What will no doubt become one of South Africa’s most iconic tourist destinations, the Kruger Shalati Train on a Bridge, welcomed the arrival of the first train carriage on site in Skukuza this month.
The project is set on the original, existing site of the Selati railway bridge at Kruger National Park (KNP), Skukuza Camp, where the park’s first warden, James Steven-Hamilton, welcomed visitors nearly a century ago. It was into the train coaches that visitors would retreat at night before the train moved on to its next destination, and the new project pays homage to this part of history.
To this end, the exciting new endeavour sees the restoration and upgrading of 13 historical train carriages which will rest permanently on the original tracks running across the bridge and ultimately provide a luxury accommodation experience for up to 48 guests in 24 rooms, with an additional 14 beds in 7 rooms on land next to the bridge.
Getting It Right
“Unique on a global scale, the project has required a great deal of innovation, and the realisation of the dream has been a long journey,” says Jerry Mabena, CEO of the Thebe Tourism Group, who are developing the luxury accommodation.
“This is a world-first that will tick many boxes,” notes Mabena, “from the experience that it will offer guests, the way in which it will complement SANPark’s offering and the training and job opportunities it will create, particularly for local communities.”
Because of this, stresses Mabena: “It’s extremely important to get it right before we open to guests. We are now in the final stages where attention to detail is critical to the project’s success.”
“We will be opening to guests as soon as we are 100% happy that the experience will live up to the incredibly high standards we’ve set for it.”
Soft Opening In 2020
Adds Judiet Barnes, general manager of the new Kruger Shalati Concession: “Now that the first carriage has arrived, we can begin to reveal the first glimpses of the project in its breath-taking location to the public. We are planning to do a soft opening in the first half of 2020, to ensure that the experience will live up to its unique status on a global scale.”
“This is a bespoke product that’s never been done before and there’s no manual for this. We’ve travelled quite a journey to get our prototype carriage to the point where we are comfortable to bring it to Skukuza and reveal it to the public, from both a functional and aesthetic point of view.
“As you can imagine this is a very momentous occasion with great excitement all round as the carriage is placed on the track and eventually pushed onto the Selati Bridge.”
“From here we’ll be able to roll out the remaining 12 carriages steadily, one by one, enabling them all to be in place within the first half of 2020.”
The Group is aiming to have eight of these carriages in situ by early in the new year, to be ready for the venue’s first bookings in the first half of 2020.
Taking Our Right
The importance of developing the prototype carriage has also enabled the design team to ensure that ideas originally conceived on paper actually work on the train itself, explains Barnes: “Certain design elements for a project like this can only be judged once you see them in real life.”
For example, vanities selected for bathrooms looked beautiful in the artists’ impressions, but once installed in the prototype, they looked out of place. “So we sourced new vanities,” says Barnes. “It delayed the retrofit, but the effort has been totally worth it.”
“Furthermore, not only do we need to source staff that can work to the high expectations of a luxury venue, they will also need to be skilled to work within a highly unusual space,” says Barnes. “We need to take our time to get the right team together.”
With this in mind, the Kruger Shalati team are taking official guest bookings from 1 June 2020.
The very best things in life take time, and the Kruger Shalati is no exception, concludes Barnes: “This is the modern embodiment of an important memory in South Africa history, nearly a century old.
“Now that the first carriage has come to its home in Skukuza, the excitement is bursting from trade and consumers alike. We are confident it’s going to be a showcase of the very best that South African tourism has to offer for decades to come – we are very excited to host our guests in 2020!”