The eighteen of us huddle in the remains of the undertaker’s basement. There’s no light save the moon’s pale glow that filters down through the bone white fingers of the tree forcing its way up through the warped cobblestone.
It’s warm in spite of the recent rain, and the occasional fat drop of water plummets from the roof above and strikes my shoulder – the insistent tap of somebody with something important to say. The blonde girl to my right still seems shaken up from the huntsman sighting earlier.
Somehow, the distant sounds of George Street traffic are completely muffled. We have been, as our guide had suggested as we’d entered this dark place, transported back in time to the early days of the Australian colony.
The squeaking of the gate above ceases. For a moment there’s just the sound of our breath and the insistent tap tap of the water.
A thud from above.
The blonde girl cries out.
Our guide stands above us on a walkway. His long coat dances a macabre dance in the wind and his wide brimmed hat, pulled low over his eyes, obscures all but his mouth as he begins to talk.
“This was once the basement of a very successful undertaker,” he informs us, “It was a lucrative business in the early days of the colony”.
We nod in agreement. Already tonight we’ve been told how much money was to be made in morgues (or ‘dead houses’) when Sydney was little more than hastily constructed houses huddled on the muddy shores of the harbour.
He tells us the story of how the undertaker worked himself to death and was found dead in the very basement in which we now stand. It’s not hard to imagine the ancient stone fireplace once dancing with flames as the undertaker in question hunched over a cadaver. I’m grateful that my imagination doesn’t extend to conjuring up the rich stink of dead bodies that must have existed.
Our guide, Gary, continues to tell the tale of how a family later purchased the property and the girl began to hear the tap tap tap of somebody working in the basement. Oddly enough, it’s not the undertaker who is rumored to haunt the site these days – but the girl herself. Perhaps she never fully recovered from her brush with the other side?
“The rangers and security guards sometimes see her,” Gary intones as he points to a window high above our heads, “in that window there”.
We all crane our necks to look up at the window. Overhead the moon is wearing a veil of clouds.
“But more often, they see her in that window there…”
We follow his finger to the window I stand with my back to. A group of girls quickly shy away from the dark pane, but I peer eaglerly in hoping to see the pale face of a haunted child staring back at me. No such luck.
A Rocks Ghost Tour of the historic Rocks district by night sets you back a steep $42, but I can’t say I was unhappy with my ninety minute exploration of some of the lesser known locations in the popular tourist spot.
After meeting just before seven by Cadman’s Cottage, we quickly progress into Sydney’s oldest cottage and hear the first of many grisly stories. Gary does a great job of blending macabre tales with a bit of humor, and his customary way of ending stories with a quick ‘Follow me’ means we don’t get long to ask questions and are instead left with our own imaginations. It’s a very neat trick.
I will say here and now that I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’m certainly open to the idea of their existence. I went into the tour with an open mind and hopes of perhaps having my first brush with the supernatural, and while I didn’t spot any specters or hear any rattling chains, I still enjoyed the evening immensely.
Despite walking through streets crowded with Sunday night diners and revelers from time to time, it’s still quite easy to remove myself from the hustle and bustle of Sydney and instead picture the city as it was in those early colonial days. Stories of jealous lovers and murderous street gangs transform ordinary sites into haunted ones.
Hell, the very same park in which I snapped photos during my Rocks photography course last summer houses stories of tortured women and murdered children. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that particular bench in the same way again after hearing of the mourning mother who still searches for her murdered son to this day.
Starting at Cadman’s Cottage and ending at the Harbourside Hotel with a ‘free’ (with any drink purchase) drink, the tour took just under ninety minutes and involved just enough walking to feel like I was getting a bit of a workout. Along the way there were even a few opportunities to snap a few photos of Sydney’s more iconic sites.
Audience participation ensured that every one of us had a chance to play the role of a haunted figure or a dastardly crook, and the guide nicely mixed light hearted humor in with the scary tales to ensure nobody’s heart stopped and made them a permanent part of the tour.
The company runs both a North and South side tour of The Rocks, and after having taken on the North – I’m eager to tackle the south sometime real soon. For more information you can check out their web-site. Tours leave every night at 6.45 and bookings are essential.
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