SKUKUZA STATION: DINING OUT ON HISTORY
O&A visited a very special railway station in the middle of the Kruger National Park
WORDS AND IMAGES: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
If there are three things that truly touch my heart, they are game reserves, steam trains and good food.
Imagine how surprised I was to find all three in one rather intriguing place within the Kruger National Park. I’m talking about the restaurant within the Kruger Station lifestyle precinct on the edge of the Skukuza Rest Camp. As a Kruger stalwart, Skukuza isn’t necessarily my favourite rest camp. It’s much too busy, too commercialised and over run by jeep jockeys and noisy globetrotters decked out in designer safari gear.
But this restaurant could just inject a little magic and, miraculously, see me return again and again for an experience that combines the mystique of the station’s past along the historical Selati line within a nicely curated present day environment and some good South African food.
KOS IN DIE BOS
But, before I say more, let’s set the scene. Kruger isn’t exactly known as a fine food destination. When I was an impressionable teen, I remember one trip where we were summoned to the Letaba restaurant by drum beats resonating through the bush and then served an awe inspiring three course meal by a waiter decked out in starched whites.
But, those days are long gone and Kruger’s restaurants have been taken over by city based franchises like Mugg & Bean and Wimpy with no intuitive knowledge of indigenous food and a pathological need to turn tables on over-crowded decks overlooking some of the Park’s most spectacular views.
Then, again, for me, Kruger has always been about braai fires and baked beans. Nowadays, each rondawel has its own braai area. Back in the day, we fetched boiling water from coal fired boilers and all gathered around a central fire in a halved 50-gallon drum, turning our chops and boerewors whilst exchanging war stories about the day’s sightings.
Up until now, dining out in the Park has been confined to a few above average picnic sites. You can grab a jaffle or some venison wors and pap from the outdoor kitchen at Tshokwane and then settle under the gargantuan sausage tree. But guard your tin plate as the vervet monkeys are particularly attentive waitrons, always hovering above waiting for a bite. Stop offs like Afsaal and Nkhulu also sell some good pies. The babootie one always fills a gap and is best washed down with come ginger beer from the adjoining shop.
A MENU ON THE WILD SIDE
Initially, I intended to write a restaurant review – but I soon realised that I hadn’t sampled enough of the eatery’s offerings to do justice to what seems to be a good collection of locally prepared grub.
The menu features local favourites made from fresh ingredients and even caters for those needing gluten free or vegan fare.
Most tourists eat burghers and fries as did my companions who settled for the Chicken Cheese burgher which comes with a grilled breast topped with a cheese duo and the usual salad additions. There were no complaints.
I passed on the many hand crafted pizzas on offer which are made with a “proudly South African stretchy mozarella” and even include a signature bush pizza complete with warthog sausage, bacon and avocado. Instead, I settled for an impala and warthog puff pastry pie and truly enjoyed the succulent filling and well prepared selection of veggies. The flavourful gravy topped it off perfectly.
But there are others that I’m looking forward to trying – from the Buttery Chicken Bunny Chow to a Shisi Nyama Game Platter to share. Service isn’t fast but it is friendly and there’s really no reason to be in a hurry on holiday anyway.
Whilst you are waiting, you can explore the station. The majority of tables are on the old platform, although there are some spots to eat within the carriages that are parked behind the impressive old steam engine at the siding.
I loved walking around a station that hankered back to the bygone era of slow travel – one of those historical landmarks that the UK is so good at preserving. You almost expected to find an old timer waiting, hat in hand, with his leather suitcase.
The precinct includes features of the original station plus a bar that has been cleverly decked out to blend with the vibe and which serves a wide selection of cocktails, mocktails and craft beers for those hot Kruger days. The 1920s waiting room has been transformed into a browsable, if expensive, delicatessen and craft shop and the ticket office has morphed into a modern day essential – a takeaway coffee and ice cream space.
Modern day tech blends well with oldie worlde charm with a 360°cinema and a play area for kids to blow off some energy and help parents restore their sanity after a few hours prowling the Park roads in search of game. Adjacent to the restaurant is the Kruger Shalati, the luxury train on the bridge which offers a whole new experience of Kruger from on high. But that is something I’ll also have to try during another visit.
DELVING INTO HISTORY
What my visit to the Skukuza station did do was inspire me to come home and research the Park’s unlikely railroad history. There was plenty to enjoy.
A summary of my research told me that, originally, the Selati Railway connected Komatipoort with Tzaneen during the gold rush, before being opened to the public and eventually disbanded in 1973.
The problem with history in South Africa is that it has a habit of repeating itself – much to the amusement of many a cynical local like myself. To put it in Kruger language, some leopards never change their spots.
Rewind to 1890 and you have the equivalent of a government tender somewhat dubiously awarded (and then subcontracted) to a variety of unscrupulous operators, finally ending up with a Frenchman by the name of Eugene Oppenheim.
He was apparently tasked with building and operating a branch line of the Eastern Railway that would run from Komatipoort to the rich farmlands of the north-eastern Transvaal. It would run along the Selati River, servicing the booming goldfields of the time.
We are told that he secured the contract in true South African style – with plenty of bribes and dodgy deals.
Work on the Selati Line began in 1892 and earthworks up to the Sabie River were completed by the middle of 1893. During this time, the Oppenheim consortium was characteristically enmeshed in a number of fraudulent deals that made huge profits at the expense of the then Transvaal government.
When the company’s books were completely cooked and money was sufficiently mismanaged, the Brussels based company finally folded and work on the already infamous Selati line ground to a halt. Unpaid workers downed tools and the politicians of the day were left with piles of building materials and 120 km of useless track to nowhere.
My research confirmed the very suspicions I would have today – over a million pounds had miraculously found its way into the pockets of conniving businessmen and unashamedly corrupt politicians.
While the somewhat bent French consortium did receive a very short jail sentence for their shenanigans, the members of what was then known as the Volksraad got away with it. All in all, the government of the time became the laughing stock of the financial world. There was just no Zondo Commission.
Thankfully, the Selati Line between Komatipoort and Tzaneen (via the Sabie Bridge which is today’s Skukuza) wasn’t left to rust. Work eventually resumed and it was officially opened in November 1912, according to the very dusty book that I rescued from my bookcase. I am told was bought from a second hand book table at a now anonymous market.
Around that time, according to this book which is entitled Kruger: Portrait of a National Park, Kruger’s pioneer ranger, a military man who went by the name of James Stevenson-Hamilton, was not
only fighting to get the conservation area under his command officially declared a park but to get rid of the poachers, greedy farmers who wanted to turn it into a cattle ranch and various industrialists who were out to mine coal and gold in the region.
Again, nothing much changes.
The Selati Line ultimately became a regular service with more than 200 steam trains huffing their way through the park each week.
The South African Railways of the day initially joined the fray trying to disband and reclaim what is now the Kruger Park.
The wily Stevenson-Hamilton realised that to get the Kruger Park declared a conservation area, he would need public support and he began to devise ways to lure visitors to the bush.
But World War 1 intervened and, according to authors David Paynter and Wilf Nussey, he finally returned to a very grim environment and a park where animals had been virtually shot out.
“The change was due to the advancement of civilisation riding down the railroads – the coming of more and more settlers and big business,” they declare.
More political wrangling ensued until around 1923 when the South African Railways changed sides and began a winter tourist service to show off the then Transvaal. Called the “Round in Nine”, the tour took nine days filled with the beautiful scenery of the Lowveld and ending in Lourenco Marques, then famous for its beaches and nightlife.
Stevenson-Hamilton discovered that the trains were crossing the reserve by night and suggested to the SAR management of the day that the trek through the Kruger take place during the day with the train overnighting on the Sabie Bridge. That way, the travellers could see the game and the rangers would arrange bush walks and make camp fires by night to entertain their guests.
To everyone’s surprise, the stop off became one of the most popular events along the railroad tour and eco-tourism was unofficially born.
This, in turn, provided the support needed for the then Sabie Game Reserve to be declared a national park and, ultimately, for the Greater Kruger Park to be proclaimed in 1926.
In 1928, the cost of the train tour was R10 a day which included the services of a game ranger who was undoubtedly a precursor to the safari guides of today.
In those early days, the roads and rest camps that we know were not even a spark in a government official’s eye and the only other way in was via wagon trails.
So, the trains and the Selati Line became an essential service. By the sixties, when self-drive tours were becoming the norm, conservation authorities were able to put a stop to the many animal casualties along the line by persuading the authorities to build a new line around the western edge of the reserve.
The last train travelled through the Kruger in September 1973.
The SA Railway Class 24 steam locomotive (#3638 and actually named Skukuza) that used to ply the Kruger route was donated to SAN Parks in 1978 for display inside the camp. Coupled to two coaches, a wood panelled dining car and a kitchen car, it was positioned beside the now unused old siding and used as a restaurant.
But, in 1995, this so-called restaurant was destroyed by a fire and the steam engine and remaining coach that survived were sadly relegated to a shed for a good few decades.
Strangely enough, many visitors to the Park (including myself) often found themselves relaxing over a cold drink along the Skukuza River Promenade and watching the baboons using the metal bridge that spanned the Sabie River as a jungle gym.
When it came to the fate of the abandoned steam engine, we were oblivious. But many of us said that we’d love to cross that seemingly rickety bridge just to enjoy the view. Now, ironically, you can languish in a luxury swimming pool from on high and wake up to a stunning view from a luxury compartment within one of the beautifully designed and restored old coaches that reside on the very same bridge.
I just can’t help wondering what the baboons think of the transformation.
But, I digress. This is not the only railroad memorabilia still to be found in the Kruger Park. Much further down the now dismantled railway line, there’s a similar spectacular old metal bridge just outside Crocodile Bridge. I sincerely hope that something similar is planned for that grand old relic and another chef gets to open a kitchen with a view.