Privy to the secrets of the universe

Long drops can be found all over the place, including this one in Nova Scotia, Canada (top). Photo by Tomasz Kuran.
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 bank.

''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 intestinal paratroopers.

''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.