The Primus Lightweight Portable Toilet Seat

By Napier Roffey Mitchell

My wife is a native New Yorker, and I have therefore never really expected her to be comfortable with all of the exigencies of the Australian Bush, even though she has constantly surprised me with her resiliency to change and her adaptability to the unexpected.

On her first Bush trip with me, shortly after our marriage in 1985, she was showing some discomfort as the city of Brisbane slipped behind. Being the stereotypical, culturally insensitive Australian male, I did not enquire as to the reason. So she was eventually forced, on a dirt road somewhere West of Cunnumulla, to comment that it seemed a long way between rest stations. As a native New Yorker she was used to seeing them, complete with MacDonald's and other franchises, every few miles along those grand American freeways that allow you to travel from one part of the country to another without having to change gear and to average the same speed as that to which you have set the cruise control.

“No. There are no rest stations. You have to do it in the bushes,” I said.
“But there are no bushes” she said, surveying the gibber plain before us that bore a striking similarity to the barren surface of Mars.
“Then you have to go just behind the Landcruiser”, I said, “ Where the rear vision mirrors can't see”.
“But someone might come,” she retorted,
“Look for Dust ”, I instructed, explaining that we hadn't seen a car on this track all day and that, as she could see the dust of approaching cars for several kilometers, her privacy wasn't in jeopardy.

It then emerged that she had only ever pointed her privates at porcelain and, then, always, with a proper toilet seat protecting her pants from any wayward spray. Consequently, she couldn't envisage how she could do this on a road covered in red bulldust.

I hadn't really paid attention when my mother gave my younger sisters their training in how to go to the toilet in the bush when there isn't any toilet, a competency every bush girl needs to acquire at a fairly young age. So I had to use my imagination somewhat when I described how I thought a female should do it.

She emerged sometime later without any splashes on the boots or jeans, so my instructions must have been adequate. But she confessed that she found it a little disturbing to see the kangaroos watching her, since they looked more like humans than the 4-legged deer she was familiar with in her country of origin.

Though the competency was developed with little drama, I felt a little sorry for her that she had to do something she was not brought up to do. I secretly planned that when I finally built my dream 4 wheel drive motorhome, I would equip it with a shower and toilet so that she could enjoy the beauties of the Australian bush without having to squat uncomfortably and ignobly in the bulldust. Mike Fuss, I heard second hand, had arrived at a similar conclusion when he also tried to entice his English-born wife into camping in the Australian bush.

It's almost 20 years now since our first bush sojourn, and though the motorhome has begun, it still isn't completed, so we had to resort to tent camping in the Landcruiser for our most recent trip to the Western Australian desert country.

I was doing some last minute acquisitions at our local Gold Coast camping store when I spied what to my mind was a gesture of affection and consideration for my long-suffering wife: The Primus Lightweight Portable Toilet Seat.

It was a simple, yet elegant looking design, consisting of a hygienic plastic toilet seat, redolent of those that cover the porcelain in most domestic toilets. A simple brass-plated, scissor-legs attachment unfolded and clipped on the bottom. A clever clipping mechanism allowed the fitment of plastic bags if you were using it in environmentally sensitive areas where it was necessary to retain the contents for later disposal. And the whole device folded very neatly in the manner of a collapsible chair so it would fit snugly in a special place I had available in the Landcruiser.

The first opportunity to use the Primus Lightweight Portable Toilet Seat presented itself on a lonely stretch of the Sandy Blight Junction Track, in the remote Eastern section of the Gibson Desert.

I decided that I would give the seat its first use in case some special instructions were needed for its intended owner. So I withdrew it from its plastic container and headed for a lovely patch of scenic Desert Oaks. I did not need the plastic bag retainers, since this was desert sandhill country. But as things were getting urgent, I did not dig a hole under the seat as I had planned to do to make final disposal a little easier.

Due to the constant pounding of my body by the corrugated track, it had been two days since my last ablutions, so my alimentary system had a major offering. But I was in no hurry, so it didn't matter. I surveyed the scene of the beautiful Desert Oaks, the symmetrical, green Spinifex clumps contrasting with the virginal beauty of the red sandhills, and sat smugly satisfied that this was the best view I had probably ever enjoyed from the comfort of a modern toilet seat. I pondered how it was probably only surpassed in my life by the view from our outside dunny in our house near the Koala Park in the wilds of Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island, where I was fortunate enough to live in the Fifties.

Many years ago I read an account by an English Scientist, Harrison Chomley, who went to Africa to study the consistency of the poo of African natives. I have difficulty envisaging this very proper English scientist surreptitiously watching for natives to disappear in the bush, and then going over to where they had been, digging it all up again, and recording the consistency.

Chomley's finding was that the poo of African natives was much wetter and sloppier than the hard, sausage style of the typical Englishman. I don't recall him describing how he conducted the control experiment with English men and women, but as he had the reputation of being a good scientist, I am sure that he managed the controls in some acceptable way that are beyond my ability to envisage.

Chomley came up with three conclusions: firstly that sloppy poos were caused by the high amount of plant fibre in the diets of African natives, that Englishmen could achieve the same result if they ate a more rabbit-like diet, and that such a diet was desirable because the African natives suffered lower incidences of colon cancer than Englishmen.

I must confess I was heavily influenced in my life by these findings, and I set about finding easy ways of introducing more fibre in my stereotypical Australian male diet, which was heavily biased towards meat. I experimented with many ways of doing this without resorting to the boring diet enjoyed by rabbits and many Western females. I finally settled on the discovery that a couple of tablespoons of psyllium husks, taken in water each morning, which was so disgusting that it almost caused me to gag, achieved the ideal result.

For 4 Wheel drive camping excursions I have discovered that a homemade muesli made from raw rolled oats, oat bran, prunes, nuts, and psyllium husks does a good job of satisfying hunger and countering the effects of long hours at the wheel of a four wheel drive on rough corrugated roads that tend to compact things in the alimentary track.

On this fine, brisk July desert morning, as I sat on the Primus Lightweight Portable Toilet Seat, I surveyed the rather large pile under the seat representing two days of proceeds, and was pleased. I had managed to get the consistency close to Chomley's ideal of soft-serve ice cream. I congratulated myself mildly, as I imagined the English Scientist would have, had he been a witness, for coming up with a result guaranteed to give me maximum protection from the risks of bowel cancer.

In the midst of the feelings of bliss created by the peaceful, beautiful desert scenery and the self-satisfaction I felt from balancing my diet so well, there was a sickening, sharp cracking sound that heralded the sudden demise of the Primus Lightweight Portable Toilet Seat. Due to a little arthritis and the slow reactions that seem to accompany advanced age, my feet stayed glued to their original position. My gluteus maximus, as bare as at its day of birth, but now considerably wider and heavier, fell directly on the pile of perfect consistency, spreading it broadly in all directions until it was approximately two centimeters thick across the entire region. I will spare you the lurid details.

By some miracle, my clothes had escaped this catastrophe. But the full roll of toilet paper did not look as if it were capable of meeting the challenge of cleanup. There was no option but to sacrifice my favourite grey shirt that I was then wearing. It was buried afterwards, not so solemnly, with the chair.

At this stage I was not in the mood for seeing the funny side of this incident and starting muttering threats of murderous litigation against the Primus Corporation. When I returned to the camp, accompanied by an unusually large entourage of curious bushflies, I boiled a large quantity of water and washed and disinfected myself thoroughly. When I had finished, fortunately before anyone else from the camp had yet risen, I sought out the manufacturer's name and address on the packaging for my proposed litigation. I calculated that the $29.00 product had lasted a mere three minutes of use. It was then that I realized I had no legal leg to stand on. The package clearly said, “Limited to 95 Kg.” I weigh 97Kg.

I nevertheless muttered some potentially defamatory statements about the engineers who designed the device with such a small safety margin. My wife, who was originally trained as an engineer, told me that engineers always worked out the likely stresses very carefully, and at the end of the calculation doubled the required strength as a safety margin.

By the time the rest of the camp had risen, I saw enough of the humorous side of the disaster to confess to everyone in the camp. My wife is nowadays a Professor of Communication. She had once, while working as a technical writer for IBM, suffered the indignity of seeing her instructions stumble in testing because the male user had not read her instructions carefully. These days she has the full armament of a prodigious body of cognitive research that shows that most men do not read instructions. Predictably her response was “Just like a man. Didn't read the instructions before you used the product.” As a former Professor of Communication who strongly supports the modern cognitive research base, I had no defence.

I attempted to secure an agreement from friend of 46 years, Peter, to not use my name in his inevitable retelling of the story. But as I should have realised with Peter, this should have been agreed to before I told the tale.