The Kruger Shalati Train on the Bridge is a glorious triumph of determination over imagination, a world-class, authentically South African boutique hotel experience, in the heart of Kruger National Park. For South Africans, by South Africans, writes Anne Schauffer.
“Like a poem,” Sal exhaled reverently, gazing at the spot where only moments before, had lain a perfectly curated platter of deliciousness. It was dinner at the Bridge House – the Shalati Train Restaurant – not only faultless in every culinary way, but in every other possible way too – sitting outdoors on the deck, candlelight flickering, moon over the waters of the Sabie River, soft rugs for the chill, service unobtrusive yet totally attentive, we sighed more than we spoke. It was such a gentle evening in a wholly wild environment, and the first of many contradictions which captivate.
We’re Kruger devotees. We visit annually and joyfully, content to live slightly rougher for the time we’re there, just for the wonder of being in this magically wild landscape. Nothing compares. Well nothing until we crossed over to the flipside of rough, and spent 48 hours inhaling the Kruger Shalati Train experience. It’s so much more than a glorious treat, it’s extraordinary in a way that’s brave and innovative.
As South Africans, it’s hard to describe the unbelievable pride we felt as we experienced this bat-crazy idea of a stationary train on a bridge, brought to life so perfectly as a boutique hotel, then capped by the five-star level of warm, professional service provided by a deeply committed staff. To say the staff “owned” the train and the hospitality experience, is an understatement. It’s seen and felt by everyone who visits.
The train itself is remarkable. Extraordinary. No other words for it, although Shalati’s interior designer Andrea Kleinloog had a few. She described her journey with her client, Jerry Mabena, CEO of Motsamayi Tourism Group, owners and operators of Kruger Shalati – and the adventures from the warehouse to this station, as “a captivating, multi-layered story”.
She recalls her first glimpse of the carriages in 2018: “I travelled forever to a massive warehouse in the middle of nowhere, full of burnt-out train carriages with their traditional colours just discernible beneath the rust,” she grins. Actually, they were 1950 relics from a train scrap yard. The Mech Mobility crew had a massive task ahead of them. They stripped the carriages entirely, lined the interiors with blackout waterproofed steel frames, and layered a birch-ply frame on top of that.
“A carriage sample was created, which was constantly tested for its flow and functionality. Andrea says: “We probably changed that about five times, changing and swopping elements until it worked perfectly.” The entire team was fired up by the idea of recycling and re-engineering scrap to create world-class accommodation – it fed into the “good intention” psyche which underpinned the entire project, right from authentic community-based involvement on a » number of levels including of course, staffing and world-standard training, through to the integration of exceptional art and craftwork commissioned out to talented South Africans.
The Kruger Shalati Train is stationary on a bridge suspended 15m above the Sabie River, the bridge built in 1893 and an integral part of SA history and indeed that of Kruger Park. With 24 carriage rooms on the train tracks – and another seven Bridge House rooms (one honeymoon) on land – Kruger Shalati also has decks, three swimming pools, a vast shed-like reception/shop/restaurant area (Bridge House), plus fire pits and indoor-outdoor dining.
Nothing is ordinary. Nothing. Every little thing, or large, has a quirk, a charm, a something to capture your attention. Your carriage room has fully glassed walls – and that includes from your bath – with wide open views of the Sabie River, where you’ll game watch from your bed or your little outdoor deck. It’s an extraordinary feeling, being elevated above the river, watching a herd of elephant or endless birdlife, lying in bed listening to the grunt of hippos from this vantage point. Every detail has been exquisitely curated – nothing left to chance.
As Andrea said, “Our brief was twofold – an international standard for sure, but very focused on an experience for South Africans. It was designed around traditional train language, but never old-fashioned or staid. There’s a constant pull between new and old.” So, traditional cabinetry, but contemporary rugs, mirrors and more. Sometimes traditional methods were employed … but upped into a more modern aesthetic.
It went beyond simply exquisite interiors, for there were numerous practical considerations. The carriages would be transported by crane, then by truck, so great care had to be taken that the interior elements could flex, hence vinyl flooring and the adjustability of the cabinetry. The mosaics, too, were chosen because a train’s structure is designed to compress in the event of a crash, so if, in transit, grouting cracked, it would be easier to fix than other rigid materials. When the carriages were ready for Skukuza, each one was used as storage/transport for elements like mattresses.
Designed for South Africans, by South Africans was a key part of the brief, and Andrea is proud to say that around 90% of the furnishings and decor were made locally: “We designed the pattern for the mosaics – Penny Round – and although it looks like rainfall in the showers, it’s actually the Shalati logo – all produced locally by Douglas Jones.”
One of the great joys for the design team was the integration of South African art- and craftwork, right from the linen you sleep in (a black women-owned company), to the Seana Marena blanket on the bed, created in collaboration with designer Bonolo and Lulasclan, a new-African creative consultancy studio. Sakhile Cebekhulu’s wall art embroidery – he embroidered on old photographs of the Shalati train tracks – hangs on the Bridge House walls. The list of South African artistry is long and deep – Kruger Shalati is a true celebration of South African creativity.
One of the Shalati gems is found in a central train carriage. A deck and pool overhanging the river, complemented by a contemporary cocktail bar with killer cocktails conjured up by a charming pro. It’s daring and delightful to sip an outlandish cocktail while perched in the sky. It’s the look-out from where you can see forever down the river, and it’s certainly one of the many places you can lose yourself.
The Shalati Train on the Bridge was subject to stringent environmental strictures, whether it was lighting or colour “pollution”: “The light specs were stringent,” said Andrea, “you won’t find a single exposed bulb.” The gardens – laid out by the design team – are a stylish, muted mosaic of stones, rocks, wood and sculptural plants indigenous to the region.
Everything works. Visually, functionally, environmentally. Everything fits into the landscape – astonishing really, when it’s a large immovable train on a massive track which spans a vast river … but it doesn’t dominate the landscape, and it feels as if it has always been there. That’s a tribute to the visionaries, artists, designers, engineers and, yes, the big dreamers who pursued the (almost) unthinkable.