The Kruger National Park was established in 1898, with the eventual instalment of rail into the park in 1920. The park and rail have had a deeply intertwined history for years, with the park only being accessible by rail for many years. In the past, guests would arrive by train, enjoy the park by day and retreat to their carriages at night to sleep before moving on to their next destination.
The new luxurious Kruger Shalati – Train on a Bridge Hotel, an initiative by Thebe Tourism Group, pays homage to this history. The hotel incorporates the iconic and still original Selati railway bridge, where visitors would disembark at Skukuza Camp nearly 100 years ago. The train carriages have been reinvented as fixed hotel rooms that suspend over the Sabie River, giving guests jaw-dropping views.
Judiet Barnes, Concession General Manager of Kruger Shalati, says a key aspect of creating a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience for guests was the interiors, which needed to be upmarket, pay homage to rail history and reflect the best of local design, while being sensitive to the setting.
“To maximise the feeling of being in natural surroundings, floor-to-ceiling glass panels were used in the rooms. This invites guests to take in the beautiful surroundings and wildlife,” says Judiet.
The train is positioned over the Sabie River, with the Skukuza camp on the western side and views on the eastern side. Due to the position of the train with the camp behind it, the design team was highly regulated in what they could construct.
“The environmental impact of the train had to be very low and this also includes the visual impact and light pollution in the camp. For this reason, the western side of the train doesn’t have glass, thereby eliminating light pollution towards the camp. Floor-to-ceiling glass was installed on the eastern side wherever the structure allowed,” says Judiet.
The curve that one expects to see within the train was recreated in the cream-coloured inverted dome ceiling. Strip lights from where the curve of the dome starts and textured wallpaper highlight the curve, adding to the feel of being in a train.
The ceiling in the train is fixed to the existing steel substrate that forms part of the original train. To provide a more finished result, the design team affixed a bent plywood substrate to follow the existing curve – finished to receive a fibreglass wallpaper, which has been painted to the requisite heritage ivory tone. This flexible composition was important to allow some movements in the steel, as the climate will cause some expansion and contraction in the structure of the train.
Internal walkways have been removed and blisters (train-speak for “pop-outs” in the train carriage body) have been added to create extra width to give a feeling of luxury and comfort.
The train rooms are individual carriages, which traditionally had a side walkway in room carriages, and a central walkway in commuter carriages. The full width of the carriage width is absorbed into the room layout, with 2 rooms per carriage.
To allow for additional luxury and movement, traditional steel “blisters” are bolted onto the body of the train. Frameless glass windows are cut into the eastern facade, facing the sun rise, creating a magnificent view.
“The ‘blisters’ enabled us to add an extra half a metre to the room. This is where the bed’s headboard and the bath are located. The bathroom areas also have glass walls, although the glass doesn’t extend fully to the floor. When you lie on the bed or take a shower, you still have magnificent views,” says Judiet.
The walls take the same approach as the ceiling, with a plywood substrate fixed to the steel train body. The design team applied a custom, hardy woven wallpaper from Lemon. It is their first showcase of this product in South Africa.
The train itself will offer 24 en-suite rooms able to sleep 48 guests, with another seven rooms in the adjacent Kruger Shalati Bridge House accommodating 14 beds on land next to the bridge. The new hotel is set to open in December 2019.
Hesse Kleinloog interior design studio in Johannesburg was awarded the contract. Andrea Kleinloog, one of the head designers, says the overarching design interpretation was predominantly inspired by the landscape and the region’s heritage.
“In the Skukuza setting, what struck us immediately was the exquisite familiarity of the tones of the bridge, set in its ever-changing, natural surroundings – the patina of deep maroons, ferrous oranges and flashes of charcoal. Nestling the original heritage train carriages in the negative space between the girders also started creating a dynamic pattern, that carries through many of the design elements in the spaces.
“This context created an opportunity to parallel the sculptural architecture of the bridge to the bold contemporary South African design language, layered with mounds of natural tones and textures,” says Andrea.
Room looking east:
Room looking west: