Monday, April 15, 2024

This train doesn’t go anywhere. Now, it’s a fancy sightseeing ride

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In South Africa, there are really fancy train trips that many people love. But for some folks, a train that doesn’t go anywhere is the coolest thing in the country.

Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge is like a fancy hotel in Skukuza, inside Kruger National Park. This park is huge and full of animals, and it’s also a special place recognized by UNESCO. The hotel has 24 nice rooms made from old train cars. They fixed them up with balconies and a pool that looks out over the Sabie River. It’s a mix of luxury living and a front-row seat to see animals like lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos.

The person in charge, Jerry Mabena, from Motsamayi Tourism Group, which owns the hotel, says this idea goes way back to when steam trains chugged through Kruger in the 1920s on the Selati Railway Line.

Trains were super important for people visiting Kruger back then. They would even stay overnight on the same bridge where the hotel is now. But in the 1970s, a new railway line was built on the edge of Kruger, and the old Selati line and bridge were retired. In 2016, someone had the idea to make the old bridge awesome again.

“We wanted to bring back that experience in some way,” says Mabena. “When we got the chance to buy old train cars that weren’t being used anymore from Transnet, our railway people in South Africa, we thought it was a great idea.”

They fixed up the insides of the train cars with a modern style, adding a few cool touches from the Art Deco era. Mabena says they wanted a look that wasn’t too old-fashioned.

If people keep their curtains open, they can wake up early and see the first signs of life outside through big windows that face east. The river is a great spot for wildlife, so guests can relax on balconies or swim in the pool while watching animals below. Some people like the idea of being in the wild without getting too close, like hearing hippos nearby.

Even though some guests prefer to explore on their own, many put on boots and go into the bush with a guide for a game drive.

The staff, including a guide named Thuli Mnisi, were hired from the local community. Mnisi had been a guide for other companies before joining Kruger Shalati. She says it’s different from other lodges, and when guests see the train for the first time, the view is amazing.

While Kruger National Park allows visitors to drive themselves on safari, Mnisi believes having a guide is better. Guides communicate and know where to find animals. She says, “If you go with a guide, they know what they’re doing, they know where to find what and exactly at what time.”

People who take care of the hotel’s garden have planted local plants and also take care of a small garden that provides ingredients for the fancy restaurant at Kruger Shalati. The restaurant serves special local foods like crocodile, venison, and springbok carpaccio in a nice environment.

Chef Vusi Mbatha says, “Nature is the real artist. We believe in a simple philosophy: use basic ingredients and turn them into something incredible.”

Due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the hotel opened its doors in December 2020 and is now ready to host guests for its fourth summer season.

For those interested in staying on the train, prices for double and twin rooms start at 9,950 Rand ($530) per person per night for international guests. There are discounts for longer stays, and the adjacent Bridge House offers one of its seven rooms at a lower cost. The rates cover all meals, certain drinks, two game drives, and airport transfers.

If you feel there’s more wildlife than train in the mix, you might be interested in Kruger Station. Located just south of the bridge, it’s owned by Motsamayi Tourism Group and is home to the last train that used to run in the park.

This South African Railway Class 24 steam locomotive had a diverse history, including serving as a funeral coach for a former prime minister. Now, it happily spends its retirement at the station, accompanied by a restaurant and bar.

Mabena expresses optimism about the revival of interest in steam trains and historical trains, noting, “The culture of steam trains and the culture of historical trains I think is beginning to re-emerge. We don’t have a moving steam train, but one day, I think we will.”

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