When You’ve Gotta Go – You’ve Gotta Go
I stick my head through a broken door and I can’t see what lies beneath the swarm of blue flies. It’s the first disgusting toilet I can remember (but I am sure there are others). It’s hot and dusty and I am hoping the customs and immigration officers on the Zambian and Malawi border decide not to strip our Kombi van. Well, it is 1993, and it is Africa after all. Anything is possible.
Although I love camping, I am not partial to the bush camping long drop. When the opportunity presents itself, I choose to squat amongst Australia’s flora and fauna rather than hover above a chemical cesspit. However it’s not quite the same off Australian shores. Even in Africa, you’ll find a local lurking somewhere in the bushes. And definitely nowhere in Europe or god forbid China. With a population of 1.2 billion you are hard pressed to find a patch of ground to stand on alone.
During my jaunt across Central Asia, I basically pay to pee my way from St Petersburg through to Kathmandu. The more grim the loo the more expensive the pee, seems to be the common theme. Why do developing countries feel the need to penalise bodily functions?
In times of stress, when the human psyche is challenged, a paid display of human faeces is enough to break the spirit of any adventure seeker. If it wasn’t for my perseverance, iron will, and cheery companions, the dreaded ‘loo stop’ may have had the power to send me scurrying home.
There are some occasions that are etched into my memory. A forty-five minute Moscow subway ride, four hours on a bus built for dwarfs and pouring with rain at the destination, would make most people weep. We arrive at a ramshackle bus station with a smattering of people that look as though they have just walked off the movie set of ‘The Village’.
I cannot continue my journey until I relieve myself and I am dreading it. At fifty kopecks (3 cents), this loo is definitely not a bargain. The stern babushka is standing guard to the men’s toilet and it is the only one operating. I am already breathing through my mouth, something I learn to do quickly, although the stench is burning the back of my throat.
Upon entering I am spoilt for choice: cubicles with broken wooden doors hanging from their hinges or Turkish options with no doors, grimy walls and floors tinged black. As I hover, trying not to pee on my boots, touch walls or expose too much of my naked body I wonder whether the place has it been cleaned since WWII.
Whilst speeding through the Mongolian steppes in a clapped out Soviet van, luck plays a big part in finding a public amenity. Unless you classify a long drop surrounded by a piece of cloth barely covering shoulders as an ‘amenity’, but I guess it still keeps you guessing as to whether it’s a ‘Number 1’ or a ‘Number 2’.
In Manila I see peculiar metal screens positioned along footpaths on busy roads throughout the city and watch men popping behind them, covering no further than their knees. It takes me a while to realise what they are. There is no trough, just layer upon layer of stale urine on cement. But what about the women?
Whilst staying in one of Beijing’s quickly disappearing hutongs, I share two clean toilets with about fifty other women at the youth hostel. It is just after the authorities have given the all clear of SARS and by Chinese standards Beijing is squeaky-clean. And truth be told, a lot of it is.
I remember my first ‘real’ public loo incident in China. My entourage of three is desperate after a bumpy four-hour bus ride from the Great Wall. Arriving at one of Beijing’s many dilapidated bus stations we follow our noses to the toilets. Through a curtained doorway we find a row of low-rise tiled door less cubicles. As women, this is weird, as we’ve never peed openly in front of each other sober.
My Danish companion is in a state of shock, her urethra frozen although her bladder is bursting. A stern Chinese woman targets her. She stands in front of her, arms crossed, adamant on peeing in this cubicle although there are several more available. We cover our embarrassment and pain with peals of laughter willing our plumbing to relax.
Unfortunately one day I have mistimed my bodily functions and find myself on the other side of the hutting. A friendly local takes me by the hand and leads me to one of the many public outhouses that households share. Upon entering I am stopped in my tracks. Before me is a little old lady with a piece of pink paper in her hand squatting comfortably over one of four holes in the wooden floor. Oh no! I look to the roof and join my companion and try to relax.
Throughout the rest of my three months in China I collect an extensive array of ‘loo liaisons’, ranging from visually shocking to physically sickening. At AUD$4 each for a hotel room, the toilet situation is hit and miss, no doubt plumbing last on the agenda in a quickly developing China of 2003. Women share a singular trough, just like the men, but with subtle partitions. This gives the opportunity to unify with the women of China, sharing their every bodily function, knowing whatever they have eaten and where they are in their cycle. Lovely.
It is a little more rustic up on the ‘rooftop of the world’. As if the unseasonal snowfall at Romphu Monastery on the Tibetan side of Mt Everest isn’t enough to disappoint and hinder our visit to the North Face base camp, the shed they called a WC is. I can understand other guests feel the same apprehension as myself to the stench filled long drop, but really, must they scatter their feces about the floor so others must tip toe through a minefield?
Around the World: 1993 – 2010
Jumping is the hardest part. In the first few seconds the body is trying to come to terms with the fact that you are about to throw yourself into a perfect dive from a forty-metre bridge or tower. In the late 80s when Bungy Jumping was fashionable and stories of injuries rife, I was both fascinated and terrified at the thought of hurtling through the sky. Back then in Australia the departure point was from a crane and you crashed into a body of water.
However times have changed and the Bungee Jump has just gotten bigger and better so as they say ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’. So, whilst in New Zealand I start with the smallest, Auckland harbour bridge. The first few seconds before you are about to take the plunge is short- lived and you get twice that much in pleasure (or pain, depending how it pans out for you) of the rush of falling. My second jump, again at 40m, is in Cairns into a miniscule body of water below. I psyche myself up with a few rides on the Minjin Swing, where my party of three is winched 30m up then dropped and allowed to swing back and forth. We’re strapped up so we look as though we should be hang-gliding, prone position. One day I’ll work my way up the ‘Bungee Ladder’ so by the time I get to Queenstown for the 134m Nevis Highwire bungy jump, I’ll be ready.
You’re probably thinking that I have slipped into a midlife crisis, but on the contrary, I have always chased adrenalin adventure. I spent my early 20s learning to scuba dive and snowboard, and it wasn’t until I worked my first ski season in a small French resort called Val Cenis that I tried to Parapente. Sounds very exotic! With skis on my feet and my body hooked firmly onto an instructor we skied off a mountain with a parachute attached. Once off the ledge we caught thermals and spiralled through the valley above snowy peaks and busy pistes, landing elegantly at the foot of the chairlift.
A few years later back in Australia, I celebrated my struggle through the second and hardest year at university by being catapulted into a dark warm sky beside my beloved of the moment. The Bungy Rocket sat beckoning on a vacant block amongst the high-rise on the Gold Coast strip. It looked more sedate than it was. We were like two rocks in a slingshot, shot high into the sky. The adrenalin spiked when the pod we were strapped in to turned then plummeted to earth, face first. What a thrill!
A few days after my final exam before I headed to the Big Smoke to move into a more serious phase of my life, I commemorated the occasion with a tandem Hang Glide off Pat Moreton Lookout in Lennox Head, Northern NSW. It was all very laidback and somewhat quirky; shoes off, hold onto the bar and run off a cliff. I shared the space and pod with an instructor and it was all rather subdued. It felt more relaxing than heart stopping dipping, turning and circling high above the cliffs like a hawk hunting for prey. However if I was out there alone I’m sure it would have been a different story.
To celebrate graduation day, my best buddy from university and I sky dived from 12,000 ft over the lush green hills near Byron Bay. It has been, so far, the most exhilarating of all my adrenalin pursuits. It was at the door of the plane whilst harnessed to my tandem instructor that I almost became unstuck. We rolled forward and I didn’t have time to vomit. We were out and falling fast. The noise was incredible and my cheeks were being forced to the back of my head. The excitement was in the freefall, when we pulled the chute, silence. The two were polar opposites; the rough and tumble madness, then the serene bliss as we floated back to planet earth.
They say that a sky jumping is like base-jumping but you’re not attached to a wire. I have never experienced the latter so I can’t say. The process of stepping off a ledge 192m above Auckland’s city streets from the Sky Tower is petrifying, but the eleven seconds at 80 kph of pure ecstasy that follows is thwarted by the mandatory photo stop. Bummer! You end up in a heap on a gigantic Bull’s Eye. Lucky the platform is above street level so you don’t have to be a source of amusement for onlookers.
Most people love camping by the beach and are quite happy to share a precious patch of prime real estate with thousands of others. During my younger years I didn’t mind where I camped, as long as it was cheap, and there was enough space around the tent to prevent claustrophobia. I even managed a night camping in mud and rain at the Glastonbury music festival in the UK. Tents were literally peg-to-peg, and you might as well have been sleeping under one communal tarp.
Things have changed and these days I have a strong allergic reaction to camping in crowded spots. I physically cringe when a Holiday Park is our only option. They remind me of a gated suburban nightmare.
I shudder at the memory of rolling into one of these places last March in Kiama, NSW. It was the last camp spot, pricey and conveniently situated under the train line next to a stagnant pool of water. It was either take it, or drive back to Sydney. I locked the car keys in the car and my partner and I nearly broke up that night.
My gripe is not with these campgrounds. They serve a purpose and are fabulous for families with their convenient amenities; TV and games room, swimming pool, kiddie’s playground, and cafe etc. It is the camping etiquette that happens in rustic places like the desert, in the bush or in National Parks that has me bewildered.
The amount of times I have arrived back to camp after an exhilarating day to find people camping within a few metres of the tent is astounding. The most recent example happened down at popular Pretty Beach in Murramarang National Park.
Due to a weather forecast of storm-like conditions, this particular weekend luckily for us was very quiet. There were about five camp sites occupied, and sure enough upon our return on day two, a circus sized tent for two elderly gentleman was erected not more than four metres from our own. Our own tiny tent for two seemed to be shaking from the sheer size of its neighbours spread. I couldn’t sleep in these conditions, so we unpegged and carried our little dome to a place where it could breathe again. No doubt offering some form of amusement for the other campers.
If you’ve ever been to the NSWs outback you’ll know that there is a lot of space out there. Then why do people insist on camping right beside you? Penrose Park in Silverton, just outside Broken Hill, is a massive spread for both picnicking day-trippers and campers. The area is so large that you could get lost on your way to the amenity block. So surely our neighbours, a family of four, could have shown us some respect and found their own turf rather than setting up shop in our front yard.
Is there such a thing as camping etiquette? It’s like personal space but on a larger scale. It’s the unsaid rule, like not sitting too close to someone at the beach (although that seems to have disappeared as well). If there were a book on camping etiquette, number one would have to be – ‘notice thy neighbour and allow him his space’.
Around the World : 1998 – 2010