30 June 2008

SKUKUZA - Selati Train Restaurant - SAR class 24 no.3638

SAR class 24 no 3638
built by North British was works no 26350 in 1949.

photo: Custos Magazine Dec 1978

This locomotive was first plinthed on short section of rail in Skukuza. However, a much grander location at the old train platform was being planned. The "old station" "Selati Train Restaurant" was still to be built. It was planned to pair up engine #3638 with some coaches dating back as far as 1924.

the Selati Railway Line

In 1890, rumours came of the discovery of gold on the banks of the Selati River near Leydsdorp. This started a rush to the Selati River Gold Field where Karl Mauch, the most optimistic geologist of the 19th century, prophesied that gold would be found. [Origin of name "Selati": As in the Selati Line, the Selati Gold Fields and the Selati Club. Named after Shalati, the female Chief of the Tebula people. (Source here)]

The quantity of gold recovered in this region would not have been of much use to a modern mining company. Nevertheless it proved enough to launch one of the great railway scandals of the day. Baron Oppenheim, and his brother, floated the Selati Railway Company, in Brussels, to build a railway line, from Komatipoort, to the "new Transvaal gold field" near the Selati River. The line between the Portuguese border and Komatipoort had been opened on July 1st 1891, though the first train from Delagoa Bay did not reach Pretoria until October 1894.

The Oppenheim brothers, and their shareholders, did not wait to find out how the new goldfield was prospering. They went ahead, and laid 80 kilometres of track, from Komatipoort, to the point, where Skukuza camp now stands, in the Kruger Park.

The next step was to build a bridge across the Sabie River. But that was the end of the line, and of the company, which crashed, owing its creditors R800,000. This 80 kilometre line was one of the most expensive railways ever built.

The Selati Railway Company went bankrupt in August 1894 - when tools were downed, work on the foundations of the Sabi Bridge was in progress. Work on the bridge recommenced 15 years later in 1909, and by end of December, of that year, about half the structure was in place. So the centenary of the bridge completion would be year 2010. The bridge was officially opened on 25 October 1912. On the web I have picked up suggestions that the bridge is currently considered to be unsafe - I am not sure about the validity of this.

After the Selati Railway Company had gone bankrupt, the line lay idle for 15 years, with stacks of material and implements rusting beside the track, and a locomotive standing in the sheds at Komatipoort.

During the Anglo-Boer war, the Steinacker's Horse corps, were stationed at Sabi Bridge. The abandoned Selati line had proved useful to Steinacker's Horse, and a weekly train, carrying supplies, ran from Komatipoort to their large post at Sabi Bridge, 50 miles to the north and situated on the river of that name. The first time it went up, so thickly had the bush grown over the line in eight years of disuse, that a gang of natives had to go in front of the engine, cutting down saplings, which were sprouting thickly on the permanent way!

When James Stevenson-Hamilton, first warden of the Kruger National Park (then known as the "Sabi Game Reserve") arrived at this place in 1902, then known as "Sabi Bridge", the "bridge was represented only by the foundations of its piers, which the river covered when it rose in flood. (The proper bridge was only completed around 1910).

slide film photo taken 1982

It became Stevenson-Hamilton's private line after Steinacker's Horse left. If he wanted to get to Komatipoort he mounted a trolley and, propelled by manpower, made a leisurely journey through the wild country he was shaping into a reserve. At first the trolley was confined to a mere platform on wheels, pushed by a dozen natives working in relays.

July 2009 photo by Kevin R Wilson-Smith who noted: "One of the old Kruger Rail Trolleys is still in existence and operable." NOTE: At least until 2005, the trolley was used as a "Sundowner Experience", that crossed the river bridge, and back, with a group of people every afternoon.

Later the old trolley which Stevenson-Hamilton used, was supplemented by a more up to-date contrivance (somewhat like the modern version shown above), which boasted a pumping lever manipulated by men standing on the trolley itself. Stevenson-Hamilton called this the "passenger" and the old one the "goods" train. Stevenson-Hamilton wrote: "To make the former more comfortable for the traveller, I rigged up on its front part a bench with a back to it like an ordinary garden seat, and thus travelled in state up and down the line, taking no more than five hours to do the fifty miles down to Komatipoort, though twice as long to return. With the goods train the itinerary was a matter of days, how many depending partly on the weight of the load, and partly on how eager or otherwise the propelling natives were to finish the journey."

In Komatipoort Stevenson-Hamilton would catch the train to Pretoria.

Google Earth Map of Skukuza - click on picture to enlarge.

This was the only use to which the Selati line was ever put, until 1909, when the Transvaal Government initiated some projects ahead of unification, completed the Sabi Bridge, and extended the line first to Tzaneen, and later to Soekmekaar (1912), on the main line to Rhodesia. This was one of the most picturesque routes in South Africa through big game country. A railway line made a great difference to an area that had always been regarded as the back of beyond.

The steam locomotives took water at Huhla siding just north of the Sabi Bridge. The small siding south of the bridge, at the place known as "Sabi Bridge" (named "Skukuza" in 1936), was known as "Reserve".

This 1986 map published by the Dept of Surveys still traced the route of the old Selati line north of Skukuza, and shows where the "Huhla" siding was located. [Click on map to enlarge]

James Stevenson-Hamilton had first-hand experience of the conditions during this period after 1912: "The line was now taken over by the South African Railways, and Sabi Bridge found itself served by one train a week each way, the hour on both occasions being about 2 a.m. For some inscrutable official reason, the siding and water tank for the engine had been placed on the other side of the river, amid uninhabited bush; while our side - the inhabited one - was not a scheduled stopping place. Thus, for some years we were dependent for the delivery of supplies, and the taking up, and setting down of passengers on the good nature of the guard of the train. If he did not happen to be in an amiable mood, he could, for instance, 'deliver' fifty bags of mealie meal in the bush a mile away across the Sabie, whence our only means of getting possession of it - unless the river was very low at the time - would be to bribe the ganger to bring it over on his trolley, an act on his part liable to get him into serious trouble if found out. Of course, as soon as the railway construction began, I had been obliged to hand over both my trusty trolleys, and now, with only one connection a week with Komatipoort (and that involving sitting up at the siding until 2 a.m. over a campfire) I felt that the coming of civilization had altered my lot for the worse."

"The railway had also been responsible for the death of my faithful cook and body servant, Ali Sharif, a Swahili who had been with me since 1903 and had accompanied me in all my travels to different parts of Africa since that date. His wife and child resided at a village across the Sabie River, and hearing that the child was sick, he essayed one night when his work was over to walk the three miles to visit it. He was crossing the railway bridge over the river, which he considered a safe proceeding since only one train per week ran, but unfortunately for him, two employees of Pauling & Co. were returning - it being Sunday night - from a jollification in Komatipoort, and, traveling at a great pace on their motor trolley, cut him down and killed him. (Encumbered by his long white robe, he had been unable to get out of the way.) One of our police 'boys', Jase, who was with him, escaped by swinging himself on to a girder of the bridge."

Around September 1973, the Selati railway line, which ran through the Kruger National Park, was used for the last time. This section of line, which entered the Park just north of Skukuza, and left it near Crocodile Bridge, used to carry several trains every day. The trains not only disturbed the Park's characteristic atmosphere of peace and quiet, but also affected its plant and animal life. The National Parks Board, and other Government Departments, had decided that the protection of nature is more important than this historic railway line. The new route from Kaapmuiden to Phalaborwa and Tzaneen, winds along the western boundary of the southern part of the Park, and completely bypasses the reserve.

This postcard of the Skukuza "Train Restaurant", with photos taken by B.K. Bjornson, shows the Selati restaurant in operation in the mid-1980's. The caption on the postcard reads: "The steam engine used on the Selati Railway (1920-1972) together with galley, dining car, and bar-lounge is positioned at a reconstructed railway station in close proximity to Col. Stephenson-Hamilton's house on the then Sabi Game Reserve (1902)." Some of the coaches were destroyed in a subsequent fire, and today the scene is somewhat different to what is seen on the postcard.

The "SKUKUZA" locomotive
more Recent History

slide film photo taken 1982

My first memories of this locomotive date from 1982 when the Selati train restaurant was yet to be built. At this time the locomotive was "unplinthed"again, and back on the short branch track, just off the Sabi Bridge, at Skukuza.

SAR Class 24 #3638 - The SAR Class 24 is a branch-line loco introduced in 1948 for operation on track as light as 40lb, much of which was laid in SWA (South West Africa - now Namibia). The 100 locos of this class was built by North British Locomotive Co.

It is said that this engine #3638 did active service on the Selati line past Skukuza.

The Class 24 is also depicted on a 25 June 2010 stamp release by the South African Post Office. (SAPO). This image is published here by kind permission of SAPO.

Two Class 24 locomotives are plinthed in South Africa. This one at Skukuza, and the other one which is at Calvinia museum - both are well cared for.

1982: The locomotive was "parked" just off the Sabi railway bridge.

In 1901, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, whose great-grandfather founded the New York Central Railroad, invented a cylindrical tender which was soon adopted by a number of American railroads with oil-burning locomotives. A round tank has several advantages over a rectangular tank.
  • A round tank holds more than a rectangular tank of the same surface area.
  • A round tank (a cylinder) is stronger than a rectangular tank (a box).
  • A round tank is lighter than a rectangular tank of the same capacity (partially because a rectangular tank requires a great deal of internal bracing).
On May 31, 1901, a patent was issued to Cornelius Vanderbilt for a tender with a cylindrical water tank.

Compared to rectangular tenders, cylindrical Vanderbilt tenders were stronger, lighter, and held more fuel (water in RSA loco's) in relation to surface area.

Photo: 1984

Photo: 1984

After being in service for only 29 years, the locomotive was withdrawn in August 1978.

Photo about 1990

When the locomotive was first plinthed at the Selati station, it had three coaches in tow, which made up the world famous "Selati Train Restaurant".

The three coaches were:

coach type description
206 A-22 Dining Car, with name "Lundi", built in 1924, and in use until 1978
250 A-23 Kitchen Car
589 C-21/C-28 Lounge Car, released for use in 1929.

Sadly, on the night of 12 January 1995, a fire broke out in the train restaurant, and both the kitchen and dining cars were completely destroyed. That is why today you only see the Skukuza locomotive with the single lounge car in tow.

June 2004

June 2006

June 2006

Presently (2009) the Selati Train Restaurant or Selati Railway Restaurant operates under the name "Selati Station Grillhouse" - rather shockingly, the grillhouse menu sports a picture of an outsider steam engine, which only in it wildest fancy, operated anywhere in South Africa. A slap in the face for the beautiful local #3638 standing proudly right next to the platform!!!

Not for real ...

Yes, only for fun !!!

In 2005 it was said in a Parks forum by a KNP spokesperson that the original driver of the locomotive still visits his former "office" and tenderly gives it a polish.


"Steam Engine for Skukuza"
Custos Magazine December 1978

MORE than five years have elapsed since (in 1973) the last steam engine hissed, smoked and whistled piercingly as it busily puffed up and down the railway line that for more than 60 years carried traffic through the Kruger National Park on its way from Komatipoort to Tzaneen.

Soon there will be few traces of the line left, as the track is to be lifted, and the bridge across the Sabie River, is to be modified for use by motorised traffic. However, steps have been taken to ensure, that memories of the steam-engine era in the park, will remain forever green, and not be allowed to sink into oblivion.

A nostalgic gesture was made recently by the General Manager of the South African Railways, Dr Kobus Loubser. He prevented this historic link with the past from being broken, by making a gift of a handsome Class 24 locomotive - at present on display at the disused Skukuza station - to the National Parks Board.

Like all "puffing billy" enthusiasts, he knew that, in railways, the beloved steam locomotive remained dominant well into the 20th century. However, in most parts of the world it has been almost totally replaced by diesel and electric locomotives.

photo: Custos Magazine Dec 1978

The Class 24 steam locomotive "Number 3638" was handed over by Dr Loubser to the Chief Director of the National Parks, Dr Rocco Knobel, at Skukuza on Monday, October 23, 1978.

Henceforth, the steam engine will be a permanent reminder of the times, when the Selati railway line ran from Crocodile Bridge, in the south, to Skukuza in the north.

The line itself was begun in 1892 after the discovery of gold in the north-eastern Transvaal but work stopped after two years when the contractors went bankrupt.

Fever was so rife it was said a man died for every sleeper laid in the first 112 km. Lorry-loads of alcohol were consumed and tens of thousands of antelope shot to provide rations. Work on the line was resumed in 1909 and it was completed in 1912.

Five years ago (1973) railway locomotives ceased to operate in the park when the section was replaced by a line running along the southern and western boundaries through Hectorspruit and Kaap-muiden.

At the ceremony 'Dr Knobel thanked the Minister of Transport, Mr S. L. Muller, and Dr Loubser for their very valuable gift to the Skukuza Museum, and stressed the fact that the South African Railways played a very Important part in the development of the Lowveld and the Kruger National Park.

"The Selati Railway line through the Kruger Park"

Custos Magazine August 1973

THE Selati railway line, which runs through the Kruger National Park, is expected to be used for the last time in September this year.

The National Parks Board, and other Government Departments, have decided that the protection of nature is more important than this historic railway line.

The old railway line from Komatipoort, through the southern part of the Kruger National Park, has been replaced by a new line costing millions of rands. The new line to Phalaborwa, and Tzaneen, in the northern Transvaal will pass through Tenbosch, Hectorspruit and Kaapmuiden.

The section of the old line, which entered the Park just north of Skukuza, and left it near Crocodile Bridge, used to carry several trains every day. The trains not only disturbed the Park's characteristic atmosphere of peace and quiet, but also affected its plant and animal life.

The new route from Kaapmuiden, which winds along the western boundary of the southern part of the Park, completely bypasses the reserve.

The history of the Selati railway line forms an important part of the history of the Transvaal Lowveld. The origin of the railway line may be summarised as follows:

The discovery of gold, in the North-eastern Transvaal, was the economic factor which led to the establishment of the Selati railway line, from Komatipoort in the Eastern Transvaal. Concerns with shares in the land in this area, made strong representations for a railway line, to be constructed, to this gold-bearing area. The Transvaal government, of that time, immediately agreed, and the construction of the railway line began in feverish haste in 1892.

The most important contractor was Westwood & Winby. Workers from all over the Transvaal Lowveld were attracted to the new line. Only the hardiest of men were able to survive in this inhospitable region, and most of them fell prey to fever. In his history of the Lowveld, Stevenson-Hamilton wrote, that many Europeans, and Non-Europeans, died during the construction. It has often been said, that for every sleeper that was laid, a man died, and some contemporary writings seem to bear out this opinion.

During the construction of the first 112 km of railway line, which took two years and stretched up to "Reserve" (Skukuza), whole truck-loads of alcohol were consumed, and tens of thousands of antelope were shot, as rations, for the workers.

Within two years of the start of the construction, West-wood & Winby experienced financial problems, and work on the line immediately ceased. Thousands of workers simply downed tools, and departed. Stevenson-Hamilton wrote that material and equipment were left lying around, and that anyone could go, and help himself. Just how inhospitable the area was, is demonstrated by the fact, that when, (16 years later, at the end of 1909), it was decided to resume work on the line, some of the equipment, such as picks, wheelbarrows and shovels, was still lying beside the uncompleted railway line.

Work on the line began in earnest. The contractor responsible for the completion thereof, was the firm Pauling & Co. The work proceeded so well, that the connection to Tzaneen, was opened in 1912. During the following thirteen years, one train per week was all that was needed to cope with the traffic along this line. However, just before 1925, conditions had deteriorated so badly, that the authorities considered replacing the service with one mixed train (goods and passengers) every fourteen days.

But 1925 was a turning point. The train service was increased to two, and later to three trains per week. Tourist traffic now also became a regular feature, and the South African Railways arranged special trains, to carry tourists to the Kruger Park during the winter months - the driest part of the year when game is easy to spot. Stevenson-Hamilton wrote that, just as in Kenya, game showed no fear of passing trains.

"Operation Numbi"

Custos Magazine February 1975 - by B.L. Penzhorn

During December, 1968, one of the most ambitious game-driving operations, ever to be attempted, in the field of nature conservation, was carried out in the Kruger National Park.

This was necessitated by the rerouting of the Phalaborwa-Komatipoort railway line, which ran through the Park. With the consequent exchange of land between the National Parks Board and the South African Bantu Trust a 6000 hectare corridor in the Numbi-kop area, (which was excised from the Park) had to cleared of wildlife.

The Selati Line, as this railway is known, is a byproduct of the goldfields of the Eastern Transvaal, which flourished before gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand. During the 1890's the government of the South African Republic decided that the goldfields were to be linked by rail with the main Pretoria Lourenco Marques line.

Construction was started during the second half of the decade and by the time the second Anglo-Boer War was declared in the line had been completed from Komatipoort through the "Government Game Reserve" (the forerunner of the Kruger National Park) which had been proclaimed by President Kruger 18 months previously. The line had reached the Sabie River at the point known as "Sabie Bridge".

Image: Publicity Dept South African Railways

The British forces built a blockhouse at the bridge. When the late Col. James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first Warden of the re-proclaimed Sabie Game Reserve, arrived in 1902, the blockhouse was still standing, and he turned it into his headquarters.

Prior to the unification of the four colonies in South Africa in 1910, the Transvaal found that its treasury was overflowing. As it did not wish to hand over all surplus funds to the new central government, a sudden rash of capital works cropped up, and the long-forgotten and uncompleted Selati Line was extended to Soekmekaar in the north-eastern Transvaal. By this time the gold had petered out, and the Transvaal Lowveld, which is today one of the most prosperous farming areas in the country, was still undeveloped. Attempting to make the line profitable, the railway authorities, vigorously supported the de-proclamation of the Game Reserve, and its development as a farming area.

Image: Publicity Dept South African Railways

During the 20's, however, the Railways introduced a "Round in Nine" tour - a nine-day trip from Johannesburg to the Eastern Transvaal and Lourenco Marques. This tour also included a night stop at "Reserve," as Sabi Bridge was called. Very soon this became the star attraction of the whole tour. The experience of sitting cosily next to the camp fire, and listening to the mysterious sounds of the African bush, proved to be a tremendous draw-card. Personal contact with wild life generated great enthusiasm among the general public, and those in favour of de-proclamation of the Game Reserve were steadily losing ground.

The stage was now set for the passing of the National Parks Act by Parliament. This was achieved in 1926 when the Kruger National Park was established, thus being the first National Park on the African continent.

Since the second World War there has been great development in the areas adjoining the Park: citrus, subtropical fruit and vegetables are grown on a large scale and the cultivation of sugar cane is becoming increasingly important. But the biggest centre of development is Phalaborwa, where a vast deposit of copper and rock phosphate is being mined.

These activities placed an increasing burden on the Selati Line, and the daily number of trains passing through the Park, increased steadily. Concern about the vastly increased volume of traffic on the line, prompted the National Parks Board to negotiate with the South African Railways on the use and future of the line, An agreement was reached, by which a new line, bypassing the Kruger National Park, was built from Kaapmuiden to Metsi. South of the Numbi Entrance Gate the line runs to the west of the Nsikazi Spruit, the western boundary of the Park, and north of Numbi, the line entered the Park, following the Phabeni Spruit to the Sabie. Following an exchange with the South African Bantu Trust, the area between the new line and the Nsikazi, was incorporated into the Park, and the Numbikop area was excised from the Park, and handed over to the Trust.

The long grassveld, rolling hills and sheltered, wooded kloofs of the Numbikop area were the home of large herds of sable antelope, many reedbuck, as well as Burchell's zebra, blue wildebeest, kudu and impala, and the only place in the Kruger National Park where rare Natal red duiker had been recorded. It was, therefore imperative that the area be cleared of game before the exchange took place.


South African EDEN - 1902-1946 The Kruger National Park - James Stevenson-Hamilton - Struik 1993 [This book is highly recommended - it has many personal reminiscences, and most other writers lean heavily on Stevenson-Hamilton's work - it has many references to the Selati line.]
NEEM UIT DIE VERLEDE - U de V Pienaar - 1990.
Railway Dining Cars in South Africa - H.L. Pivnic - SATS Museum 1985.
Various articles from the CUSTOS magazine as indicated.


  1. I photographed this locomotive three weeks ago.

  2. First time on your site. Exellent. Thanks for sharing it. Dave Fortune

  3. Misa Porras Hurado21 January, 2011 15:32

    this place is kind of lke being in a Museum, that-s why I really like to visit it every time I got the chance.

  4. Deborah Meza Punta21 January, 2011 15:32

    this place is kind of lke being in a Museum, that-s why I really like to visit it every time I got the chance.

  5. We hope to see this spot on October 21st when we're on the way from Lower Sabie via Skukuza to Satara and have lunch with you. Fam. Pels

  6. Was there this week. They don't look after it anymore. Hope they will but will only know next year.


  7. It's been a long time, since I have been to the Kruger, but do not remember seeing a class 24 anywhere in the Skukuza campsite. I hope they are looking after it, but this form of preservation is not on any government's priority list. It's to Colonial or reminds them of the previous government.

  8. Thanks you for info about Selati.I was part of the fire team the night it burned.
    Regards Robbie