We’ve swooned over truly elegant train accommodations, and we’ve delighted at decommissioned bridge houses turned into boutique hotels, but we’ve never seen anything like this. The new Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge in South Africa is a luxury hotel built in a historic steam train stationed in the middle of the unused Selati Railway bridge.
The hotel, which sits near the Skukuza Camp within the borders of Kruger National Park, pays homage to local history. The area was designated a national park in 1928, and at that time, the train that traveled along the Selati Railway line was one of the few ways to get there. On some of the first official visits to the park, the train would stop overnight in the middle of the bridge to allow guests to enjoy the stunning views the next morning before they continued their journey deeper into the park. The railway ran regularly through the 1960s and shut down for good in 1973.
According to the hotel, “Shalati” was the name of a 19th-century female warrior chief who was one of the first women to rule the Tebula clan, part of the Tsonga tribe.
But while history and place are both key to the new spot, don’t expect a themed train hotel with cramped compartments and kitschy retro touches. Each of 12 carriages will be completely refurbished to include two large rooms with en suite bathrooms. Floor-to-ceiling windows will provide far-reaching views of the Sabie River and the grasslands beyond, and the decor will incorporate the works of local artists as well as elements of modern, contemporary South African design.
In addition to the 24 carriage rooms, seven “bridge house” rooms, including a honeymoon suite and others that can be connected to form family suites, will be built on land adjacent to the bridge. The train will also have a lounge car, and the midbridge blockhouse will support a pool deck that juts out over the river.
The hotel is an ideal accommodation for wildlife lovers. Kruger National Park, one of South Africa’s largest game reserves, protects 147 mammal species, 508 bird species, and 114 kinds of reptiles. Guests at Kruger Shalati can grab their cameras and binoculars and head out on two daily safari excursions in search of the “big five” (lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo), or spot crocodiles and waterbirds from the walkway attached to the 984-foot-long bridge: The Sabie River below is one of the most biologically diverse rivers in South Africa. The hotel worked closely with SANParks, South Africa’s national park organization, to minimize its impact on the surrounding environment.
Kruger Shalati is currently under construction. The first carriage is in place, but restrictions imposed by the South African government to slow the spread of COVID-19 have curbed the hotel’s progress. Judiet Barnes, Kruger Shalati’s general manager, tells AFAR that she hopes the hotel will begin boarding by December 2020. “We eagerly await when our borders in South Africa will reopen for international guests,” Barnes says. The hotel is now offering provisional bookings for the period between December 2020 and March 2021 and hopes to confirm those reservations by the end of this July. Given that it can take six months to a year to plan a safari, now is the perfect time to get started.