From the air, the maroon train below contrasts sharply with the green vegetation on the banks of the Sabie River in South Africa. It may look like any other train, but looks can be deceiving as this is no ordinary train.
Kruger Shalati Train on the Bridge is perhaps one of Africa’s best thought-out facilities.
Perched on Selati Bridge above the Sabie River in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it reminisces the wild romance of an era gone by and combines it with modern luxuries to create an unforgettable experience.
It might as well be a global first; 24 carriage rooms and seven bridge house rooms raised 50 metres above a river teeming with crocodiles and where guests sip their champagne cheered on by unrelenting hippo grunts.
It is hard to ignore this train, especially if you are on a game drive on this side of Kruger, which, at two million hectares, is Africa’s largest conservation area.
We had spent the night in the adjacent Skukuza Rest Camp and woke up before first light for a game drive in the famed wilderness.
Lion, rhino, elephant and leopard — four of Africa’s ‘Big Five’ were easy picks despite the bushy environment. A brief visit to Shalati was the icing on the cake before exiting the park.
Judiet Barnes, the concession general manager, had offered to take us on a brief tour of the tastefully-decorated premises, starting with the old Kruger Station 3638 where an old locomotive built in 1949 has been repurposed and, together with the platform, serves as a restaurant and coffee bar that has proved popular with day visitors to the park.
Next to the train is Kruger Cinema 360, a theatre that comprises a circular structure fitted with screens that highlight stitched images telling, among others, stories about conserving what is left on earth.
Before ‘boarding’ the train, we took some time to check out the immaculate rooms overlooking the river and the bush beyond. They ooze luxury.
However, the showstopper was the re-envisioned train accommodation. Working with local artists led by Bonolo Chepape who infused African themes, the developers left nothing to chance in creating magical scenes in each of the rooms strewn along the 12 carriages.
Large, glass-walled rooms are big enough to allow visitors unobstructed views of the river below while allowing enough privacy. A swimming pool (inaccessible to children under 12 years for safety reasons) lays suspended at the deck of the lounge carriage, offering the guests a chance to compete for a splash with the hippos and crocodiles below. A carriage twin room here will set back a single occupant close to Sh70,000.
The Kruger Shalati line on which the hotel lies has a rich cultural history, borrowing its name from one of Africa’s most courageous matriarchs. Queen Shalati ruled the Tebula clan, part of Tsonga tribe that lived around Murchison Range that is part of today’s Limpopo Province.
Queen Shalati, unlike contemporary female monarchs that looked for brave male liberators, was a female warrior, much like the famed Wangu wa Makeri in Central Kenya.
Queen Shalati’s greatness is told in the same lines as Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra of Egypt and Queen Nandi, mother to the Zulu nation’s famous son, King Shaka.
When her nation went to war, it was said that Queen Shalati would be the first one to draw the war axe in defence of her people. A train had to be built in her honour. But with other train construction projects in Africa, the Shalati line had its fair share of controversies.
Construction of the railway began in 1892, ostensibly to transport gold from Selati goldfields to a port in Maputo, Mozambique.
Two brothers, Robert and Eugine Oppenheim secured the contracts to build the railway through their company, Selati Railway Company.
But in the all-familiar story about mega construction projects, the brothers were said to have procured the contract through bribery — close to a million pounds, a tidy sum in the day.
By 1894, only 80 kilometres of the line had been laid up to the Sabie River. The corruption-ridden line was completed in 1912, and by a different company.
Man-eaters of Kruger?
The line shares a familiar story with the original railway line in Kenya built by the British. The Kenyan line had two man-eating lions that terrorised railway workers. The two beasts were killed by Colonel John Patterson.
It turns out that workers were also devoured by some lions from Kruger during the construction of what some came to term as a ‘man-a mile-line’.
In the early 1920s, the area around Shalati had become known for its heavy concentration of wildlife. James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first game warden of the then Sabie Game Reserve saw an opportunity in the new train to popularise tourism.
Stevenson-Hamilton was also called ‘Skukuza’ by the Tsonga people for his determination to sweep the area clean of poachers and other criminals.
Since the first train tour to Shalati in 1923, the warden suggested that the train park at the bridge so that passengers could disembark for a chance to view wildlife uninterrupted. Then he would regale guests with his witty bush tales. The last train left Shalati in 1973.
A century after the first guests left, the opening of the Train on the Bridge is meant to recreate memories of old Africa. Like those guests in the olden days who would spend the night in the coaches, the new ‘train’ offers guests the chance to sleep 50 metres above squabbling crocodiles and ranting hippos.
And as one writer stated, with the cast of the Lion King raising the din outside the cabin, “you do not even notice the lack of a TV set in your room.”