A new train of thought

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Trains have long been associated with development, expansion and the ability to connect people. Georgina Lockwood shares the story of the Selati Railway Line and how it encouraged tourism in the Kruger National Park.

An artist impression of the train on the Selati Bridge

Shosholoza, Ku lezontaba, Stimela si qhamuka e South Africa is an old mining song so popular in South Africa it has often been considered the Rainbow Nation’s second national anthem. The Ndebele and Zulu lyrics tell of the hardships experienced in the mines, while making reference to trains. Stimela refers to the coal train.
The invention of trains and railway lines literally ‘choo-chooed’ humanity into the industrial revolution. While Cecil John Rhodes dreamed of a railway from Cape to Cairo, the Selati Railway Line built in 1912 played an important role in connecting Komatipoort with Tzaneen during the peak of the gold rush. Later
it would prove instrumental in the formation of the Kruger National Park.

However, no historical account of the Kruger is complete without reference to James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of the then Sabi Game Reserve and regarded as the true prince of conservation in South Africa. “He called the Sabi reserve his Cinderella and, when it morphed into the Kruger National Park, it became his princess,” reads an extract from David Bristow’s The Game Ranger, the Knife, the Lion and the Sheep.

The Selati Bridge. Photo: Mariana Balt

Stevenson-Hamilton made many enemies during his time as warden. He was named Skukuza by the local African tribes, which literally means ‘he who sweeps clean’, after his unyielding attempts to purge the park of cattle farmers, poachers, hunters, miners and politicians.

With the start of the First World War in 1914, Stevenson-Hamilton joined forces in the north and left ranger Cecil Richard de Laporte and later Major AA Fraser in charge of the Kruger. Upon his return six years later, the reserve had fallen into chaos and he had to come up with a way to save it, especially among concerns it could be perfect for agriculture.

Stevenson-Hamilton found a friend in Sir William Hoy, general manager of South African Railways. The feisty warden convinced Hoy that game viewing via train was an excellent idea. Prior to this, the only link between trains and wildlife involved the man-eating lions of Tsavo killing over a hundred construction workers on the Ugandan-Kenyan railway.

A historic photo of the train. Photo: Supplied, SANParks

In 1923 South African Railways started its nine-day train safaris, travelling through Mozambique and the Lowveld on the Selati Line, which cuts through the reserve. It was part of an attempt to increase the profits on the railroads as gold reserves started dwindling. The trip included a one-night stop at Sabie Bridge, today called Skukuza, and the idea of bringing people into the reserve kicked off. Trains continued to run through the park until 1973. Most of the tracks have since been removed, but Selati Bridge remains.

Coming full circle

To commemorate this history, Thebe Tourism is opening the Kruger Shalati: The Train on The Bridge hotel, to be fully operational by March 2020. The 13-carriage hotel will be located on the Selati Bridge above the Sabie River, and just like those who first visited the park in days gone by, visitors will be able to retreat into the train at night as part of a unique Kruger experience. Visit www.krugershalati.com and here for more information.

 

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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