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A hole in the ground

There was no dunny. The cabin had been erected early July but, come September, there was still no dunny. It had to be off-grid, of course, composting, nothing out the other end but inoffensive garden-friendly fertiliser. With a bit of research I’d found a system that seemed promising, from a mob in Queensland, and ordered it online. But it took forever to arrive so, for quite a while, the old spade-assisted stroll to the bottom paddock was morning protocol.

That’s doable, though, right? I’d swagged a lot and loved it – in bush, mountains, desert. I even have a book – oh yes, get your practical skills from a book, that’s very me – called How to Shit in the Bush. American, sure, but an expansive exegesis on the techniques, equipment and etiquette SITB. So yeah, broadly speaking, I was across it.

And mostly that was fine. On a sunny morning, when the cows lift their  munching heads in ponderous curiosity and a thousand tiny birds tease grass-stems with their weight, it’s really quite a pleasure. But still, midwinter, there are times… There’s wind, there’s frost, there’s physiological exigency. And there was the fact that, technically, we’re in the Sydney Water Catchment, which means even for an actual dunny you have to be fifty metres, minimum, from a waterway, so one imagines the rules for squatting, if they exist, to be that much more stringent. Some things it’s better not to know.

Then again, define waterway. In any other country a waterway is a thing with visible flowing water. In Australia a lake can be underground for ninety years out of a hundred. A river can be sand only, except for raging floods. A ‘marsh’ can be three clumps of reeds, period. So it’s not simple. Broken Creek, by my reckoning has somewhere between three and six waterways. On 40 acres it doesn’t leave much that’s both distant from waterway and invisible to road. So you really have to pick your spot.

Needless to say, therefore, the mid-September dunny arrival was a cause of great celebration. We picked it up it in the ute from the local “rural” (aka Rural Supplies store) in a mood of joyous expectation – only to find it was less a dunny than a couple of big black buckets and a hefty flatpack. That was well before we had any power, or any tools to speak of so there was a little bit of, hmm, how do we actually… ?

Suddenly we had a shed to make, stairs to construct, holes to dig. Concrete, ffs. And that’s before you even started working out how to make the dunny itself go. How to connect pipes that weren’t the same diameter. How to keep a tiny solar fan running 24/7. Yikes. I was not prepared for this.

We laid the bits out on the grass like a giant puzzle. We dug the post holes with a trowel and a crowbar in drought-hardened ground. Blisters, many! Gradually we worked out which were fascias and which floorboards and hammered them accordingly. (When you’re without power, the hammer is preferable to the screw, lemme tellya). Eventually we had help. Late on the second afternoon a visiting friend with a car full of battery-driven power tools came to our rescue and, by sundown, we had a shed.

The toilet itself was reasonably straightforward: a seat, a pedestal, a bucket with sawdust, a vent pipe with fan, a car battery and a solar panel. It did require an electrician to sort the fan, but before that it required me to cut a circular hole in the shed floor…

Look, it’s not perfect. The carpentry is rough, and the time the fan stopped working for a few days (before I worked out we’d fixed its solar panel to the south wall of the shed!) I thought we might die. But on the other hand it’s used no water, no coal and put nothing noxious into air, soil or waterways for two years now. I’m gonna call that a win.


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