A Rhinoceros and the Pongola Hotel

In my travels as an exploration geologist, I have stayed at many different places ranging from swanky 5 star hotels to tents. Each has its special features. One place in particular sticks in my mind because of a unique feature. I remember the Pongola Hotel in Natal Province, South Africa.

Rhino in road

I had been out all day examining a series of gold and copper prospects in northern Natal in South Africa, going from prospect to prospect and dealing with occasional travel impediments.

I was looking forward to a room, a meal, and a bath. One evening I was booked into Pongola Hotel.

The Pongola Hotel is located in Natal province of South Africa near the southern border of Swaziland. It was a two star Hotel, two out of five, which means it is the Motel 6 of that part of the world – maybe Motel 5. I think a one star Hotel is a tent with walls. Like many rural hotels in southern Africa of 35 years ago, it pretended to be very, very British, which means that gentlemen must wear coat and tie to dinner. It also means they had no concept of central heating.

After a hard day out exploring, I like to take a shower or bath, but this became complicated at the Pongola Hotel. Upon checking in, the Indian clerk asked me, “Would the gentleman be bathing tonight?”

Now, I thought that was an unusual question. In my experience, hotel clerks usually don’t inquire about one’s personal hygiene habits. I was somewhat taken aback by the question. Did the rigors of the day make my need for a bath obvious to the genteel nose? No, there was another reason which I discovered later.

However, I said, “Yes, I will bathe before dinner.” Now, this was 6 O’clock in the afternoon, and I was tired and hungry.

The clerk asked, “At what time will the gentleman be dining?” I said, “Seven.”

“Oh, but sir, we cannot possibly be having a bath prepared before nine of the clock,” the clerk said. I thought about arguing, but decided it wasn’t worth it.

“OK, nine will be fine,” I said with puzzlement.

So I dressed and went to dinner. By the way, I wore bolo ties, they’re much easier to pack. I would sometimes get arguments about this. I would mention that bolos were designated by the governor of Arizona the official neckwear of the state. That sometimes worked, but not at the Pongola Hotel. However, when I mentioned that bolos were perfectly acceptable to the staff at the 5 Star Grosvenor House in London, arguments ceased. – They were all so very, very British, you see.

Dining in a very British African establishment can be, shall we say, adventuresome, because between British cooking and what might be available as the local delicacy that day, did not always please my pallet. So, I often carried a defensive bottle of Tabasco sauce with me. At the Pongola dining room, while contemplating the aroma of fried goat, I used the Tabasco sauce quite liberally, which scandalized my fellow diners. One fellow asked, “What are you doing sir, you’ll kill the taste.” “Exactly,” I said.

Dining in a very British African Hotel is also very time consuming. No fast food there. All the meals consisted of a soup course, a fish course, a salad course (green vegetables in salads were rare in that part of the world. Salads were always some minced mystery with fruit.) That was followed by the main course, then by cheese and biscuits, by which they meant crackers. Adding to the leisurely pace was the fact that one could not order a whole meal at once. There was a separate menu for each course and a respectable time had to be allowed to peruse and decide among the two or three choices.

It took about two hours to dine, and enjoy an after-dinner brandy. Upon walking back to my room, I found out why one had to make an appointment for a bath. It was the hot water system.

Each room had its own hot water system. This consisted of an outdoor fire place, just behind the room, a long chimney, upon which was perched a barrel. It took them two hours to fill the barrel and get a wood fire burning long enough to heat water.

Yes, the Pongola Hotel was unique. Sometimes you find adventure in ordinary things.

That was then, today Pongola is a tourist destination because it is the gateway to wild animal nature parks.

As for the Rhinos shown in the photo above, I managed to convince them to move so I could continue on my way.

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