Upmarket locomotive accommodation in the Kruger National Park is perfect for life’s questions.
I was enjoying a drink in one of the luxuriously furnished carriages of the Kruger Shalati: Train on the Bridge hotel when it struck me – why do I not know about Queen Shalati, the first warrior chieftess of the Tebula clan, which is part of the Tsonga tribe that lived in Limpopo?
Most of us know about Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, who flourished in the 10th century. Our sketchy memories also recall Queen Cleopatra who reigned over Egypt from 51 to 30 BC. Even if you are not a historian, you are bound to know Queen Nandi who gave birth to the Zulu nation’s most famous leader, King Shaka.
According to oral tradition that has been passed down for generations, Queen Shalati was braver than some of the men in her tribe, being the first to draw a bayonet war axe at the sign of her people being threatened. No wonder Kruger Shalati was inspired by her legacy, with the luxury locomotive being just as revolutionary as she was.
An inspired luxury locomotive
The refurbished and repurposed 1950s South African Railways original is permanently stationed at the 300-metre long Selati Bridge, suspended above the Sabie River.
As part of the guest orientation, visitors learn that this spot is significant, as it is where trains from more than 100 years ago would stop, allowing the first visitors to explore what would eventually be declared as a national park in 1926.
The 12 carriages offer 24 splendidly decked-out rooms that are glass-walled, allowing uninterrupted views of the river, which snakes into the beckoning horizon.
Where the owners and management have simply outdone themselves is by using the wares of Limpopo-based artists and crafters in the stylish interior. Bonolo Chepape is a local designer who conceptualised the artwork for most of Shalati Kruger’s apparel, including the now Instagram famous gowns and blankets that adorn the super king-size beds.
In an ode to the indigenous tribes of the surrounding area, Shalati makes use of local artists such as Neimil. The colours on her pillows are inspired by the Skukuza region, resulting in an interior that mimics the great outdoors.
Photographer and visual artist Sakhile Cebekhulu’s photos of the Sabie River and the Selati Bridge finish off a well-appointed interior, complete with touches of African embroidery.
A reasonably sized-balcony is the perfect location in the room to press the pause button and take in the splendour within and outside of your carriage. Hippos, crocodiles, buffalo, elephants and the entire Lion King cast frequent the banks of the river, ensuring that you don’t even miss the lack of a TV in your room.
If you have ever had the misfortune of boarding a Metrorail train or only watched some or other documentary about South Africa’s passenger trains, you will know just how large a carriage is.
So, imagine only two people in a carriage that typically carries more than 50 people as part of its commercial application. Even the large bathtub placed in the window recess and humongous shower never give you a feeling of claustrophobia.
The feeling of floating on the bridge brings about an unexpected sense of calm and a natural state of zen, as you are perched 50 metres above the glorious Sabie River, with its wildlife. All you need to do to be one with nature and Cornelius, the resident crocodile, is to take it all in.
As inviting as the cabins are, at some point, you must leave your room or the friendly housekeeping staff will have to use their bayonet war feather dusters on you. The first stop has to be the most photographed plunge pool of all time located in the middle of the train, known as the lounge carriage.
The circular pool overhanging the river is what influencers and social media famous individuals call the money shot: it is simply spectacular and quite irresistible. The bar staff are at your beck and call, ready to mix the most exotic cocktails and always ready to ensure thirsty throats are well lubricated.
Food inspired by nature
Just a few metres from the train is Bridge House, the domain of 31-year-old Head Chef, Marche Sansovini. She valiantly leads her army of Queen Shalati inspired cooks, baristas, bartenders and wine stewards and serving staff to ensure that each meal is fit for royalty.
The contemporary African menu ranges from venison bobotie croquettes for breakfast, warthog salami served with locally made cheese or trout fish cakes for lunch, and Cape Malay chicken breast for supper.
The Bridge House is also the perfect place to fuel up on organic snacks such as butternut, feta and biltong salad, braai broodjie, smoked ostrich, and calamari heads, just before going on a game drive.
While on a game drive, the rangers will inform you about a single tree that offers two intriguing drinks. The Red Bush Willow tree has pods that, when dried, gift you with amazing coffee, and at the same time, the same pods have nuts that deliver the most flavourful tea.
The experience has been elevated even further, as the hotel now offers seven Bridge House rooms, all catering to the whim of families. Since children under the age of 12 are not allowed on the train as a safety precaution, the family rooms are ideal for playing board games and occasionally enjoying room service.
Ordinarily, an old bridge and a retired train are nothing to be impressed by, but Kruger Shalati continues to cause quite a stir in the safari scene. Recently, the unique offering was included in TIME Magazine’s top 100 travel destinations in the world, in the Robb Report, and the Travel + Leisure’s list of Best Destinations of 2021.
Kruger Shalati is located in the Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga, near the Skukuza Rest Camp.
Aboard the train, the overnight tariff for South Africans is R6 750 per person sharing a double room. At the family-friendly Bridge House, a double room costs R5 250 per person sharing, and children under the age of 12 pay R2 625 each. (Note: The rates vary, depending on the time of the year. Different rates apply for SADC residents and international guests.)
The rates include all meals; teas and coffees daily, soft drinks, house wines, local brand spirits and beers; two game drives daily; and return road transfers to and from Skukuza Airport.
FLY SAA flies to Hoedspruit with its code-sharing partner CemAir. From there, it’s a two-hour drive to Skukuza.
Words: Sbu Mkwanazi