Sanitation is serious

We’d never heard of World Toilet Day, but after growing up in rural Australia we certainly know all about living without sanitation.

A UN initiative, World Toilet Day has been held for the past 15 years, with the aim of increasing awareness about the impact of inadequate toilets in people’s lives.


The aim, according to the UN and its partners, is to get the message out that toilets save lives, increase productivity, create jobs and boost economies.

It’s certainly an important issue, as Diarrhoea caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water kills at least 315,000 children each year.

We remember well the Australian ‘dunny’ – the ‘outhouse’ in the backyard with a can and wooden seat that was emptied weekly by a government worker with the quaint title of the ‘Nightsoil Man’.

Watch for redback spiders

In those days before flushing toilets, there were two key rules for using the ‘dunny’:

  • watch out for snakes sheltering in the ‘outhouse’ or spiders under the seat
  • and make sure you’re not on the throne when the ‘Nightsoil Man’ reaches in through a trapdoor in the back to slide out the full can and put in a new one.

We can smile about it now, but of course, there are still plenty of ‘dunnies’ like these in isolated areas of Australia. And some of them are certainly dinkum with an undeniable character.


Walcha Australia. Courtesy Wikimedia and Cgoodwin


Maryvale, Australia. Courtesy Wikimedia and Kerry Raymond

Beating loneliness

Some ‘outhouses’ were ready-made to beat the loneliness of life in an isolated area:


Three’s company! Wauchope, Australia. Courtesy Wikimedia and Cgoodwin

And some ‘dunnies’ can be quite a walk from the house, which is good for the nostrils but bad on a cold, rainy night

Courtesy Wikimedia and Ian Paterson

Australia certainly doesn’t have a mortgage on dinkum dunnies. As a World Toilet Day treat, here’s a few from around the globe.


Another long walk! North Yorkshire, UK. Courtesy Flickr and Ian Grattan


Church dunny, Weston Turville, UK. Courtesy Wikimedia and Chris Reynolds



Public toilet, Tibet. Courtesy Wikimedia and Michel Royon

Of course, a flushing toilet can also have plenty of character, like this example from the UK:


Courtesy Wikimedia and Ross

Or this public toilet block in Kawakawa, on New Zealand’s North Island. Known as the Hunderwasser Toilets, this block is recognised as an international tourist attraction.


Courtesy Flickr and Sids1

Or this classy public toilet at the Vienna Opera House:


World Toilet Day is held each year on November 19.

Main photo courtesy Wikimedia, Flickr and Brisbane City Council, Australia.















dinkum dunnies

An embarrassing travel moment

I like snorkelling, but I’m certainly a novice.

For a start, squeezing my body into a wet suit can be a marathon business and far from a pleasant sight. How those stitches hold together I’ll never know.

And once I do make it to the water, it’s like someone gradually drowning.

Despite my best efforts, water inevitably gets into the goggles and rises steadily before my eyes.

a snorkeller

I’m on the surface spluttering and coughing more often than I am underwater – until I usually give up and head for the shore in utter frustration.

It’s probably inevitable, therefore, that one of my most embarrassing travel moments happened when Sue and I were snorkelling off eastern Australia.

The beach, near the northern New South Wales town of Port Macquarie, was deserted when we dived into an ocean pool known for colourful fish.

Sue is a natural and was soon weaving among rocky outcrops and swaying weed on the sea floor as fish darted around her.



I tried to keep pace, but as usual I soon encountered problems and was forced to surface several times to empty water from my goggles and tighten their straps.

Glancing around each time, I noticed that the beach was still deserted.

After several attempts to join Sue, I finally gave up in exasperation and decided to return to shore.

With my head looking down in the water, I managed to catch a wave ashore – stopping only when my chest and face ran onto the sand.

Lifting my head from the water, I looked up and realised to my horror that the beach was no longer deserted.

Worse still, unbeknown to me, a young woman had apparently sat on the sand at the water’s edge – and I’d swum ashore head first between her knees.


She moved backwards laughing; I rolled away apologising profusely; and her husband – quickly on the scene – gave me death stares.

And, to top off my embarrassment, Sue had surfaced just in time to see the whole thing – and was roaring with laughter.

That’s another place I won’t revisit!


Awkward incident in Italy

There’s a certain hotel at Sorrento, Italy, that we won’t revisit.

To be fair, a toilet cistern perched two metres up the wall is definitely a trap for young players.

We’re hardly young and, in all honesty, we should have realised that the cistern would take quite a long time to refill after each flush. But it just didn’t register.


That day dawned fine and clear in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

And, in 15 minutes, our bus was scheduled to leave on a trip of a lifetime to the fabled emerald  Isle of Capri.

It was our first visit to Capri and Sue had used the bathroom to apply her cosmetics – a totally unnecessary chore in my biased opinion. It’s like trying to improve on the Mona Lisa.

Ten minutes before departure, I finally got to the bathroom ….. and suddenly the previous night’s huge pasta meal didn’t seem like such a good idea.


Eight minutes and counting – and I make a dive for the toilet.

Instant relief!

Of course, in my haste, I completely forgot that the cistern was probably still re-filling from earlier use.

Those who have been in my position will know too well that sinking feeling when you pull the chain to no avail.

Just as the bus arrived.

Ice buckets full of water and even a few kettle loads failed to achieve the desired flush.

As Sue tried to stall the bus, my dilemma seemed to come down to two options:

  1. Miss the trip while waiting for the cistern to fill, or
  2. Miss the trip

I opted for Capri and have always cringed at the thought of the poor room service staff on that fine Italian day.

And, as mentioned, we will never revisit that particular hotel.


The day Sue’s bra caused a near riot

We arrived at Frankfurt Airport in a particularly busy period, enroute from Prague to Rome.

Unbeknown to us, there’d apparently been a security scare.

Baggage checks were more stringent than ever and the metal detectors were sounding almost constantly.

Our incoming flight had been slightly delayed and we were in a bit of a hurry to catch our connection.

Frankfurt is a huge airport, covering 2,000 hectares of land and we knew there was quite a walk between its two terminals. It’s also the fourth busiest airport in Europe, behind London, Paris and Istanbul.

However, we were making great time through the complex and all was good until Sue reached the metal detector.


Lights flashed; the alarm beeped and Sue was asked to step through again.

No big deal. It happens.

Sue walked back and promptly set it off again. And again – despite turning her pockets inside out this time to show they were empty.

It doesn’t take much to cause a bottleneck at airport security, particularly at one as big and busy as Frankfurt. By now, the throngs of travellers were getting restless.

A German airport officer took a nervous look at the build-up of people pressing toward the gates and asked Sue to step aside for a check with a hand wand.

The result was the same, as she vigorously explained that the culprit was probably wire in her bra.

No luck with the explanation. The officer, by now obviously panicking at the delay this was causing, pointed Sue to an adjoining area, where pat-down body searches were carried out.

She wasn’t alone. At least one other woman was on this ‘Group W’ bench – also attempting to explain about underwire bras.


Finally, a female officer arrived on the scene and patted down both women, before agreeing that the bras were probably at fault.

We moved on, but the whole incident had taken almost 30 minutes, which forced us to sprint along the corridors to our boarding gate – arriving moments before the doors were closed.

Later, we read that – despite many incidents like this – both airports and airlines are generally slow to be convinced that wire in under-garments can set off metal detectors.

Our take on it: obviously the sensitivity of detectors can be adjusted as needed. We’ve seen people wearing jewellery walk through untroubled.

But, it would be good to hear an explanation by manufacturers of these machines. Perhaps they’ll talk if we make them empty their pockets into a little tray.


Daisy the cow and the night Chicago died

As you walk down North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, it’s impossible to miss the old water tower.

And, more than 140 years after the Great Chicago Fire, the tower is one of the few remaining links to this momentous event – along with the story of Daisy the cow.

The 47 metre limestone tower was one of only a few structures in the area to escape the inferno of October 1871. It’s now an eye-catching art gallery.


Information board at the Chicago Water Tower

Mrs O’Leary’s cow wasn’t so lucky, but whether Daisy actually played any role in the fire that killed 300 people and destroyed three square miles of the city, is debated to this day.

City officials never discovered the exact cause, but a popular tale in Chicago blames Mrs O’Leary’s cow for kicking over a lantern in a barn off DeKoven Street.

Another theory is that men were gambling inside the barn and knocked over a lantern.

What is certain is that two-thirds of Chicago was made of wood and tar; that the area needed rain badly; and that southwestly winds carried embers into the heart of the city.

And whatever actually ignited the blaze, it spread rapidly through the timber buildings, wooden sidewalks and even some wooden roads.


Photo courtesy Chicago Tribune archive

Once flames jumped the Chicago River and destroyed the waterworks, the mains apparently went dry and little could be done.

Within a couple of days, more than 100,000 people were homeless.

In the aftermath of the blaze, Chicago promptly began to rewrite its fire standards and soon created one of the country’s leading fire-fighting forces.

At the same time, business owners and land speculators quickly set about rebuilding the city, helped in no small part by generous assistance from across the US.


Memorial at the spot where the fire started

The story of Mrs O’Leary and her cow continued to grow, despite denials by the family itself and a later newspaper confession that the tale had been fabricated.

In fact, it became so engrained in local lore that Chicago’s city council officially exonerated the O’Leary family —and the cow—in 1997.

Since then, it has also been suggested that the blaze – and others across the Midwest of the US – may have been sparked by a meteor shower – or that ‘Pegleg’ Sullivan, who first reported the Chicago fire, may have ignited hay in the barn while trying to steal milk.

Or perhaps Daisy acted alone.

Chicago Features

‘G’day, jump an Aussie tram by the dock of the bay

As historic streetcars glide along San Francisco’s waterfront, Australian travellers can be forgiven for staring.

Streetcar Number 496 – with its distinctive green and gold colours – is a former Melbourne ‘tram’, which operated in the southern Australian city for more than 50 years before joining San Francisco’s colourful fleet of cars.

One of the famed ‘W Class’ trams, No 496 was built in 1928 and ran through Melbourne streets until it was purchased by the San Francisco operators in the 1980’s.

The streetcar clearly bears the logo of the City of Melbourne and carries signs that explain its pedigree and background.

A second Aussie ‘tram’ – this one a more modern SW6 class – was donated to San Francisco in 2009.


Ofter overshadowed by San Francisco’s famous cable cars, the bay city’s vintage streetcars are wonderful to watch in action as they run up and down the F-Line and Market Street alongside the dock of the bay.

Besides the Australian ‘trams’, there are others from Italy, Japan, Portugal, the UK and several other US cities.

Restored to sparkling condition, the often brightly-coloured vintage streetcars are an eye-catching sight passing San Francisco icons such as Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square – and providing travellers and locals with a memorable glimpse of a romantic transport past.


Light rail San Francisco