Imagine a landscape which is very hot, yet lush and green during the summer, then turns the colour of straw during the dry winter months. Bushes and trees are scattered about, but mostly, the vegetation is long grass which dries out providing winter feed for the many grazing animals that live here. Listen intently at dusk, and you may hear the roar of a lion as he asserts his authority. Or you may hear the sound of birds of prey squabbling over a fresh carcase.
Perhaps you may even hear the distant sound of a train whistle!
Ailsa at “Where’s my backpack?” found a surprise beneath her feet in Times Square. She challenged others to share their knowledge of other secret places. My secret place will take you to quite another place – in southern Africa.
The season was early spring. The surroundings were dry, and dust covered our vehicle and settled on everything. We were going from Crocodile Bridge to Skukuza in that most beautiful wildlife haven – Kruger National Park.
We had been up since the early hours watching the wildlife along the Crocodile River and had been fortunate to have experienced numerous sightings. Towards midday, the fauna had retired to the better grazing areas out of sight and so we decided to turn northwards towards our next rest camp.
With no animals to look at, I was increasingly intrigued by what looked like a ridge that seemed to run parallel with some sections of our road. It was characterised by having few ups and downs along its length, but was always frustratingly situated higher than the road, so I could never quite see the top or over the other side! Our route meandered all over the place, but every now and again, there would be another tantalising glimpse of this extraordinary feature.
Having seen many rail trails in Australia, it looked very similar, it even had (what could be imagined to be) cuttings going through small hilltops from time to time. But a train? In Kruger? Surely not? I decided I had been staring intently into the bush for signs of fauna for too long and dismissed the notion as ridiculous. I am also rather fond of researching old train routes and train history and assumed this was just my mind playing tricks on me.
Imagine my surprise then, when we later went looking for a restaurant in Skukuza to find ourselves at dining at “Selati Station Grillhouse”! I was astounded! And even more stunned to find a full sized operational locomotive parked not 2 metres from our allocated table! So I was not going silly after all!
The railway to Skukuza (originally called Selati) had been built in response to the discovery of gold on the banks of the Selati River. The line had a checkered history, being started and then abandoned; then construction was revived – all reflective of the fluctuating fortunes of its owners. Eventually, the line was completed and by 1912 it was possible to travel through to Soekmekaar, which was on the line through to (then) Rhodesia. It is a sad and sobering fact that many, many people died from fever during this amazing project.
The popular Skukuza – Crocodile Bridge service was operational until September 1973 when it was (sadly?) closed. However, the reasons were more than justified, as the train was noisy and frequently caused the unnecessary demise of many wild animals. A replacement line now runs entirely outside the park.
The “Selati Station Grillhouse” must be one of the most well-kept secrets of the Park. It is superb! The atmosphere on the platform area where diners are seated is one that would delight both train buffs and the romantic at heart – being alongside the actual locomotive and its remaining (lounge) carriage. At one time, diners were accommodated on the train itself, but this is no longer possible since two of the carriages used for this purpose were unfortunately destroyed in a fire.
Signs advertising the time of the next service, happily ensure that you will not miss your train, until you realise that the only trains that run now are ghost trains – memories of times gone by.
The night was a special one for me. I still look back on it and wonder about those people who built the line, those who ran the locomotive, and the many hundreds of stories about gold miners, fortune hunters, sightseers and all the families who must once have travelled on those tracks.
I would like to acknowledge the “Old Steam Locomotives in South Africa” blog site which is where I found most of the information about this fascinating railway service. I was unable to take as many photos as I would have liked, but if you would like to see lots of excellent photos of the locomotive and its carriages and to read more about this amazing story, please visit this Selati Railway Line blog page.