Kruger Shalati: A safari from another perspective

Train on a bridge Kruger Shalati

By Renate Engelbrecht

Friday, Feb 17

As I stand on the edge of the Selati bridge – a South African heritage site – the fish eagle calls in the distance. Down below, a Pan Hinged Terrapin sits on a rock, baking its round, smooth shell in the sun. A couple of vultures come circling overhead and then fly off again. To my left, six Nyalas stand grazing; a single calf playfully hopping around bushes and jumping over scrubs. It’s beautifully wild out here and for a moment I wonder if this – here at Kruger Shalati – is how it felt way back when travellers came into the Kruger by train – stopping over in the then Sabie Nature Reserve for lunch.

Train on a bridge Kruger Shalati over Sabi River
Image: Jeremy Austin

The Selati Railway Line and the popular Round in Nine train trip are said to have saved the Kruger National Park from non-existence. The train trip took nine days to complete, and it was quite the adventure for keen travellers at the time. Just imagine travelling by train for your very first safari!

Kruger Shalati – Train on the Bridge might be a motionless train, but it sure comes with a hint of nostalgia and that luxurious feel of first-class rail travel.

How did the Train on the Bridge come about?

Sabie River Kruger Shalati
Image: Renate Engelbrecht

A tender was requested by Sanparks in October 2016 and those interested in tendering were given a very tight 5-week deadline. They soon realised that five weeks weren’t even enough to do a bridge assessment and the tender was therefore extended to January 2017. At that stage the now Kruger Station was going to be Kruger Shalati’s reception and dining area, including a dining area for families from the Skukuza camp. After much consideration, they realised that it was going to cause clashes between two very different tourism product offerings and the plans changed. A replacement 12-sleeper guesthouse was built, and Kruger Shalati’s reception and dining area was moved into the old guesthouse building, allowing the new lodge to offer more luxury and services. And, since Kruger Shalati is located right on the fence, they could build their own entrance, adding to the five-star experience.

Motsamayi Tourism Group initially pitched their tourism concept with a train that had an internal walkway like a traditional train, but since they wanted to offer a five-star experience, they soon realised that the train was going to be quite cramped. Whilst something like this would be acceptable on moving trains like the Rovos Rail or the Blue Train, they had the opportunity to tweak the carriage sizes a bit since Kruger Shalati’s train would be stationary. Evidently, they started playing around with the idea of making the walkway outside of the train instead. Since the Selati Bridge is a heritage site (it’s over 100 years old) they could not even fasten bolts, weld or make any changes, which meant they had to find ways to work around it. Building the walkway in such a way that it would be safe for guests and meet all the requirements was probably one of the project’s hardest problems to solve. Now, the outside walkway offers guests an amazing new perspective of Big 5 territory.

Planning the rooms was also a bit like playing Tetris, according to Motsamayi Tourism Group’s Judiet Barnes. The project team and team on the ground had to overcome the challenge of aligning the unique lodge’s services – from using new age design technology on the old bridge, to applying it to an old structure. They also knew they wanted a king-sized bed, a lounge and a bath in the carriage rooms and therefore they had to figure out how they would be able to fit it all into the carriage space.

After winning the tender, which is in partnership with Sanparks, they purchased old trains and appointed a Joburg-based steel company to fix and build the carriages according to their specifications. The trouble was that the carriages were now bigger than original train carriages and they had to find a way to get them to the Kruger National Park from Joburg. Eventually, they had to custom build a truck trailer that could carry a 22m-long carriage. But how would they get the carriages onto the truck? An imported crane from New-Zealand solved the problem, lifting and positioning the carriages for transport.

Nighttime at Kruger Shalati Train on the Bridge
The train on a bridge at night. Image: Renate Engelbrecht

Other challenges obviously creeped in too, with Judiet recalling the truck breaking down on Phabeni Bridge in the middle of December. It was the last carriage they brought in for the year and the train was literally dangling from the edge of the one-way bridge with no way to get it off. Nothing else other than the truck it was on, could carry that kind of weight and all the axes of the truck were broken. They had to arrange for a road scraper to come in and create a detour and find a company (in the midst of the December holiday) who could assist in fixing the truck or at least just stabilise it until the new year.

In the beginning it took the tourism company’s contractors at least four days to get one carriage from Joburg to the Kruger National Park, but after perfecting the technique it took them only two days. Planning the transportation process took them seven months.

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Purpose and meaning through Kruger Shalati

Many travellers want to know that they are making a difference through their travels. By visiting Kruger Shalati, you support the local communities in many ways. The 25-year concession was undoubtedly a very large investment and Kruger Shalati will need to make a return on investment over time, but with such a unique safari offering, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched.

It’s not a Kruger camp experience, but it’s not a private concession experience either. Even for guests who have been to private concessions before, Kruger Shalati has a unique selling point since it’s really a train on a bridge with wild animals peacefully grazing underneath your carriage.

Kruger Shalati is a subsidiary of the Motsamayi Tourism Group, with some individuals and the community also holding shares. The community includes six land claim communities within the Kruger, as well as the communities in the surrounding area like Dixies, Belfast and others. It stretches from Malelane, all the way up to Phalaborwa, creating jobs, upskilling and training the communities.

According to Barnes the youth unemployment rate in the area is very high, which is why Kruger Shalati is very proud to be involved in the upliftment of the community and creating jobs for people from the area. They hire more on attitude and personality rather than experience and train their staff accordingly. From the get-go, Kruger Shalati wanted to be a steppingstone for members from the community and they’ve been providing key skills in hospitality, having a positive impact on the lives of the families involved.

Swimming pools at Kruger Shalati
Image: Supplied

The Train on the Bridge experience

Apart from the room carriages, the middle carriage boasts a lovely bar area and walks through to probably one of the most impressive swimming pools I’ve ever seen. The overhanging circular swimming pool is where you’d want to spend much of your time on the bridge, especially if elephants and buffalo come passing through the Sabie River. We weren’t that lucky, but the Dagga Boy that tried to keep a low profile between the reeds below my carriage certainly had me worried, considering the large crocs roaming the area.

Swimming pool Kruger Shalati
Image: Jeremy Austin

The Kruger National Park is most people’s go-to when it comes to an African safari and with Kruger Shalati being located at Skukuza, it’s an easy find and a convenient stay, especially with the newly renovated Kruger Station and its diverse offering which includes a restaurant, deli, gift shop, cinema, ice-cream and kiddies’ play area.

Game drives are always an integral part of a safari lodge stay and at Kruger Shalati it’s no different. Whilst you can do some game watching while sipping on a cocktail by the pool, the 5-star lodge also has a team of continuously trained game rangers who take guests on morning and afternoon game drives in the lodge’s posh-looking game vehicles.

Train on a bridge stay
Image: Kyle Lewin

You can also opt for a self-drive safari. The only self-driving we did was as we entered the park and even on that short drive, we were able to spot a lot. We spotted a recently abandoned kill with hyenas and hooded vultures happily indulging in the leftovers. A few metres on, we also saw a couple of endangered Ground Hornbills peacefully strolling along like red-collared professors – definitely a highlight of the trip. Even though we weren’t able to see all of the Big Five during our two-day stay, we still saw a lot, including a leopard lazily lounging high up in a tree, and a pride of lionesses resting on the banks of the Sand River.

Kruger Shalati has just reached their two-year mark of being open and some of their local guests have returned eight times already. It truly is a unique experience.

Kruger Shalati carriage
Image: Kyle Lewin

Kruger Shalati carriage room highlights

  • The silk gowns are amazing. I wanted to prance around in it all day, all the time.
  • The bath by the window, overlooking the Sabie River, was pure bliss.
  • The kettle is not only stylish, but you can actually set it to boil the water to the perfect temperature.
  • The king-sized bed is amazing and offers the most exquisite views across the river, allowing for beautiful sunset- and sunrise views.  Not to mention the locally sourced throw.
  • You’re literally sleeping in a train! Take that in.

P.S. Kruger Shalati does not allow children under the age of 12 to stay on the bridge for safety reasons. They have lovely family units adjacent to the restaurant, though, which also offer views across the Sabie River while offering parents peace of mind.

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