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Exploring Quirky Australian Toilet Culture

Australia. Land of strange and wonderful things. The platypus and echidna. Vegemite. Australian football. So many highly venomous creatures, including the world's most lethal fish, spider, jellyfish, and octopus. Incomprehensible slang.

Why should toilets be left out of this cornucopia of odd?

From toilets with spectacular views to words every tourist should know, here we offer some sanitary additions to the layperson’s knowledge of the Land Down Under.

Flushing the Aussie Way

First, let's address one of the most common American misconceptions about Australia. For those still clinging to this urban fable: no, toilet water does not swirl “backwards” in the southern hemisphere because of the Coriolis Effect.

While it’s true that cyclonic weather systems spin in opposite directions on each side of the equator, differences in toilet bowl design swamp this subtle effect. The direction in which water circles the toilet when you flush depends on the angle at which the rim jets are pointed. These jets spray water from the tank out from under the rim at the top of the bowl to wash down anything sticking to the sides.

In the US, it’s common for the rim jets to be angled so that water swirls counter-clockwise when the toilet is flushed. In Australia, the jets often point the other way so that water does a clockwise dance before flushing down. But the hemisphere really doesn’t matter - jets can simply be redirected during manufacture to bring a little bit of something Australian up north.

It's All About Location

If you’re looking for a room with a view, Australia has got you covered – blogger Red Nomad Oz gathered years of firsthand research on the most scenic toilets in the country into the book Aussie Loos With Views. With locations including the top of Mt. Kosciuszko (Australia’s highest peak), coastal dunes with ocean views, small boats on crocodile-infested rivers, and the red expanse of the outback, there’s sure to be a favorite loo view for you, too.

A mountainous view from a public toilet on Lord Howe Island, New South Wales (Credit: Marion Halliday)

All these beauties and more are part of the 23,000-odd facilities you can find using the federal government’s National Public Toilet Map. Where information is available, each location includes details on accessibility, adult and baby care, availability of unisex and all-gender facilities, and features such as sharps disposal and showers. If you’re particularly choosy about where you do your business, you can also check out photos that other users have uploaded.

Give Instagrammers Their Toilets

In what is possibly a world first, the city of Perth, Western Australia, built a public toilet primarily to serve people who stop to photograph a popular landmark along a very busy road.

The Crawley Edge Boatshed, originally built in the 1930s, is a charming blue wooden structure that sits at the end of a pier jutting out into the Swan River. It’s Perth’s most photographed landmark, with tourists and locals posing for Instagram shots and wedding photos using the hashtag #blueboathouse.

Photograph of the Crawley Edge Boatshed, a blue wooden shed built at the end of a pier into the Swan River

Unfortunately, it’s located alongside Mounts Bay Road, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare for residents getting into the city’s downtown area. Aside from a nearby restaurant – which complained about some abusive Boatshed visitors using their toilets – the nearest public facilities were 2.4 km (1.5 miles) away. So, in 2019, Perth’s City Council approved spending AUS$400,000 on Perth’s first standalone solar-powered toilet, necessary since the location had no access to water, power, or sewerage.

The “bespoke design befitting of its prominent location” was chosen after a competitive architectural process and positioned to minimize impacts on local flora. While some locals questioned the hefty price tag, the Council justified the expense as being necessary to “allow visitors the respite they need”.

Illustration of the winning design for the new solar-powered toilet (Credit: WA Achievers)

With laminated timber, sandstone, ochre-pigmented concrete, and galvanized steel included in the attractive design, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before #boatshedtoilet starts trending.

Australians Really Value Their Toilet Paper

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people stocked up on essentials like food, bottled water, medicines, and pandemic-specific supplies like gloves and masks. Australia wasn’t the only country to add toilet paper to the list of stockpiled essentials, but it may have the dubious distinction of being the most extreme in its panic buying.

By the first week of March 2020, the country had only registered confirmed COVID cases numbering in the few dozens – a far cry from the thousands appearing elsewhere – but uncertainty led to rising fear about local outbreaks and prompted a sudden rush on bog roll (slang for toilet paper).

On 4 March, Woolworths, one of Australia’s biggest supermarket chains, imposed a limit of four packs per customer to deal with suddenly empty shelves. By 8 March, that limit had come down to two packs, while Coles, another large chain, imposed a limit of just one pack per customer. In a Sydney suburb, police got involved when two customers arguing over toilet rolls escalated into violence.

While authorities tried unsuccessfully to calm down a populace that had grown very attached to their soft white squares, #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis started trending on social media.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Brendan Murphy, noted in an address to Parliament: “We are trying to reassure people that removing all of the lavatory paper from the shelves of supermarkets probably isn’t a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time.”

Sensible or not, Australians seemed to be suffering from acartohygieiophobia, defined by Urban Dictionary as “the morbid fear of running out of toilet paper”. This fear was mostly unfounded since most of Australia’s TP is manufactured domestically. Staff at the Kleenex facility in South Australia ramped up to 24-hour production to keep up with demand and even posted photos of fully stocked warehouses.

Panic-induced TP stockpiling died down somewhat in the following weeks and months, only to spike again that June when the state of Victoria recorded a new spike in cases. Once again, shoppers at Woolworths were limited to two packs per customer and only one at Coles as stores struggled to keep two-ply on the shelves.

We can’t help but think that toilet paper should be added to the list of cherished Australian values alongside a decent minimum wage, healthcare for all, and alcohol.

Know What You’re Asking For

In news that surprises no one, Australians have several slang words for the toilet.

Loo: very common reference to an inside toilet. This term comes from the UK, where it’s also commonly used. The precise origins of the term are unknown, but it’s thought that the word comes from the old French expression, regardez de l’eau, or “watch out for the water” – a warning for anyone on the street below when a chamber pot was about to be emptied out the window.

Dunny: mostly used to refer to outside toilets. Usage varies by region, and in some places it’s considered somewhat less polite than loo, but still a pretty common term. This word originates in the old English word dunnekin: a container for dung, and shortened in the manner typical of Australian slang.

Crapper: this term actually comes from a person: Thomas Crapper, an English plumber and businessman who held a few patents for improving toilet elements. The term crapper entered the Australian lexicon via American soldiers in England during World War I, when many toilets had the company logo of Thomas Crapper and Co. Ltd stamped onto the front. The soldiers brought the term back to the US, and it was subsequently taken up more widely, eventually making its way into Aussie slang. It’s considered pretty impolite, so use with discretion.

Thunderbox: an outhouse, or a simple outdoor toilet. Origins of the word are a little murky but thought to come from, ahem, noises made while using said structure and the structure's shape—a self-explanatory piece of slang.

We’ll leave you with one last tip for tourists using Australian toilets: You might want to check under the seat for spiders before you sit down.

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