Kruger Shalati is a hotel in a train on that bridge, one of those rare properties that will amaze you as much for its engineering and its history as for its service and hospitality.
A feat of the imagination and of much calculation has resulted in a luxury boutique hotel suspended audaciously 50 feet above the Sabie River. This is safari – with a difference. What that means, for one, is that you can lie in your bath and tick off wildlife sightings most people can only dream of.
The idea for the hotel was inspired by the location’s history – a disused railway bridge adjacent to what is now SANParks Skukuza camp in Kruger National Park, that was last in use in the 1970s. The line was originally built more than a century ago as part of a railway link to different gold sites in the Northern Transvaal. Tourism was soon added and in 1923 South African Railways introduced a nine-day tour through the Sabie Game Reserve, that included an overnight stop on the bridge (now in Skukuza) for wildlife viewing.
The only way to view game in this area then was by train – this was long before roads were introduced and motor travel and rest camps became the modern way to experience the wild. The train experience was eventually discontinued because of the danger to wildlife.
In building this hotel the Thebe project team scanned the globe for inspiration, looking at one-of-a-kind travel experiences from the glamourous age of rail travel epitomised by the Orient Express, as well as standout remote properties like Namibia’s Skeleton Coast Shipwreck Lodge and Red Carnation’s Bushmanskloof Hotel in the Cederberg Mountains. But they knew they would be building a hotel to defy comparison.
The hotel is essentially a train, made up of 12 carriages on the bridge, which were converted from 1950s relics recovered from a “railway graveyard” in Ladysmith. Rusted, burned out and vandalised the carriages were transported to Germiston on the East Rand in Joburg to be gutted, re-engineered and refurbished. It took 12 weeks to finish a single carriage and then each carriage – a 36-ton load – was transported over a four-day journey to the Kruger Park. One year to the day from the first carriage being placed on the bridge, the last carriage (built for universal access, with a specially designed lift for wheelchair mobility) arrived – in March 2021.
The hotel is a marvel. Kruger Shalati has been designed around you, the guest, with the idea that luxury doesn’t have to mean a strict schedule and a formulaic approach to safari. Luxury means choice. This is a place to embrace true leisure – with beautifully designed spaces that seduce you into wanting to linger, from a pool deck mounted on a pillar on a bridge that overlooks the river, perfect for crocodile-spotting, to your carriage with floor to ceiling windows, and views for miles.
An external walkway the length of the train means an incredibly roomy carriage. It also means that as soon as you step outside your door you are part of a greater wild universe, the river below you, the park stretching out ahead in every direction.
Internal space was maximised in the carriages by cleverly added pop-outs, so you get a king-sized bed. Johannesburg interior design studio Hesse Kleinloog said the interior design was inspired by the unique setting. It’s proudly Afrocentric without falling back into cliché.
“What struck us was the exquisite familiarity of the tones of the bridge, set in its ever-changing, natural surroundings – the patina of deep maroons… flashes of charcoal… The negative space between the girders also creating a dynamic pattern, that carries through many of the design elements.”
The rooms are all contemporary elegance – and filled with locally made goods such as artist Sakhile Cebekhulu’s embroidery-embellished photo images of the Sabie river and Selati Bridge, and a striking graphic designed blanket by textile designer Bonolo Chepape, made by SMTNGgoodstudio. So beautiful, and you’ll be happy to know you can purchase the items from the hotel store.
Chef Andrew Atkinson heads up the kitchen, offering an exciting mix of cuisines with influences as diverse as Asia and the Middle East. The hotel’s restaurant is located on land, with sexy interiors and outdoor spaces overlooking the river.
The team here are brimful of enthusiasm and we found service to be utterly top-notch. Kruger Shalati excels at the welcome. We are excited to find out that the staff have been recruited from surrounding communities as part of land claims settlements, and that the hotel has offered opportunities to many who previously had no employment. More than a few boxes ticked for us. Feel-good luxury is the best there is.
The hotel will soon add seven land-based rooms which include a honeymoon suite and six family-friendly rooms (children are not permitted on the train).
The tip top of luxury experiences inside the Kruger National Park, you wouldn’t imagine that a stationery train could move you as this one did.
NEED TO KNOWKruger Shalati – The Train on the Bridge is located at Selati Station and Bridge, Skukuza rest camp inside the Kruger National Park, tel. +27 13 591 6000, krugershalati.com.
Accessing the park: If self-driving here the nearest gate is Paul Kruger Gate, about a 25minute drive through the park. Note that you can only enter the park when the gates are open, no exceptions to this rule will be made so make sure to arrive in good time. At the gate you will need to pay your park fees. Ensure you have your booking confirmations to hand to ensure you pay the correct entry prices for the duration of your stay (park entrance fees and community levies are not included in rack rates).
Rates: Kruger Shalati offers reduced rates for South Africans (SADC) from R5,750 per person which includes all meals, drinks (house wines and local brand spirits and beers), plus two game drives daily and return road transfers to the Skukuza Airport (Airlink now flies between OR Tambo and Skukuza Airport).
*This was not a sponsored visit