Kruger Shalati The Bridge History
The history of the Selati bridge – location of Kruger Shalati:
In order to fully appreciate the history of the Selati Railway Line and the point where it crossed the Sabie River (originally spelt Sabi), called Sabi Bridge, and the subsequent establishment of the Park headquarters as well as the rest camp, later to be named Skukuza, one has to delve into the development history of this area of South Africa and the political landscape thereof during the nineteenth (1800’s) and early twentieth century.
The below summarised chronology of the timeline of key events during this time outlines this history of the Selati line which the Bridge formed part of:
French Bob discovered gold in the Murchison Range in the Selati River basin (south-east of Tzaneen).
News reached the outside world and hordes of fortune seekers converged on the area and a camp called Leydsdorp was established.
The Volksraad approved the concession on 6 June to a Vorster (Volksraad member) and Frenchman Eugene Oppenheim. Before this date, Vorster had already sold the concession to Oppenheim for £40 000.
Plans were approved for a railway line linking the Soutpansberg and main Eastern line from Pretoria and Maputo and construction commenced.
Line from Komatipoort to Newington (now in the Sabie Sand Game Reserve) completed – with exception of Sabi Bridge at Skukuza where a temporary wooden bridge was in place.
Corruption and bribery was discovered and Government halted all work.
South African War broke out.
British military unit, Steinaeckers Horse, took charge of the line and established permanent post at Sabie Bridge. Blockhouse was built.
The Boers evacuated Komatipoort on 18 September
Temporary wooden bridge at Sabi Bridge was washed away in big flood.
James Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed as warden in July and after initially staying at Crocodile Bridge he set up his headquarters at Sabi Bridge in the old blockhouse.
South African War came to an end.
Work commenced to complete the bridge across the Sabie River.
After unification of South Africa funding was provided for completion of the Selati Line.
Sabi Bridge was opened for railway traffic.
Selati Line was officially opened on 25 October with a splendid ceremony.
Selati Line completed to Zoekmekaar (now Soekmekaar).
‘Round in Nine’ train trips commenced and proved very popular.
Kruger National Park was proclaimed on 31 May.
The worst train accident in history of the Park took place on 1 January, killing 14 people and seriously injuring 38.
New railway line on western border of the Park was commissioned.
Rail traffic was finally halted.
Selati Train Restaurant was opened to the public.
Newly completed Selati Train Restaurant was officially launched by Mr A Eksteen, Director General at Department of Transport on 24 February.
On the night of 12 January, most of the Selati Train Restaurant (except the locomotive and bar coach) was destroyed by a fire, which was thought to have emanated from the kitchen coach.
The Selati Restaurant facility was restored.
After the devastating floods of 7 February 2000, Skukuza Restaurant was out of commission for several months, during repairs and the Selati Restaurant was used as temporary camp restaurant.
A tender process was announced for interested parties to bid their proposals for tourism use of the Selati Bridge and Station
The A concession agreement was signed
Kruger Shalati welcomes its first guests on 14 December
Key events which led to guests experiencing rail safari:
By the time of the completion of the Selati Line in 1915, the Selati goldfields had been almost worked out and the gold diggings became less profitable. The economic value of the railway line came under serious discussion again. In 1921 concessions were granted to prospect for coal along the Selati Line north of Crocodile Bridge and until 1922 prospecting beacons regularly made their appearance in the southern part of the Sabie Reserve. Some of these old beacons can still be seen today between the Bume River and Crocodile Bridge. The railway administration, casting about for means to make the Selati Line less of a white elephant, advocated the de-proclamation of a strip of land on each side, allowing for timber cutting and where possible farming. This happened at a time when there was not much support for the national park concept. James Stevenson-Hamilton described these as the ‘black years in the history of the Sabie Game Reserve’. Letters in the press remarked: “This so called-called game reserve is merely a refuge for dangerous wild animals, a focus of disease, and should be swept away”. Another indicated “In the twenty years which have passed, the land might have held hundreds of happy smiling homesteads instead of only lion and disease”. Fortunately none of these threats came to fruition. The railway line, in itself created easy access to outsiders and contributed significantly to the decimation of game from the area in the late 1800’s.
Tourists on the train
In 1923 the railway authorities came up with the idea of instituting a fortnightly tourist train service through the Lowveld during the winter months. This soon became known as the “Round in Nine”, as it took nine days to complete. The first of these journeys took place in 1923, with the trip starting and ending in Johannesburg. All the interesting sights were visited, including Maputo (then Lourenço Marques), and initially were planned to pass Sabi Bridge at night and without stopping. Stevenson-Hamilton approached the organising authority who initially wished to bargain with him that they would include a stop if the guests were allowed to “do a little shooting’. This of course was not allowed and it was agreed that the train would spend the night opposite the siding at Sabi Bridge, proceeding to Newington early the next morning. After the first few excursion, the highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the leg through the game reserve. With the proclamation of the Kruger National Park in 1926, this trip became increasingly popular with tourists. It included a campfire gathering at Huhla Station (near Skukuza on the northern bank of the Sabie River) and later a game ranger travelled with the train and took the tourists on short walks through the bush at every stop.
In 1929 it was decided to organise vehicles from Mbombela (then Nelspruit) to take tourists on sightseeing trips in co-ordination with the train service. The campfire became a great attraction; the people sat around the huge blaze, alternately singing choruses and shivering with delight at the idea of being watched, from the dark bushes close at hand, by the hungry eyes of beasts of prey. One of the stewards on the train, having acquired a lion-skin, would sometimes envelop himself in it and would come crawling stealthily into the ring of firelight, to be greeted with shrieks from the guests. To add to the realism, the Police sergeant at Sabi Bridge could give a very passable imitation of a lion’s roar through a long glass tube, providing the necessary vocal accompaniment. The guests loved thrills and De Laporte, was the humourist and he did his best to gratify them.
James Stevenson-Hamilton accounted as follows: “The interest betrayed by the public in the animals and the remarks I overheard when mixing with the guests, made me at last confident that, could only our national park scheme mature, it would become popular and therefore an asset to the country. It was beyond measure encouraging to feel that the South African public, despite tradition, might be content to look at animals without wanting to kill them”.
The trains ran through the Kruger National park on the Selati Line until 1973, whereupon the new line running alongside the park was opened. The Selati Bridge has stood empty as an icon ever since … until 2020 when Kruger Shalati reignited the experiencing of sleeping in a train on this bridge filled with a wealth of history.
With Special thanks to Joep Stevens for his contribution to the information on the history of the Bridge.