Sleep & Swim Above the South African Wilderness at This Bucket List Train Hotel
See animals from a train bridge over Kruger National Park—without even leaving the hotel pool.
“This hotel is insane,” I texted my friend. “Even more incredible than I expected.”
To drive the point home, I sent along photos and videos of the famed Kruger Shalati, a glass-walled train-style hotel on a railroad bridge perched high above South Africa’s stunning Kruger National Park. I showed off my luxury room with its rainfall shower, the jaw-dropping view, and the real clincher: the pool deck. Suspended over the Sabie river, the wood-encased infinity pool protrudes out from a carriage that's been converted to an Art Deco, Roaring Twenties-style bar. The setup is outrageously photogenic, but nothing compares to the magic of seeing it in real life.
“Blocking you now,” my friend replied when the bragging got to be too much. Fair enough.
I ordered a glass of sparkling wine and slithered into the pool, swimming lazily to the edge to look out over the Kruger and into the swirling waters below, where the eyes of hippos and crocodiles gazed back at me.
The Kruger Shalati, also known as “Train on the Bridge,” is easily the most unique hotel in Kruger National Park and possibly all of South Africa. Restored to its former glory—and, arguably, surpassing it—the train is parked on the historic Selati bridge. A stay at this bucket-list hotel is a truly unforgettable experience that lets you sleep and swim directly above elephants, hippos, and the sights and sounds of South Africa’s expansive Bushveld. You can sip on local wines, sample the likes of ostrich carpaccio and traditional South African desserts, and enjoy the kind of hospitality the Rainbow Nation is famed for. More than just a luxury getaway though, it’s a unique way to pay homage to the historical site and South Africa’s complex past.
The concept for the hotel was inspired by the location’s early history. After the discovery of gold in the Northern Transvaal, the railway bridge was built back in 1893, linking Komatipoort with Tzaneen. Tourism was quick to follow, and by 1923, guests could embark on a nine-day tour through the Sabie Game Reserve that included an overnight stop on the bridge for wildlife viewing. It proved so popular with those early-day explorers that it created a tourism boom of sorts. Some say that this helped fuel the move to declare Kruger a National Park in 1926. The train and bridge, however, were eventually closed due to the dangers posed to wildlife.
Kruger Shalati was built in the exact same spot that the train used to stop overnight, with the intention of bringing back the safari magic. It offers guests a reminder of the 1920s rail safari, but its rustic exterior belies a seriously swanky interior, where modern African décor that highlights local artisans (think handmade Basotho blankets by Bonolo Chepape and embroidered wall art by Sakhile Cebekhulu) is mixed with more traditional touches.
Adjacent to the bridge with its suites, guests are ushered through gardens of aloes and succulents upon arrival, into the air-conditioned reception area. Its leather and copper theme defies khaki and wood safari décor while still feeling cohesive with the surroundings.
The safari element here isn’t in the interior design so much as the animal encounters. In addition to the animals you can view from the hotel itself, Kruger Shalati offers game drives to guests. I was treated to a rare daytime sighting of hyena with a month-old cub, and gazed upon a pride of lions napping on a rocky outcrop where we’d initially planned to stop for morning coffee. Elephants were around almost every corner, from lone bulls to huge herds with tiny trumpeting young. I was even fortunate enough to see wild dogs, truly an unusual treat in the bush.
But Kruger Shalati is different from most other bush holidays, where game drives are the primary highlights of the trip. Here, it’s not so simple. You could hop in a Jeep to look for lions and rhinos, sure. But if you opt instead to luxuriate in air-conditioned rooms overlooking the park, take another dip in the pool, or watch the sun go down over the train, you won’t be sorry.
My advice? There's no reason you shouldn't do it all. Whether indoors or out, above the park or on the ground, every aspect of the stay is worth experiencing at least once.