Image Credit: “Murrurundi Old Dunny -1+” by Sheba_Also 43,000 photos CC BY-SA 2.0

Days of Thunder and Big Ships

Have you ever sat in the dark with frost on your nose; a slug squished under one foot and the other holding the door closed; while you balance precariously on the can, searching with a torch for the red-back spider you are certain is about to crawl into your bare bum crack?

Congratulations! You’re officially a dinky-di Aussie and you’ve survived the dreaded outback dunny.

Even in the light of day, the outback dunny is a perilous place. Walking in immediately after someone has dropped the kids off at the pool is a most unpleasant experience. As is the cardiac arrest you almost suffer when your mate kicks the footy into the tin walls and (quite literally) scares the crap out of you. Or worse, when some smart-arse hoists a fire cracker over the top while you sit helplessly on the can. Nino Culotta was right – we are a weird mob!

In Australia, we love to celebrate the legend of the outback dunny.

The community of Winton in Central Queensland hold a biennial Outback Festival that plays host to the infamous Great Dunny Derby

This illustrious event comprises teams of five competitors, two pushers, two pullers and the bloke called the ‘choker’ who sits on the throne.  Teams with names like Brave Farts, Runny Rumps, Rings of Fire and Harry’s Potty compete for the title of ‘The Golden Throne’ and there is also a prize for last, aptly named ‘The Constipation Stakes’.

For most of us today, the outback thunderbox is only encountered on family camping trips. In the dead of night, making an awkward sprint to the makeshift dunny, we peer wide-eyed through our flashlight, on the lookout for venomous snakes, cow paddies and other nocturnal creatures of the Aussie outback. Dropping off our load bathed in the comforting light from our torch, we contemplate the sprint back to our tent.

As a kid at my place, it wasn’t jingle bells or Santa’s chair arriving in the department stores that signalled the proximity of Christmas, they came way too early. It wasn’t putting up the Christmas tree; that meant there was still a month to go. No, it was the day Mum would reveal the new paint colour for our outback dunny floor.

Would it be fire engine red? Chocolate brown? (way too metaphorical) or basic black? Mum would proudly announce her decision, a week out from Christmas. If you needed to go before the paint dried you’d just have to use Grandma’s emergency potty, because god help anybody who ruined Mum’s paint job.

My Mum always said we were ‘lucky’ to have our outback dunny, because it was a proper dunny. She remembered the days in her childhood home when their real Aussie outhouse required a ‘dunny man’ to come and empty the bucket weekly. As he gathered up the bucket of poop, bravely balancing it on a cloth over his shoulder; the kids would line up in the driveway, hoping to catch a glimpse of him tripping up and ‘losing his shit’.

Singer Col Joye tells the story of the dunny man who came to his place and met the unhappy misfortune of his brimming bucket clipping the hills hoist and toppling over, not so funny for the dunny man, but hilarious fodder for the budding entertainer.

It seems everyone has a story to tell about the Aussie outhouse of their childhood.

For a girlfriend of mine ‘Hong Kong’ was the scary place in her grandad’s backyard; overgrown with vines and cobwebs and equipped with squares of the Herald Sun (which served the dual purpose of catching up on the news and wiping ones derriere). ‘I never knew Hong Kong was actually a place back then,’ she said.

Another friend recalls her dad’s expression for tough guys: ‘he was as hard as a shit carter’s shoulders.’ Also her grandad’s bemusement at the arrival of the new outdoor setting: ‘isn’t it funny, we used to go outside to poop and inside to eat, now we go outside to eat and inside to poop.’

A colleague of mine, holidaying in Europe, wanted to farewell the large cruise liner he and his wife had disembarked the previous evening. Late to the dock, and not speaking the local lingo, he struggled to convey his message to the little Spaniard sweeping the path. 

‘Big ship? Big ship?’ he gestured wildly at the Spaniard, (meaning to enquire where was the cruise liner that was soon to be departing).

‘Si Senor!  Si Senor!’ exclaimed the little fella, nodding as he grabbed my colleague’s hand and raced frantically along the dock with him.

After a few metres the little Spaniard came to a screeching halt and, gasping for breath, pointed excitedly to a building across the street. ‘WC! WC!’ he cried; delighted he had saved the day.

Sitting dutifully upon the thunderbox, (it was easier than battling the great divide of the language barrier), my mate chuckled as he flushed the toilet and farewelled the only ‘big ship’ he would be seeing off that morning.

Perhaps it’s something about our vulnerability on the throne that endears itself to laughter.

Suppose that just as we do launch our ‘big ship,’ that red-back spider really does crawl out of that outback dunny and threaten to sink its fangs into our flesh?

Strewth mate! What then?

Harris, J. (2011, September 28). A Daring Dash in the Dunny Derby. ABC Western Queensland, retrieved from

Next Short Feature: K.I.S.S for Dad on Father’s Day

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