Suspended 50 ft. above the Sabie River in South Africa’s world-famous Kruger National Park sits an engineering masterpiece. Kruger Shalati is a train permanently positioned on the Selati bridge, not only for the most astounding views but also for supreme comfort and state-of-the-art style.
“What do you think – is that a male or female giraffe?” ranger Goodwill asks as he pauses momentarily, gesturing to my left. Hmm, I am not sure in this instance and hazard a guess that it is a male and female. “No, he corrects me, those are two females – they still have tufts on their horns while males would be almost bald from fighting.”
I have just been collected at the iconic Skukuza Airport after my comfortable flight on Airlink, to this emblematic safari destination. Waiting at the airport is my guide for the duration of my stay, and he drives me on a short transfer of just over a mile from the airport to Kruger Shalati in their branded safari vehicle. Without realizing it, my game drive has already started before reaching the lodge and with the convenience of Airlink’s exclusive service to Skukuza Airport, it has never been easier to fly into the heart of Kruger National Park.
Warm welcomes from the Kruger Shalati staff – from the smiling eyes and elbow greetings to the personable details remembered by waitrons Nonzamo and Bheki, make the guest experience even more memorable. It’s the little things for me, and the proficiency with which Nomzamo would discreetly place the hand sanitizer on my table as she knew after my first meal that I clean my hands often, and the extra froth on my cappuccino goes a long way in acknowledging that they pick up the finer guest nuances without prompting.
The food at Kruger Shalati is expertly prepared by a brilliant team of chefs, and each dish is absolutely superb. Indulge in pre-game drive snacks with a hot beverage, breakfast, and lunch on the veranda overlooking the Sabie River, where elephants often make an unexpected appearance, and dinner inside the restaurant. And who would say no to a stop in the bush for early morning hot chocolate, with a tot of Amarula, or the most magnificently set up sundowners on the banks of the Sabie River? Did I mention the sultry High Tea on the pool deck? Guests will never go hungry at Kruger Shalati, and I don’t think Nonzamo was joking when she said you will leave sporting a few extra pounds …
My domicile for my two-night stay is carriage number 6, and as I stroll along the walkway, I cannot wait to see what is in store for me. Navigating the five metal steps to my carriage, my keycard clicks to open the door and what meets my gaze is supreme luxury with an understated steampunk look – a writing desk, lounge area, a King-sized bed, and a complete bathroom, with double vanities, a beautiful freestanding bath, shower, and separate toilet. There is even a small veranda for those wanting to watch the sunrise or enjoy the fresh air when the sliding doors are open. The amazing interiors are the handiwork of lead designer Andrea Kleinloog from a South African-based company, HK Studio, who took inspiration from the landscape around the lodge, combined with the railway language and a very slight retro undertone.
When South African National Parks (SANParks) put a tender out in 2016, Thebe Tourism Group clinched the project with their winning concept of putting a stationary train back on the bridge. “The bridge has been here for over 100 years”, Judiet Barnes, Executive Manager of Kruger Shalati tells me. “We wanted to keep the trains as authentic as we could on the outside, circa 1923, but on the inside, we wanted a more contemporary interpretation with modern comforts, which guests will associate with today’s 5-star offering. Our initial design had an internal walkway, and once we realized we could play around with the blueprint, we added a walkway on the side of the bridge, which meant we had an extra 3 ft. inside the carriage, making each room 30 sq. ft. in size.”
The next challenge was how to walk from one room to another, and with two rooms per carriage, they put the entrances on the side of the carriages. Staying true to the authentic colors from the era was also important, so they stuck with the original burgundy color reminiscent of that time period.
Train carriages were sourced from what Judiet refers to as the ‘train graveyard’ in the Free State province. After these ‘retired’ carriages that were once the pride of South African Railways were purchased, the hard work started on rebuilding them, complete with new roofs, new interiors, and new walls.
“It was undoubtedly an interesting journey to refurbish the carriages,” Judiet recounts. “Transporting them proved to be very tricky – we custom-built a truck and imported a crane from New Zealand, which has a special arm that attaches to either side of it so that the carriage remains in one place which is used for the refurb, transport, and offload. First came the metalwork, then the woodwork, and lastly the interiors and shopfitters. When the hard fixes were in place, and we went through some snagging, we would transport it to the site. Each carriage took about 12 weeks to do from beginning to end except the first one, which took about 4 months. A plan on paper is always great until you put it into motion. We decided to change a few elements in the bathroom without compromising on having both a bath and shower. Certain elements were improved – we made some of the windows bigger because we knew, once the carriages were on the bridge, there’s no going back.”
The Covid pandemic certainly derailed their plans – the first carriage was loaded on March 20th, 2020, and South Africa went on hard lockdown seven days later. They had no choice but to down tools entirely for four months with no construction allowed during the lockdown period, having to pull the first carriage off the tracks. Fortunately, they could move it back in August 2020, with the rest of the carriages arriving one-by-one and the last carriage moving onto the tracks exactly one year later.
Kruger Shalati certainly ticks all the boxes – situated in the game-rich Kruger National Park, you will definitely want to experience this offering that is uniquely and proudly South African.
** Views expressed are the author’s own.
Airlink – How to Get There
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Route Specific Information: Direct scheduled flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Iconic Skukuza Airport, Kruger National Park. Destination – https://www.flyairlink.com/destinations/flights-to-skukuza
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