Kruger Shalati: The Train Hotel Over Sabie Bridge

May 9, 2020 0 comments

Kruger Shalati

For several years, it was possible to hop into a train at Komatipoort, on the South Africa-Mozambique border, and ride through the wilderness of the Kruger National Park up to Tzaneen, a large town located outside the National Park. On the way, the train stopped at the railway bridge over Sabie river, where guests disembarked and were escorted by armed rangers right into the bush. After enjoying the park by day, the guests retreated to their carriages at night to sleep before moving on to their next destination. The tracks are now replaced by roads, and the highly popular “Round in Nine” tour was sorely missed.

A new initiative by the Thebe Tourism Group hopes to recreate some of the magic of the lost tour. A luxurious hotel, set inside a stationary train, is set to open later this year. The train is parked over the same railway bridge suspended over the Sabie river where visitors once disembarked at Skukuza Camp nearly 100 years ago. The train hotel will have 24 carriage rooms and 7 luxury bridge house rooms, each having access to a terrace and an overhanging pool overlooking the river.

"With Kruger Shalati, we want to create a tourism destination and a hospitality product so unique that people want to travel from around the world just to stay here for a holiday, and for domestic travelers to really be proud to have something that exists nowhere else in the world,'' says Jerry Mabena, CEO of Thebe Tourism Group.

The history of the Selati railway line is intricately linked with that of the Kruger National Park. Work on the line first started in 1892 to exploit the gold reserves discovered in north-eastern Transvaal, way into the north country. The idea was to bring the mined ore by train from the goldfields in Transvaal to Komatipoort, from where the ores would be transported by the recently laid railway link to Delagoa Bay. The work was expected to be dangerous because of tropical diseases and predators (read how two lions terrorized railway workers in Tsavo, in Kenya, during the late 19th century), so the workforce consisted mostly of forced black laborers and deserters of the British army.

Selati Railway line

The Selati Railway line in 1898.

Fed on antelope meat and plenty of liquor, work began enthusiastically, and in only two years over 80 kilometers of tracks were laid. But corruption, falsification of books, and profiteering eventually caused the project to derail. The line had reached only as far as Sabie Bridge in Skukuza. During this period, tens of thousands of animals were shot to feed the workers. After lying idle for 15 years, the project was resuscitated, and in 1912, the line reached Tzaneen.

For many years the line was in use, but after the closure of the Selati goldfields, James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of South Africa's Sabi Nature Reserve, floated the idea of readapting the railways for tourists use. At that time, there was no Kruger National Park, only a game reserve. It was James Stevenson-Hamilton who pressed for a sanctuary for the protection of its wildlife. The Sabi Game Reserve became Kruger National Park, South Africa's first, in 1926. The Selati railway operated until 1973 after which it was abandoned.

Kruger Shalati

The bridge over Sabie River in Kruger National Park.

Kruger Shalati

Kruger Shalati

Rendering of the interior of the Kruger Shalati’s hotel room.

Kruger Shalati

Kruger Shalati

Kruger Shalati

Kruger Shalati

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