Like all other seasoned travellers, I am uncomfortably familiar with the squat-down toilets in the filthy back rooms of Italian bars; the cramped, smelly, elbow-bumping toilets on sailing boats, and the lack of toilets in the wildernesses of the planet, but here I wish to share with you one of the more unique toilets I have encountered.
A few years ago I took an ill-advised camping trip into the Okavango Delta in Botswana. I say ill-advised, not because it wasn’t beautiful, and exciting, and refreshing, and mind-opening, and adventurous, but because of the toilet.
After a two-hour trip by mokoro canoe weaving our way along the blissfully calm waterways of the Okavango Delta, we landed at a clearing in some mopani trees and unloaded tents, camping equipment and packs. This was to be our Robinson Crusoe experience for the next three days. We set up home on the fine grey dust which constituted the ground, while our polers and guides made a fire, which was to blaze twenty four hours a day to keep out wild animals. We agreed that was a good plan.
Marcel, our South African guide, called us to gather round while he explained that though there were no showers, we could wash in the Delta – fat chance, the water in winter is freezing. He then asked us to follow him to the site of the toilet. Did I say toilet? I mean hole in the ground, with some wickedly devised wooden construction laid on top to prevent animals from falling inside. But what about us falling inside as we manoeuvred our feet into position for accurate aim? This was to become an ongoing conversation, among the females at least, in our quest for perfect positioning. The men, with typical lack of respect for our more complex anatomy, peed at all angles, spraying the animal-falling-in-prevention-device with an undesirable coating of urine. Though shod in ankle-high snakebite-avoidance boots, it was the mind that had difficulty in dealing with the deliberate stepping into of pee. By the way, this toilet was about thirty metres from camp in the middle of a path which led out into the wilderness. And here there was no fire to keep lions and hyenas at bay. Did the animals simply know it was our toilet and not approach out of respect? I doubted it and resolved to never go after dark. My bladder would suffer but at least I’d live.
Of great concern were not only the wild animals which could have interrupted our visits to the elimination centre, but also the two-legged kind who might venture upon us while struggling with the logistics of the situation. A plan was agreed upon to leave the essential excretion-covering spade at the beginning of the path. No spade, no go. This works if the implement accompanies the excreter back to base, but causes much anguish and leg crossing if it doesn’t. A quick head count should have worked, but we couldn’t always count on the men not being temporarily absent while peeing behind the nearest tree.
Anyway back to the positioning, wee-avoidance problems of our ablution block. The spade was the answer. A flick of dust and the mind could pretend all was well. Then came the problem of easing down one’s trousers while keeping the cuffs hitched up off the offending animal-falling-in-prevention-device. You try and do that while balancing on branches the size of a child’s arm, wobbling above a very smelly, very dangerous hole. It takes all one’s concentration, but at least it distracts the mind from the animals lurking in the bush. It was certainly advisable to go as often as possible because even gym-trained legs can start trembling if they must sustain the isometric position of a deep, balancing crouch for too long.
Whatever was going on in the privacy of the moment, by the time we left we had managed to fill four holes and our African helpers were highly amused, though a little tired of digging.
I shouldn’t complain because at least we had a toilet of sorts on the island. But, as we travelled to and from the Okavango Delta, on five or six-hour van trips through a monotonous land forgotten by all but vultures and dead donkeys, we often had to pull over for comfort stops and this was a different matter. The comfort part was the easing of the pressure in the bladder, for though we became adept at hiding behind single stick plants as high as crouching pygmies, there was no comfort in having one’s nether regions coated in grey dust, as the impact on the ground of the stream of escaping liquid created a cloud large enough to suffocate any insect life for a square metre.
No matter how remote or desolate the landscape in Botswana where we stopped, at least one ragged infant would materialise, causing the vultures to temporarily abandon the dead donkey and take flight. Their silent perusal of our mass display of a necessary bodily function was eerie. The intensity of their interest was unsettling, and usually led to the cutting short of the flow. Unpleasant all round. A rapid pulling up of grubby, grey underwear in an attempt to cover naked body parts and the van would be lurching into motion once again across the great wide expanses of nothingness.
One day, I will let you know about another of the strange toilets I have met.