Long drops can be found all over the place, including this
one in Nova Scotia, Canada (top). Photo by Tomasz Kuran.
Most writers south of the Waitaki have been strongly
influenced by the blood department at Dunedin Hospital. While
European writers find their muse in the south of France, and
Americans sit on the piers of Cannery Row or the banks of the
mighty Mississippi, us indomitable southern writing men and
women are drawn time and time again to our hospital's blood
''Why don't you write about long drops?'' asked my blood
nurse when I was down there for the eleven thousandth full
blood count a couple of weeks ago. As her tongue-smacking
needle was poised a millimetre from my vein, I could only
reply that this was the most capital of ideas, and that I
would run with this forthwith, showing an eagerness normally
reserved only for coffee pavlova. So I best get this done.
Hell hath no fury like a blood nurse scorned.
One would assume the long drop is a strictly New Zealand
institution, as every fibre of its construction screams No 8
wire thinking. I mean, what manner of waterhead chooses to
forsake a perfectly functional no-mess-Charlie inside toilet
for a who-knows-how-deep hole in the ground covered by a
wobbly doughnut-shaped piece of wood? Only a New Zealander
would say the latter is preferable, and only New Zealanders
would have come up with some of the remarkable designs I have
seen and sat on in my travels around the country.
Long drops are everywhere. While post-earthquake Christchurch
has lit up Google Images with some fine designs, some using
real chairs, the classic long drops are found in the great
sprawling wilds of Africa. Zambia and Namibia are almost
over-run with long drops, their real estate pages riddled
with arresting examples, almost as if they add value to the
house. Perhaps, there aren't any houses.
I found my first long drop at the age of 8, in Brighton, and
I can tell you, hand on heart, that nothing has frightened me
more than this thing. I couldn't believe it was to be our
toilet for the summer holiday, a time when Central Otago's
fresh fruit attacks the bowels like battalions of crazed
''How far down does the long drop GO?'' I asked my father,
who usually knew everything.
''China,'' he replied.
Whooaarrr! I mean, that is some digging. And when you came
out the other end, as the original diggers must have, for my
father to have replied in this way, how did they actually
enter the country? Out of the sky screaming ''FORE!!''? Up
from the ground without passports? I knew so little at 8.
But boy, you sat on that thing in the middle of the night and
your mind just ran amok. There would be rats down there, for
a start. Even at 8, I knew rats thrived in sewers. A long
drop would be the Hilton of sewers for a rat worth its weight
in rat. How close to the surface were these seven or eight
million rats? This was the eternal question for all
8-year-olds balanced precariously on wobbly half-rotten
wooden doughnut seats.
And, of course, if the rats didn't get you from below, you
could simply fall down the hole. I was small for my age. Two
of me could have slipped down there simultaneously, if either
of us lost our concentration or grip. And then it would be
like Alice In Wonderland, and I knew all about THAT. No sir,
those sort of trips could wait until I was at university.
But there are some good long drops out there. A view is
crucial. Back in the 1980s, I sat on one in Ophir, looking
out across the rolling Central Otago countryside, like a lone
spectator at a spaghetti western. When a distant train came
chugging into view, you suddenly understood how the universe
was made. Perfection. I have seen magazine racks beside poncy
indoor urban toilets. Magazine racks! Bwahahahahah!! You may
need rescue ropes, cheese and a rat trap if you are sitting
on a rural long drop, but you don't need magazines.
• Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.