which to capture its mystique and splendor. I snapped as many pictures as I could before my battery power ran out, which seems to happen to me more frequently these days. They still provide a good supplement to the reading, I feel.

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