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In South Africa, a motionless journey above the savannah

A group of baboons sneaks under the carriages of this train perched on a bridge, a hippopotamus splashes in the river below while a leopard, alone, prowls around, sniffing which antelope will constitute its dinner.

You are right in the heart of Kruger Park, the huge South African nature reserve, almost the size of Belgium. Guests in the kingdom of wild animals, in a luxury hotel overlooking the savannah, from the golden sunrise to the appearance of a milky way perfectly modeled against the dark night.

On the quay, an extension has been built to nest a small round swimming pool, around which a group of humans gathers at 4:00 p.m. in a light breeze at the end of the austral summer for a British-style “high tea”.

A terrible growl interrupts the chirping of birds. “It’s a hippo,” reassures a waiter. Patrons bend over the railing to peer down the earth-colored Sabie River.

There, two round ears sticking out. “Adorable”, breathes Karen Lane, 56, who arrived from Johannesburg to celebrate her thirty years of marriage with Rich here.

Chichi Mudau, a 36-year-old saleswoman, Gucci bob and neat manicure, is spending three days here with her companion, to celebrate her recent birthday. Nothing to say, “I like everything, I hallucinate”.

One of the swimming pools of the Kruger Shalati hotel, in Skukuza on April 4, 2022 (AFP – Michele Spatari)

In a few minutes, the group will leave in open carts to observe giraffes, zebras and elephants up close in their natural environment, chewing grass, playing in the water, clashing in sudden fights.

The bridge, in the middle of this dreamy landscape, had been abandoned for decades. It was this hotel project, a motionless train resting on its tracks to offer a view from above, which won the national park’s tender in 2016.

In the 1920s, this railway line was the only way to visit Kruger Park. Fallen into disuse, its last locomotive arrived here in 1979.

– Monkeys are players –

“We went to a train graveyard to look for disused carriages and patiently restore them,” said Gavin Ferreira, manager of the operation, to offer “a journey through time” to today’s passengers. .

In all 24 wagons, numbered up to 25 because, hotel superstition obliges, wagon 13 does not exist.

An elephant near Skukuza, in Kruger Park, April 3, 2022 (AFP - Michele Spatari)
An elephant near Skukuza, in Kruger Park, April 3, 2022 (AFP – Michele Spatari)

Each contains only one bedroom: huge bed hung with fresh sheets and plump pillows, bay windows above the bathtub and the sink, opening on the river on the same side, to observe the fauna while brushing your teeth , in a silk bathrobe available.

And a small balcony “à la Juliette” awaiting Romeo, but be careful, you have to remember to close your access door from the bedroom, “we have monkeys around here which can be aggressive”, warns the butler.

When a small gray primate, black mouth in a triangle, climbs on the structure of the bridge to stare curiously at the client slumped on his bed, through the window, it is difficult not to be moved. But be careful…

When the hotel opened in December 2020, South African customers, due to the Covid pandemic, advantageously replaced the Westerners initially expected in this very unique palace.

The surroundings of the train converted into a hotel, in Skukuza, on April 4, 2022 (AFP - Michele Spatari)
The surroundings of the train converted into a hotel, in Skukuza, on April 4, 2022 (AFP – Michele Spatari)

“The first few months, we were full,” says Ella West, in charge of reservations. But foreign customers, with the highest purchasing power, are essential “to run an operation” that is so demanding in terms of service, she underlines.

Today, more Americans are bitten, also seduced by the proximity of the airfield just a few kilometers away, she explains.

At nightfall, the wagon gently rocks its guests. “It’s a natural movement, linked to the expansion and then the contraction of the metal bridge”, between hot days and cool nights, explains the boss. A bit like a moving train, “but more subtle”, he says with a greedy smile.

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