A historic luxury train, reincarnated into a luxury hotel, hovers above the magnificent Kruger National Park.
Hailed as an “insane boutique hotel” by the Robb Report magazine, the Kruger Shalati Train on the Bridge is an innovative safari lodge suspended above the crocodile-infested Selati River on the edge of the Kruger National Park with jaw-dropping views.
The 1950s era SA Railways train has been reimagined and repurposed as a luxury hotel. Now permanently stationed on the historically rich Selati Bridge, it pays homage to bygone explorers who occupied the same spot in the 1920s. It’s a feat of engineering and a uniquely African experience, a global-first fused with cutting-edge design, luxury and a spectacular nod to a glamorous era of travel.
The train takes its name from Shalati, one of the first female warrior chiefs of the small Tebula clan, part of the Tsonga tribe, who lived in the bush around the site of the Selati goldfields. The Selati line construction began in 1892 to transport gold from the Murchison Range to Komatipoort and the port in Lourenço Marques (Maputo). The line was nicknamed the “man-a-mile-line” due to the high mortality rate from malaria and lions.
The French entrepreneur brothers Baron Eugene Oppenheim and Baron Robert Oppenheim secured the concession to build the line chiefly through bribery and corruption. They continued to cook the books until 1895 when the Selati line scandal broke wide open – with more than one million pounds lining the greedy pockets of crooked politicians and businessmen – leaving 120km of useless track. It was over 15 years before construction recommenced in 1909, and the line was completed in 1912.
Just as the passengers did in the past, you sleep on the Bridge, moving onto the land at the Skukuza rest camp to eat, but unlike the original transporter trains that parked on the Bridge, the carriages are luxuriously furnished and have panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows along one side, and a small balcony, all with fantastic views over the Sabie River and the crocodiles, hippos, buffaloes and elephants below.
A king-size bed, sitting area, and a bathtub and shower all have a view overlooking the river and the bush.
Megan Hesse and Andrea Kleinloog, of HK Studio, are responsible for the makeover as a luxury safari lodge, albeit one with a difference, by collaborating with local designers, artists and artisans.
The rooms are stunning, and everything is bespoke, including the beautifully crafted Batho scatter cushions from Neimil that take inspiration and colour from the Skukuza area.
Visual artist Sakhile Cebekhulu’s photographic images of the Sabie river and Selati Bridge, embellished with embroidery, enliven the walls, while Bonolo Chepape’s strikingly graphic-designed luxurious basso blanket made by SMIT good studio completes the beds.
The train has 24 unique en suite carriage rooms, a sumptuous lounge carriage, and a bar with a fabulous pool deck with a circular pool overhanging the river, in yet another feat of engineering.
The carriages are reached by foot – walking along the left side of the Bridge where individual steps ascend to each carriage on the right. It’s all fascinating – and high – and not for the faint-hearted. The exposed engineering of both the train and the bridge is a work of art and immaculately restored. There are wonderful views through the undercarriage and the Bridge to the vast river and wide-open landscape below.
The land-based reception lobby, lounge and hotel shop area lead to the bar and restaurant with a deck overlooking the river. There is another pool deck with two circular industrial-looking circular pools and an additional seven land-based rooms (children are not allowed to stay on the train).
In 1902, James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed as the first warden of the Sabie Game Reserve. Stevenson-Hamilton garnered the pseudonym Skukuza, meaning “to sweep” in Tsonga, for his determination to sweep clean the park of poachers and criminals in the area.
In 1923, Stevenson-Hamilton suggested the train should park overnight on the Bridge to allow guests to disembark, where around a bonfire, he would regale guests with tales of the reserve he had fought so hard to protect followed by a banquet before guests returned to their carriages to sleep. And to view the game in daylight.
It became the most popular stop on the trip and led to a campaign to decree the reserve a national park – the Kruger National Park in 1926. The Selati Line remained in use until the 1960s, with up to 250 trains a week rumbling through Kruger Park. The last train rolled through in 1973.
Just as a regular safari, there are two game drives each day. Our ranger Nelly Ndlovu (meaning elephant in Tsonga, and yes, seriously, his parents called him Nelly Elephant), was delightful, well-informed, engaging, calm and eager to find as many animals as possible for us, which he did most successfully.
We saw more wildlife than at the following three safari lodges. We joked that our ranger had lined them up, as the animals just kept on coming as if on cue ... leopards, lions, elephants, wild dogs, giraffes, zebras, vervet monkeys, buffalo, wild boars, hyenas, impalas, kudus, hippos, and crocodiles.
The morning drives had coffee stops and snacks, and the evening drives, with sundowners and stunning sunsets, were a complete joy.
The restoration of the bridge and the train is incredibly done – the design, the thought, the story, the curation.