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This train goes nowhere. Now it’s a luxury attraction

South Africa is home to some of the most luxurious, nostalgic train journeys on offer anywhere in the world. But for certain enthusiasts, a train going nowhere is the country’s star attraction.

Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge is a hotel in Skukuza in Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Comprising a set of train carriages renovated into 24 modern suites with balconies and a pool overlooking the Sabie River, it marries luxury accommodation with an intimate view of wildlife, including sightings of Africa’s “Big Five” — lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos.

Jerry Mabena, CEO of Motsamayi Tourism Group, which owns the hotel, says the venture harks back to the earliest days of the park, when steam trains would pass through Kruger in the 1920s on the Selati Railway Line.

Trains were once vital for tourists accessing Kruger, and would even park overnight on the same bridge where the hotel sits today. A new railway line built on the edge of Kruger in the 1970s pushed the Selati line and bridge into retirement, but in 2016 an idea was formed to restore the bridge to its former glory.

“The idea for us was to re-enact the experience in some form or another,” Mabena says. “When we had the opportunity to buy mothballed old carriages from Transnet — which is our rail logistics operator in South Africa — we couldn’t say no to the idea.”

The carriages’ interiors have been renovated with a modern finish, albeit with a few Art Deco flourishes (“we were trying to find a look that is non-colonial,” says Mabena).

A visitor relaxes in one of the hotel's pools, perched over the Sabie River. - Courtesy Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge
A visitor relaxes in one of the hotel's pools, perched over the Sabie River. - Courtesy Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge

If guests leave their curtains open, they can wake with the dawn and catch the first signs of life outside from east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows. The river is a wildlife focal point, meaning guests can spend all day lounging on balconies or swimming in the pool while checking out activity below. “Having hippos grunting underneath the carriage attracts people who want to be in the wild but don’t want to be immersed in the wild,” says Mabena.

Nevertheless, many visitors strap on boots and head into the bush with a guide on a game drive.

Staff including senior guide Thuli Mnisi were recruited as part of efforts to involve the local community in the enterprise. Mnisi had worked as a guide for other companies since 2014 before joining Kruger Shalati. “(It’s) totally different from other lodges,” she says. “When (guests) visit the train for the first time, it’s breath-taking, the view is unique.”

Kruger National Park allows self-driving safari experiences, but Mnisi says there’s no substitute for having a guide. “We communicate with one another, we know where we can find the animals,” she says.

“If you’re (on) a self-drive, you can just wander around Kruger National Park, and it’s a very big area. If you go with a guide, they know what they’re doing, they know where to find what and exactly at what time.”

Elephants spotted on a game drive near Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge in Kruger National Park. - Courtesy Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge
Elephants spotted on a game drive near Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge in Kruger National Park. - Courtesy Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge

Gardeners have planted indigenous species on the hotel grounds and nurture a kitchen garden, with produce used in Kruger Shalati’s fine dining restaurant. Local delicacies served in the refined setting include crocodile, venison, and springbok carpaccio.

“Mother nature is the true artist,” says chef Vusi Mbatha. “It’s one of those philosophies that we share: take simple ingredients and transform them into something amazing.”

After development delays courtesy of Covid-19, the hotel opened in December 2020 and is welcoming guests for its fourth summer season.

Double and twin rooms aboard the train start at 9,950 Rand ($530) per person, per night for international guests, with discounts for longer stays. One of the seven rooms in the adjacent Bridge House cost less. Rates include all meals, certain drinks, two game drives and airport transfers.

If all this sounds like too much wildlife and not enough trains, Motsamayi Tourism Group also owns Kruger Station, just south of the bridge and home to the last train to operate in the park.

Stranded after most of the tracks in the park were removed in the 1970s, the South African Railway Class 24 steam locomotive has lived many lives (including a funeral coach for a former prime minister) and now enjoys a happy retirement alongside a restaurant and bar.

“The culture of steam trains and the culture of historical trains I think is beginning to re-emerge,” says Mabena.

“We don’t have a moving steam train, but one day, I think we will.”

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