Eye in the Sky

A bold new hotel concept reigns above South Africa’s vast ecosystem

Kruger National Park

The remarkable brilliance of lion eyes staring at you. The thrill of witnessing a leopard kill its prey. The elegant dance of antelopes leaping over spear grass. These are just some of the vignettes that visitors retain from their visit to Kruger National Park, a legendary area that sprawls over 7,500 square miles (19,000 square kilometers) in South Africa—nearly as large as New Jersey. This park has a mythical quality to it. Visitors come here in search of not only the Big Five animals, but also rare antelopes like sable, grey rhebok, and hartebeest, and more than 500 bird species that stun observers with their splendor.

It is here that the South African Railways built a train bridge in the 1890s, located near the eastern outpost of Skukuza. That train line (now defunct) played a crucial role in the development of Kruger National Park.

It opened up as a tourism rail formally in 1923, and Kruger National Park opened its gates to visitors in 1927. As part of visitors’ journey along the Selati line, the train would park overnight on a truss bridge above the Sabie River so travelers could observe the majesty of wildlife at a leisurely pace.

The seventies brought the area great change. “Because of increased mining just outside the park, the Selati bridge was abandoned in 1973 in favor of a new line,” says Joep Stevens, who has researched developments in Kruger National Park as an employee of the South African National Parks commission. After a new line around the park opened in 1970, the bridge fell into disuse like the lost city in The Jungle Book.

South African Railways

A View To A Thrill

With the debut of Kruger Shalati in mid-December—a hotel that sleeps guests in vintage train carriages on that very same bridge above the Sabie River—visitors can now feel the heartbeat of South Africa’s famed national park from a truly unique perch. “It’s an absolutely fabulous project—I take my hat off for the vision that they had,” says Stevens. “Because the bridge is just lying there, it has a superb view of the park.” Independent hotelier Kruger Shalati purchased train carriages from the 1950s and completely refurbished them to recreate an atmosphere straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. The result is a 31-room masterpiece, with 24 glass-walled carriage rooms on the bridge and 7 Bridge House rooms on land (scheduled to open in 2022) that give you a completely visceral experience. High above the riverbanks in a tree-top-like setting is an expansive deck with a pool that resembles a chic swimming hole. From the truss bridge, you can marvel at the variety of wildlife below, from hippos to buffalos and elephants to impalas. According to Judiet Barnes, one of the executive managers of the hotel, this huge undertaking required the cooperation of the Park, the South African engineering company, Mech Mobility, and the interior design firm, HK Studio.

Kruger Shalati Hotel

A Cut Above

While the term “local” has been used—almost to excess—by luxury hoteliers for decades, co-creative director and lead designer Andrea Kleinloog says that Kruger Shalati differs in its approach from other safari lodges in Kruger National Park. “It’s the closest I’ve gotten to designing a non-touristy tourist destination.” Kleinloog hit the ground running after being given the brief by the client in January 2020. With no two rooms that look alike, it is easy to get lost in the details that comprise these vintage dwellings, much like immersing oneself in a painting. “It is visually stunning—a deeply sophisticated [interpretation] of layered African narratives from the wood and cushions,” she adds. It was also a conscious choice to avoid misappropriation of culture, so around every corner there’s a surprising, refreshing element: It is breathtaking on a grand scale while being deeply true to its South African roots. “This hotel is saying: Here is our art, our music, and this is our food and you’re welcome to come and be a part of it,” notes Kleinloog.

The Artisan Connection

While many hotels commission artwork as one-off pieces, Shalati wanted to have an authentic relationship with artisans. “They were not short-lived collaborations,” says Kleinloog. “We were involved in a two-year process.” The designers insisted that the hotel be reflective of national pride. Yet the design implementation was more difficult than Kleinloog expected, not to mention the stumbling block of a global pandemic. Yet beyond the stressful circumstances, the artists thrived and surpassed expectations by thinking local. In the main dining area, a South African artisan took a rake and scraped the walls using a technique found in nearby homes. The dining area has walls clad with totems made of leadwood. With so many hands contributing in this conscious collective of local talent, it would be hard to wander into any room and not pause to reflect upon local culture. “We wanted a young South African to be proud to take an Instagram photo in this place,” says Kleinloog.

Kruger Shalati Hotel Suite

Masterpiece Moments

Every room has a unique art piece done by visual artist Sakhile Cebekhulu, who Barnes, an avid art collector, says is “making waves across the country.” Cebekhulu, founder of the design firm StudioS, typically explores the tensions between growing up as a city boy in Johannesburg and his ancient Zulu ancestry. For Shalati, he created 22 pieces of art based on photographs of the Sabie River and the Selati bridge, each with a unique vantage point. He also hand-embroidered each photograph. (Embroidery plays a prominent role in Zulu attire: It adorns the striking headdress, known as isicholo, worn by married Zulu women.) Comfortable pale woven chairs were created by Alifurn, a family-owned company that produces its furniture entirely in Ballito, South Africa. “This strand of employing locals is something that weaves throughout the project,” says Kleinloog. Draped softly over beds and chairs are blankets that reflect Basotho culture. These blankets were done by Bonolo Helen Chepape, a young graphic designer from Rustenburg, who started the well-known homeware brand, Lulasclan.

“The Xhosa and Swahili cultures had a belief that when a couple gets married, the husband wraps his new wife in a blanket, and she presents her husband with a blanket to show that she is committed to him. It’s unique to our part of the world.” Chepape took inspiration from the train’s surroundings and blended those colors into her pieces.

South African interior designer Itumeleng Makgakga used a linear technique to capture details that portray African life with a unique sense of pride and reverence. Her illustrations for Shalati embrace and celebrate South African culture by portraying past archytpes of beauty and art with a throroughly odern lens. This is not your typical “pretty vase positioned on a marble table” design: Shalati begs the guest to look deeper.

Location, location, location

Since the Shalati is in the thick of the park and the surrounding area is Big Five country, there’s a hub of sightseeing and shopping at Skukuza. “In this sense, I’d call Shalati more of a semi-urban destination,” says Barnes. Visitors can enjoy fine dining or semi-fine dining as they choose, with meals prepared by Andrew Atkinson—previously the head chef of the Michelangelo Hotelin Rosebank, Johannesburg. “He’s creating a bespoke menu that has a little bit of fusion to manage global expectations,” says Barnes. With a seating capacity of 66 people and an ever-evolving menu, the restaurant is the culinary nerve center of the hotel (rates include all meals, house drinks and two game drives daily), only guests of the hotel can dine here.

Kruger National Park

Goals Realized

What initially seemed like a dream became an unforgettable reality when the hotel opened its doors on December 14th. “It originally seemed like a simple project, but it took a while to get the look and feel just right,” says Barnes. The result is very much like a Centenary diamond, polished to the nines on all facets. The narrative of the train on the bridge and its sterling location are truly the stuff of history. More than anything, the hotel’s opening during a time of great adversity symbolizes the resilience of the luxury industry and its commitment to the local cultural tradition and creates a modern hallmark of historical preservation. With easy access through the Paul Kruger Gate about 8.5 miles (13.5 kilometers) away, Barnes reminds us that it is far from a zoo. “We often see leopard, elephants, buffalo just about daily. The entrance to the bridge is fenced in, and animals roam freely underneath so every living creature is comfortable.”

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