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May 2019 Issue
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What goes in, always comes out

New Zealand is home to some spectacular loos with views, including this toilet at Liverpool Hut, Mt Aspiring National Park. Photo: Matthew Cattin
DOC talks to Wilderness about the increasing pressures facing our backcountry toilets, and how trampers can help.

Every tramper has a horror story of a backcountry loo so overwhelming it holds all of your senses to ransom.

The first to trigger is the sense of dread in knowing what awaits, quickly compounded by the smell – at times so powerful it doubles as a ‘1km to hut’ sign.

The sound hits next, and it’s not the friendly buzz of bees, but the hum of thumb-sized flies, droning like bomber planes in warning.

Last but never least, you feel it. The cold, sometimes wet seat, complete with a frigid draft to weather your nether regions.

At this point, all senses go into overdrive, and you feel every bug flying out of the tank below like a vaccine jab, hear every drip, drop and thud, and smell last night’s dehy meals.

There are three main toilet systems used in the backcountry; the classic long drop, the composting system, and the luxury flush toilet which recently debuted on Great Walks.

DOC head of sustainability Gavin Walker says investing in toilet infrastructure is needed to support increasing use.

“This isn’t as easy as just providing a few more toilets so that people don’t have to wait long to poo in a loo,” he says. “As use increases, we also need to be focussed on ensuring that we have the right toilet systems in the right locations so that sewage is treated and disposed of with the least environmental impact.”

The majority of DOC toilets aren’t connected to council sewage treatment systems, which means the waste must be treated onsite or transported by helicopter, boat or truck to a disposal location. But as usage increases, so too does the amount of sewage that needs to be disposed of and the approach of flying waste offsite isn’t sustainable.

That’s why DOC plans to make greater use of composting toilets. Ranger Anthony Duncan says the modern compostable systems are a particularly efficient, but expensive, option.

“They take a lot of the moisture out of the waste, and filter it out into soakage fields. This gets rid of most of the fluid, and the solids compost. They work pretty damn well.

“We’ve had compostable toilets running for 10 years, and never had to empty them out.”

No matter the toilet system, many of the upkeep problems are universal.

Duncan says the biggest annoyance is trampers disposing of rubbish in the toilet facilities – the worst culprits dropping full bags of food rubbish, tin cans and even gas canisters into the toilet.

“It’s just unnecessary – especially when your waste will be lighter to carry out than it was when you carried it in,” he says.

Solid waste – particularly plastic – causes havoc during the cleaning process, and can turn a routine operation into a code brown nightmare.

“When you’ve got the big tube in there sucking it all out, the piping gets blocked, and you have to disassemble the whole thing,” Duncan says.

“When it’s spraying effluent in the air like a geyser, it’s pretty uncool. Unfortunately, it’s not a job you can really give to volunteers.”

As for toilet maintenance, Duncan says DOC tries not to leave too much up to the user, but “if you want to be awesome, get the hearth brush and give the floor a bit of a clean – it makes all the difference when there is no toilet paper on the floor to go manky and mouldy. Other than that, they’re pretty bombproof”.

And regarding the age-old toilet lid debate, Duncan says down is always best.

The spinning chimney tops – known as cowls – create vacuum suction to remove the ammonia smell, but keeping the lid down helps to reduce odour – and keeps insects from flying into the tank to breed.

Managing waste is one of DOC’s biggest operational expenses, but just how much does it cost to dispose of our waste? DOC senior ranger Phil Crawford attempted to put a figure on it, to illustrate the importance of buying hut tickets.

In January, 18.5 cubic metres of sewage was extracted by helicopter from four huts in Nelson Lakes National Park, costing DOC $46,250.

“Research into the typical amount of waste an adult human produces each day led me to learn that a typical poo is around 300g and urine expressed is around 1-1.2-litres,” Crawford says.

“I estimated that around half of this urine would find its way into a toilet, and the rest would be deposited elsewhere as trampers walk along the track.”

For ease of calculation, Crawford rounded this figure to one litre of waste a day, which amounts to 18,500 human waste days, or 18.5 cubic metres of waste.

Dividing the waste days from the total cost of removal, shows a cost of $2.50 per person, per day for Angelus, John Tait, Upper Travers and Blue Lake huts.

If you’re unable to hold out for a long drop, DOC suggests walking 70 paces – or around 50m – from the track, and digging a 20cm deep hole, ensuring you’re away from water sources and campsites.

Some freedom poopers carry clothes pegs to mark their route, so they don’t get lost returning to the track.

The hole should be completely covered with soil and leaves.