“This place takes my breath away.” This is what I scribbled down about Kruger Shalati when I visited in February.
It wasn’t just the experience of staying in a luxury boutique hotel in a train on a bridge audaciously suspended 15m above the Sabie River, with a pride of elephants beneath our carriage. Remarkable as that is. It was the sense of welcome and the unmistakable feeling of pride that we got from just about every staff member we encountered — that they were part of a team that had brought an extraordinary idea to life; one that embodies a South African past and present in the best possible way.
We stayed for two days in February, the month in which the highest rainfall numbers are recorded in the Kruger National Park. And yet, even with the park a mostly watery, lush, green blur, and little wildlife to be seen, this was our most memorable Kruger trip.
In an age when movement is so restricted, luxury train travel has been reinterpreted as stationary. Weirdly, it’s almost comforting.
But this luxury train, with just 13 carriages housing 24 en-suite rooms and a lounge carriage, has a much bigger story — one of South African daring and ingenuity, of creative design and challenging engineering, and a fine example of the modern-day injunction to “reuse and recycle”. It’s also a story of redressing issues of the past, through job opportunities, and the imaginative recreation of a historic travel experience.
As part of an agreement with SanParks that the hotel would benefit surrounding communities, the Kruger Shalati management team opened up job applications and received 5,000 CVs for 170 positions. Around 65% of the staff have never previously had the opportunity to work before, and many come from communities that have been part of the land-claims process.
At its heart, Kruger Shalati is about a team built by belief in what seemed almost impossible.
The hotel concept was inspired by the location’s early history — a railway bridge that last saw a journey on its tracks in the 1970s. The line was built in 1893 to link Komatipoort with Tzaneen, fuelled by the discovery of gold 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. Some say that this helped to support the move to proclaim the Kruger National Park in 1926.
In 1927 there was an “impractical” idea to build a hotel on the bridge. Close to a century later it would be realised by black-empowerment company Thebe, a great extension to the narrative that for so long has celebrated British and Afrikaner victories in creating the park. While train travel created the first tourism boom, it was discontinued because of the danger posed to wildlife.
Driving through the Kruger Park to the hotel, the first glimpse we got was of the low-level bridge over the Sabie River, the train hotel almost concealed within the mighty steel-and-stone structure of the historic Selati bridge. Nothing gave away the dramatic backstory.
From a lost shipment of steel in China, to parking the first carriage on the wrong bridge, and a near hijacking of the truck hauling the first carriage on its maiden voyage. Add to that a 2cm miscalculation that saw the entire staircase alongside the carriages having to be refitted, this was a project that needed more than a little belief to reach its incredible result.
The carriages have been converted from 1950s relics recovered from a “railway graveyard” in Ladysmith. Rusted, burnt out and vandalised, the carriages were transported to Germiston to be gutted, reengineered, and refurbished.
Operations general manager Gavin Ferreira says it took 12 weeks to finish a single carriage and then a four-day journey to Kruger. It took almost one year from the first carriage to the last carriage to arrive by March 2021. And most significantly, the final carriage is built for universal access, with a specially designed lift for wheelchair mobility.
Throw in the pandemic, and the planning over a five-year period for a hotel geared towards an international tourism market. “The intention was to transform the market with time, ultimately attracting an Afropolitan audience, but starting with an international one,” says Gavin. “Covid-19 turned the plan on its head.”
The team debated for months over which stage to go out to a local audience and over dual pricing, and then opened the hotel to South Africans.
“We’ve been floored by the positive local response.” Ferreira mentions that, in the short time the hotel has been open, there have already been return visitors. It’s not hard to see why. Hospitality pundits can talk about guest-centric experiences, but what does that actually mean to the traveller?
At Kruger Shalati, it means the luxury of choice. You decide how to spend your time. Gone is the routine of even the most high-end game lodges.
Kruger Shalati is all about understated luxury and true leisure. The cleverly designed spaces seduce you into lingering in the hotel, whether it’s to soak in your bathtub with a river view or lay about at the pool suspended above the river (no diving allowed), lured by the friendly bar-carriage staff.
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 is maximised in the carriage with floor-to-ceiling windows and cleverly added blisters or pop-outs, so you get a king-sized bed.
The rooms epitomise contemporary elegance, with embroidery-embellished photo images of the Sabie River and Selati Bridge by artist Sakhile Cebekhulu and a striking graphic blanket by textile designer Bonolo Chepape, made by SMTNGgoodstudio.
Chef Andrew Atkinson heads up the kitchen. The hotel’s restaurant is located on land, with sexy interiors and outdoor spaces overlooking the river.
Within the next few months the hotel will add seven land-based rooms — a honeymoon suite and six family-friendly rooms (children are not permitted on the train).
The Robb Report calls Kruger Shalati an “insane boutique hotel”. I think it’s the perfect kind of madness for what tourism needs right now.
• Laurice Taitz-Buntman is editor and publisher of Johannesburg In Your Pocket City Guide.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2021.