From Nowhere to Luxury: Transforming a Train into a High-End Attraction: South Africa boasts some of the world’s most luxurious and nostalgic train journeys. However, for a specific group of enthusiasts, a stationary train has become the country’s standout attraction.
The Train on the Bridge, located in Skukuza within Kruger National Park, stands as a unique hotel experience. This park is among Africa’s largest game reserves and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The hotel consists of 24 modern suites, created by renovating train carriages, offering balconies and a pool with a stunning view of the Sabie River. Guests can enjoy luxury accommodation while observing Africa’s “Big Five” wildlife – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos.
Jerry Mabena, CEO of Motsamayi Tourism Group, which owns the hotel, explains that the concept harks back to the park’s early days in the 1920s when steam trains traversed Kruger on the Selati Railway Line. Originally vital for tourists accessing Kruger, the Selati line and bridge retired in the 1970s with the construction of a new railway line. However, in 2016, an idea emerged to restore the bridge to its former glory.
The renovated carriages feature modern interiors with a touch of Art Deco style. Guests can wake up to the sunrise and observe wildlife through east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows. The Sabie River, a wildlife hub, allows guests to lounge on balconies or swim in the pool while enjoying the activity below.
The local community is involved in the venture, with staff like senior guide Thuli Mnisi recruited from the area. Mnisi emphasizes the unique and breathtaking view of the train and the importance of having a guide on game drives.
Kruger Shalati, in addition to offering a self-driving safari experience, emphasizes community involvement. The hotel grounds showcase indigenous plants, and a kitchen garden supplies produce for the fine dining restaurant. Chef Vusi Mbatha emphasizes the philosophy of transforming simple ingredients into amazing dishes.
Despite delays due to Covid-19, the hotel opened in December 2020 and is now in its fourth summer season. Room rates for the train start at 9,950 Rand ($530) per person, per night for international guests, with discounts for longer stays. The Motsamayi Tourism Group also owns Kruger Station, housing the last train to operate in the park, now retired as a restaurant and bar.
Mabena believes that the culture of steam and historical trains is re-emerging, expressing hope for a future with a moving steam train.
The Motsamayi Tourism Group’s influence extends beyond the Train on the Bridge. Situated just south of the bridge is Kruger Station, home to the last operating train in the park. This South African Railway Class 24 steam locomotive, abandoned after most tracks were removed in the 1970s, has undergone various transformations, including serving as a funeral coach for a former prime minister. Now, it enjoys a contented retirement alongside a restaurant and bar.
Jerry Mabena envisions a renaissance of steam trains and historical rail culture, stating, “The culture of steam trains and the culture of historical trains I think is beginning to re-emerge.” While the Train on the Bridge remains stationary, Mabena expresses optimism about the possibility of having a moving steam train in the future.
Kruger Station adds a touch of nostalgia to the region, providing visitors with a unique dining and entertainment experience. The cultural significance of these historical relics, combined with the luxurious offerings at the Train on the Bridge, creates a multifaceted attraction for tourists seeking a blend of wildlife, history, and opulence.
As the Motsamayi Tourism Group continues to contribute to the revival of rail culture in the region, the Train on the Bridge and Kruger Station stand as testaments to the enduring charm of locomotives and their role in South Africa’s history. Whether guests are indulging in the tranquility of a stationary train turned hotel or enjoying a meal beside the retired steam locomotive, the Motsamayi Tourism Group offers a unique and immersive experience that seamlessly integrates history, luxury, and the natural beauty of Kruger National Park.