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Inchanga memories

By Gavin Foster- 23 September 2008

A rickety bridge poised precariously over a 27-metre drop, a hotel that served as a brothel and a boarding school, and a one-legged Englishman on the run from an aggrieved Frenchman. These all form part of Inchanga's rich history. GAVIN FOSTER takes a look at a Victorian version of an Ultra City, right here on our doorstep.

When the first train steamed past Inchanga back in 1880' the station bearing that name didn't even exist. The local halt, called Wallacetown, lay on the far side of today's N3, and before it lay the formidable Inchanga Bridge. This wobbly 150 metre long viaduct crossed the ravine shortly after today's Hammarsdale junction at a scary 27 metres, nine stories, above the level of the streambed.

Inchanga Bridge in the old days. A section still survives, below, at the Baynesfield Estate.

<== /\ \/ Click to view enlargements.

The rickety iron structure lacked lateral support, so when the wind gauge registered winds of 16 km/h or more passengers had to alight and walk across, with the train following once they were safely on the other side. Buckets of water were kept permanently on the bridge as stabilising ballast, and any that toppled over were interpreted as visible evidence that the driver had broken the 10 km/h speed limit. Inchanga Bridge served Natal till 1892, when a deviation was built to take trains around the ravine rather than over it.

A new station with was built at Inchanga in 1896, and Durban entrepreneur C.W. Tomkins, who was catering contractor to the Natal Government Railways, ran the second-floor restaurant, which catered for passengers at the midway halt in the eight-hour trip between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. In 1903 Tomkins built a smart hotel and mineral water bottling plant water alongside the station. This was recognised as a "splendid health resort," with advertisements proclaiming in bold letters that it was blessed with electric lights and running water.

The hotel at Inchanga suffered after the new main line bypassed it sometime in the 1920s, and changed hands many times. It's said to have served at various times as a school, a brothel, and a den of iniquity where stolen goods were stored and drugs consumed freely. Radio and television motoring presenter Roger McCleery remembers the place well, but for innocent reasons - he stayed there in 1940 as a five-year-old when it was a boarding school.

"It was great to be out in the country after the wartime drama of Durban," he reminisces. "It was a wonderful, lazy kind of school. It was a tremendous thrill to go home for the holidays on the steam train from the station below, and as a treat we used to sometimes catch the train to Pietermaritzburg to do shopping. We used to have picnics down at the river, and after an Indian trading store on the old road above - the Comrades route - burnt down we used to dig for treasure. Coming up with a handful of beads was like finding gold for us."

McCleery returned to the hotel often in the 1970s and 80s for local motorsport events. "We always used to have a wonderful time there," he says. "I remember that the owner had a wooden leg with a leather knee joint that always used to creak as he walked. He and his wife used to sometimes drink a little too much, and then he'd fall over. I have many fond memories of this place."

Ah! The man with the wooden leg. For about 35 years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, a colourful character called Peter Barnes and his fiery wife, Celia, owned the hotel. Barnes had earlier lost his leg to the bullet of a cuckolded Frenchman, who caught him in his sights as he tried to escape from the lady's bedroom window. The Frenchman was a good shot, and a second bullet lodged itself in Barnes abdomen, where it remained for over 40 years.

After the Barnes couple retired to the coast about ten years ago the hotel was sold to an Italian, who renamed it the Inchanga Country Hotel. The new owner provided enormous entertainment for his guests when he had an altercation with a local cabinetmaker over payment for work that had been done. The Italian told the carpenter he could not pay, and ended up with a bloody nose and a black eye, after which a cheque was rapidly handed over.

A year or so later the hotelier contracted the cabinetmaker's son to do further work for him and, when the time came to pay, produced the blood-stained clothing he'd saved from the last bout, saying that he'd spent the money replacing his wardrobe. This dispute ended abruptly when he was thrown into the dining room's blazing fireplace, and another cheque was speedily produced.

The Inchanga Hotel today.
Click to view enlargement

The old hotel has been upgraded to luxury status and now operates as the Protea Hotel Inchanga. The original 100-year-old building forms a major part of the new building, and although the locals who used to frequent the pub feel that it's lost much of its character, the setting is still supremely tranquil and, if you know who to ask, the memories still linger.

Thanks to David Hall and Greg and Helen Langridge for their invaluable input.

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