The 1964 guide to our favourite rural, and remote, toilets of the South Island.
YOU MAY NOT REALISE IT IF YOU GREW UP IN AOTEAROA, BUT THIS COUNTRY DOES PUBLIC TOILETS WELL. DRIVE INTO ANY SMALL TOWN AND YOU WILL BE GREETED BY A WHITE-ON-BLUE SIGN POINTING THE WAY JAUNTILY TO THE LOOS, CONVENIENTLY LOCATED, NO DOUBT, JUST BACK FROM THE MAIN STREET, NEXT TO THE I-SITE, OR PERCHED ON THE GRASSY EDGE OF A PICTURESQUE DOMAIN. EVEN BETTER, THEY ALMOST ALWAYS HAVE A) TOILET PAPER AND B) LOCKS. THIS IS NOT, GLOBALLY, A STANDARD THING. THERE’S A REASON PEOPLE CALL MCDONALD’S “THE PUBLIC BATHROOMS OF THE WORLD”. AS WITH THOSE MOMENTS WHEN HUNGER BRIEFLY SUPPLANTS TASTE/MORALS/ DIGNITY/SENSE, SOMETIMES, SOME PLACES, MCDS IS THE ONLY CHOICE.
Not here though. In New Zealand, there’s always a lavvy nearby, and fast- food multinationals are just for dining. Here are some restrooms that are simply the best.
ROXBURGH PUBLIC TOILETS
On the drive from the Southern Lakes to Dunedin, Roxburgh is at the halfway point, making it a mandatory stop on this much-travelled route. The bad news is, it’s always five degrees colder than anywhere you just came from. The good news is, it’s the hometown of Jimmy’s Pies, a lot of world-class stone fruit, very friendly locals, and fabulous toilets. Occupying a prime patch of real estate on Scotland Street, these modern, streamlined beauties were an early example of the steel-doored ‘push a button to close the airlock’ restroom, complete with background music and the HAL computer voice (except it’s a lady HAL) chiming instructions. The last time we were there, it was playing the very relaxing Dionne Warwick version of ‘What the world needs now is love, sweet love’. But it’s the artwork out front that makes the Roxburgh water closet a real winner – a pioneer-themed metal art panorama by artists Bill and Michelle Clarke. It’s photographed by more than 100,000 visitors every year, making this facility an official “destination toilet”. Yes, that is a thing. – LW
THE RUNNING DUCK, GERALDINE
The most famous dunnies in Geraldine are the public toilets on Cox Street – they were even voted as one of the top 10 pit stops in the country in a 2017 AA Traveller survey, thanks to their convenient location and cleanliness. But the best toilet in the South Canterbury town is the loo at The Running Duck café. You have to be a customer to use it, but it’s well worth the price of coffee or a (delicious!) muffin to be treated to a full-sized and fully- functioning disco ball, retro maps of New Zealand, and a random collection of album covers, including, but not limited to, Kenny Marks’ contemporary Christian classic Altitude and Roger Whittaker’s In Orbit. It’s enough to give anyone the urge. – LW
LIONS PARK PUBLIC TOILETS, TE ANAU
They are user-pay, not free, but frankly, it’s only a buck to get into these pristine privies, and you get a lot of bang for it. Set next to Lions Park on the lakefront, this is a toilet block with everything you need, including showers (they do cost an extra $5 to use, but this is a lot less than a Koru Lounge membership), Euro-style bathroom attendants, plants, and art prints adorning the walls. These facilities were built by people who understand the value of a good loo. Exhibit A, the tender put out by the Southland District Council for the upkeep of the Te Anau toilets: “A very high standard of customer service and cleanliness is required by this contract such that the toilet facilities develop and maintain a favourable national and international reputation.” – LW
TARRAS VILLAGE TOILETS
The roadside restrooms at Tarras are perfectly nice, if not remarkable, but they have a compelling backstory that makes them worth a stop. Tarras became famous as the home of Shrek, a Merino wether who evaded capture for six years. When he was caught and shorn in 2004, his fleece weighed a record-breaking 27 kilograms. He flew to Wellington to meet the Prime Minister and went on to be the first creature in history to be shorn on an iceberg. Long story.
Meanwhile, Tarras had a big-name sheep, but no public dunny. At one point, more than ten passers-by per day were showing up at Tarras Primary School asking to use their facilities, or, worse, bypassing the asking part and helping themselves to the bases of the trees growing on the school grounds. Who DOES that? Quite a few people, it turns out. The teachers had to install a barbed wire fence, as if they worked at a Soviet-era compulsory education centre, not a charming Central Otago village primary school. Today, things are super-flush thanks to the 2017 opening of three new public cubicles courtesy of the Central Otago District Council. A much- photographed mural on the outer wall depicts Shrek, woolly and defiant as ever. – LW
THE PIONEER HUT TOILET
A special dispatch from Allan Uren, one of the few members of the 1964 team skilled enough to reach, much less use, the longdrop at Pioneer Hut, Fox Glacier.
The storm is crashing around the hut. Going outside is going to be unpleasant. Without the right clothing, it would mean hypothermia and death. But I have to go.
I pull on my storm pants and jacket, my warm hat and gloves, find my goggles among all the other climbing equipment, pull on my boots and lace them tightly. Getting out the hut door is a battle with the wind. Onto the deck, down the stairs to the handline. Graupel stings my face. It feels like it could shred my jacket.
Twenty-five metres of struggle land me outside the Pioneer Hut toilet. The door is wooden and etched by storms to resemble sastrugi, the anvil- shaped surface of snow after a windstorm. I slam it closed behind me. I’m safe to do my business.
The Pioneer Hut and toilet sits on an island of rock in the middle of the Fox Glacier neve at 2380 metres. One of the most exposed toilet sites in New Zealand, it is perched near the edge of a cliff, 50 metres above the glacier. When you’re in it, you feel like you’re in a space capsule.
Today, it’s firmly bolted to the rock and engineered to withstand winds of more than 200 kilometres per hour. But in 1990, I remember the toilet was even more precarious, cantilevered out on a steel gantry. And unlike the present version, it didn’t have drums to contain the waste, just a plastic bag clipped under the seat. When the bag was full, you’d ping the clips, and it would be bombs away. Apart from it being a crappy thing to do to the environment, it was a health hazard for the denizens of the hut. When the wind blew, used toilet paper would flutter back up in the breeze, contaminating the water tank and the snow around it, which is melted for drinking water when the tank is frozen.
My connection with this toilet is somewhat intimate. I used to organise the operation to fly the full drums out to the Fox Glacier township effluent ponds. We would fly into Pioneer and prepare them; how easy, or hard, this was depended on how much snow and ice we had to dig away. Then we’d shove the whole building across on rails to the new empty drum, exposing the full one. We’d connect it to the bottom of a helicopter on a strop, and off it would fly.
I have a soft spot for the Pioneer Hut toilet. I appreciate the engineering skill it took to make it safe and secure, and a relatively pleasant spot to have a poo. Flying out the waste is expensive, costing upwards of two thousand dollars each time, and it’s not without risk. Is there a better way? Not at present. Composting toilets don’t work in the high alpine environment due to the cold temperatures. Maybe one day someone will come up with a solar powered furnace, or a hydrogen zapper thingy for waste. But for now, you perch on the edge of a cliff and give thanks you don’t have to carry your own waste out. Now there’s an idea. – AU