Railway History is usually credited with bringing great industrial development, but the Selati line that ran through today's Kruger National Park in South Africa may very well have had the opposite effect, resulting in the iconic protected reserve of today. Forgotten railways and the ghost of railways past are simply irresistible, so we set off to find the old ghostly rail.

The first signs of the railway that was sparked by the discovery of gold in the Northern Transvaal in South Africa was the old Crocodile River Bridge, just a few miles from the Komatipoort hub on the Mozambique border.

The bridge was the result of one of the most expensive railways ever built and the line that started construction in 1892 was only completed in 1912. The current Crocodile Bridge Camp in Kruger Park overlooks the old bridge, so we set up camp and snapped our first image of rail-days gone by.

Railway history, the first failed attempt

The first Boer War was over and the second was still to happen when the Zuid Afrikaansche (Transvaal) Republic granted the concession from Komatipoort, off the Delagoa Bay line to the Selati gold-fields in the 1890s.

The Selati Company was formed by Barend J. Vorster and Paul Marx, who farmed off the contract to Eugene Oppenheim, a Frenchman of dubious character, who made a huge profit by farming it off to Louis Warnant who was acting as his agent. Eventually, it ended up in the hands of Westwood and Wimby who began the earthworks and railway itself.

Court cases, falsification of books, profiteering, corruption, huge financial losses and the Boer War intervened.

Under the burden of public scandal and financial losses, Custos Magazine tells us that after two years of effort in terribly inhospitable conditions, work simply stopped. "Truckloads of alcohol" had been shipped in and thousands of antelope had been shot for the consumption of the construction workers, and it all seemed to have been for naught.

Kruger National Park's first warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton

No story about Kruger National Park is complete without mentioning Stevenson-Hamilton, the Dublin-born pioneer of the preserve. Educated at Rugby in England and a professional military officer, he accompanied a number of great early African excursions and fought in the Second Boer War (1899-1901). He was later appointed, in very vague terms, as the warden of what was then known as the Sabi Nature Reserve between the Sabi and Crocodile rivers. The area was proclaimed a protected area by President Paul Kruger in 1891 but it was only in 1902 that Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed to stop the poaching and hunting.

After a brief sojourn at Crocodile Bridge, Stevenson Hamilton made his way to the Sabi River, approximately 50 miles north-west from the Crocodile Bridge, to what is known today as Skukuza, the largest camp and Parks Headquarters in the greater Kruger Park. He wrote that the incomplete line was littered with bits and pieces of railway tracks that had been hastily abandoned by Westwood and Wimby. For seven years he lived out his wilderness life, fighting off poachers, farmers who wanted to clear the land, and bitter public opposition to the reserve. But in 1909 Stevenson Hamilton encountered the resurrected railway construction workers, which was to turn around the fortunes of the reserve beyond his wildest dreams.

Pauling & Co completed the railway that changed the Kruger fortunes

Pauling & Co were fast workers. In just three years they completed the line from Komatipoort to the gold fields at Tzaneen in the north-western Lowveld of South Africa. The line was inaugurated on November 8, 1912. Steam Locomotives South Africa reported that "During the following thirteen years, one train per week was all that was needed to cope with the traffic along this line."

During those years, the Great War of 1914-1918 happened and Stevenson-Hamilton who had tirelessly campaigned to increase the size of the protected area left to serve in the Imperial Forces. While he was away, mining concerns and farmers eroded his efforts to the point that a Commission was appointed to investigate the possibility of reducing the areas of the Sabi and Shingwedzi Reserves.

Nevertheless, despite efforts to de-proclaim the reserve, it survived despite the railways being one of the greatest opposition voices against it. The irony is that in later years, it was thanks to the railways that public opinion swung in favor of not only keeping the reserve intact but in increasing its size so it stretched from the Crocodile River just north of Swaziland to the Limpopo River on the Zimbabwe border.

Visitors to Kruger Park by train

Before the 1920's there were no camps or roads for visitors to the reserve. Legend has it that Stevenson-Hamilton was visiting a pub in a hotel one day, and over a beer or two, a conversation with the publican led him to the conclusion that if people could visit the wilderness, they would be swayed to the idea of preserving the natural heritage of the area.

This led to him engaging with the railways, who introduced the very popular "Round in Nine" tours. Tourists could hop on the train and Travel through the wilderness on the Selati Railway line between Komatipoort and Tzaneen in the then northern Transvaal. Kruger Park history writes that "the tour included an overnight stop at Sabi Bridge (now Skukuza) and a short walk, escorted by armed rangers, into the bush. It soon became a highlight of the tour and it gave valuable support for the campaign to proclaim the Sabi Game Reserve as a national park."

Public opinion won out and in 1926, the Greater Kruger National Park was proclaimed. Today Kruger forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a peace park that links Kruger National Park with the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, and with the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, a preserved wilderness that spans 22 thousand square miles.

Roads replace rail in Kruger National Park

The Selati railway operated until 1973 and at its height was running 14 trains a day through the game reserve, though the tourist trains had long given way to access roads and camps. The first tourists entered the reserve by road in the late 1920's, and from camping in thorn bush bomas, accommodation grew into the modern and beautiful camps dotted around the park.

The tracks have been lifted, but the embankments can still be seen in the Park. One route follows much of the old line on the H5 and S114 roads to Skukuza. We followed that road, stopping alongside the old culverts and embankments.

In many places, the old embankments and blockages of the culverts and drainage formed dams where elephant and wild pigs enjoy a mud bath. Sitting next to the old line, one could easily imagine the ghosts of the past riding by in their comfortable coaches.

Skukuza, the SAR Class 24 stranded in the bush at the old siding

The trip would not be complete without visiting the old SAR Class 24 train number 3638 that sits at the old Lower Sabi siding (now Skukuza). Stranded in the bush with no rails to follow to a new destination, for a while the train that was donated by the Railways housed a restaurant in the mid-1980s. A fire caused the loss of two coaches, but one survives, and the train sits in the shed with it's pretend boarding signs and a defunct kitchen.

Today, what was once a beautifully preserved train and the station are off-limits to visitors, but ignoring the signs, I sneaked in with my camera.

Railway enthusiasts hope that Kruger National Park will upgrade the station and open it once more, but in reality, as even the main Stevenson-Hamilton Library and Information Center at Skukuza is closed to the public at present, the chances aren't that great that the lost and lonely engine will see it's glory days again.

Watch the short video below to see our trip along the edge of one of Africa's forgotten railway lines.