Since the establishment of the Kruger National Park in 1898, and the eventual instalment of rail into the Park in the 1920s, the Park and rail travel have had a deeply entwined history. For several years, South Africa’s foremost game reserve was largely only accessible by rail. Guests would arrive by train, enjoy the Park by day, and retreat to their carriages at night to sleep before moving on to their next destination.
It’s fitting that the new luxurious Kruger Shalati – Train on a Bridge Hotel, an initiative by Thebe Tourism Group, pays homage to this history. Set to officially open in December 2019, the Train on a Bridge incorporates the iconic and still original Selati railway bridge where visitors would disembark at Skukuza Camp nearly 100 years ago. The reinterpretation of luxury train travel sees the original train carriages reinvented as fixed hotel rooms suspended over the Sabie river, offering guests awe-inspiring views.
An integral aspect of creating this one-in-a-lifetime travel experience that will leave guests breathless, is the interiors. They needed to be luxurious, incorporate the rail history, and reflect the very best in South African design, while being sensitive to the setting.
“Because it’s a stationary train, we’re playing with space,” explains Judiet Barnes, Concession General Manager of Kruger Shalati. “To optimise impact, a key element of the design involves maximising the feeling of being in the natural surroundings. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels in the rooms invite nature in and allow guests to take in the glorious location and wildlife. Internal walkways have been removed and blisters (train-speak for “pop-outs” in the train carriage body) have been added to create extra width to create a feeling of luxury and comfort. This unique design has expanded the carriages to allow for comfort, and for nature outside to dominate the interior spaces. It was vital that the interiors, while showcasing African excellence in design, complement the experience while not detracting from the view.”
Johannesburg interior design studio, Hesse Kleinloog, was awarded the contract. The firm specialises in a variety of thoughtful spaces – ranging from hospitality to commercial to residential spaces. Head designers Andrea Kleinloog and Megan Hesse combine several years of experience in understanding the visual language of design and how people relate to their surroundings and move in spaces.
“From our perspective it was imperative that the interior design was respectful to the tradition and heritage, but didn’t succumb to being too obtusely “themed”, or falling into the trap of being old-fashioned,” explains Andrea Kleinloog. “It was important that the interior design and detailing reflected a distinct and proudly Afrocentric experience, without deferring to stereotypes.”
As with many design projects, creatives often draw inspiration from multiple sources. For the Hesse Kleinloog team, the overarching design interpretation was predominantly inspired by the landscape and the region’s heritage, layered with elements of modern, contemporary South African art and design.
“In the Skukuza setting, what struck us immediately was the exquisite familiarity of the tones of the bridge, set in it’s ever changing, natural surroundings – the patina of deep maroons, ferrous oranges, flashes of charcoal. Nestling the original heritage train carriages, in the negative space between the girders also started creating a dynamic pattern, that carries through many of the design elements in the spaces . This context created an opportunity to parallel the sculptural architecture of the bridge, to the bold contemporary South African design language, layered with mounds of natural tones and textures.”
Hesse Kleinloog were also inspired by Joburg Ballet’s #BreakingBallet series which launched in 2018. The series won world-wide acclaim for taking this well-loved traditional art form, reinventing it, and making it relevant for contemporary South African audiences. “Like the #BreakingBallet project, it was important to interpret a new contemporary language, housed within antique train carriages.”
The interior design platform provided an opportunity to highlight local craftsmen and expertise. “It was important for us for South Africans to be proud of the spaces – and for us to showcase the incredible talent in the country. We are developing a traditional seanamarena (a traditional Basotho wedding blanket) with a young designer named Bonolo Chepape, in collaboration with Something Good Studios – supporting the design chain from design through to manufacture. The design has been created specifically for Shalati and will be a unique interpretation of the traditional visual and motifs.”
Immersing guests in the comfort of authentically African boutique hotel experience, the train itself will offer 24 en-suite rooms able to sleep 48 guests, with another seven rooms in adjacent Kruger Shalati Bridge House accommodating 14 beds on land next to the bridge. All rooms will offer guests a high-star rating luxury experience and will be accompanied by fine dining and other leisure experiences on site.
Kruger Shalati Train on a Bridge Hotel is set to open in December 2019. For more information visit https://www.krugershalati.com/
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