Londolozi has been a family-owned reserve since 1926. This means that the place is steeped in history. Not only do we get to experience the daily stories of the animals we see with all of their history but also the stories of how this wilderness area became what it is today. In today’s blog, we are going to delve back in time and take you through some of the early pioneering days not only of Londolozi but of the greater area that surrounds us and why the Selati Railway had more of an impact on the area than you’d expect.
History of the Selati Railway Line
Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a need to build a railway line to effectively connect Pretoria (South Africa) to Maputo (Mozambique). The demand came from transporting gold mined in South Africa to the port town of Maputo. The border post, Komatipoort, sits just south of the Kruger National Park (KNP). Construction of this railway was essentially required on both sides of the border and the railway to connect Komatipoort to Maputo was completed in 1891.
While construction on the South African side was still underway a petition was made by a member of the Volksraad (Parliament of the former South African Republic) to construct a branch line to service the booming goldfields around the towns of Leysdorp and Gravelotte. The line would run along the Selati River about 100km north-west of Londolozi.
The concession to build the railway and operate the railway line for a period of 20 years was initially given to Barend J Vorster, a member of the Volksraad, and subsequently, he made over this concession to a French entrepreneur named Eugene Oppenheim. In order to secure this contract there were bribes paid to other members of the Volksraad in exchange for their support. Oppenheim and his investors would supply a quarter of the £2m investment needed and the government would fund the rest.
In 1892 work on the Selati Railway began and with it continued the exploits of Oppenheim to embezzle as much he could at the government’s expense. Bribery, shady expense claims and falsified books resulted in Oppenheim and his brother, Robert, being tried in court in Brussels and sentenced to imprisonment and the government being the laughing stock of the financial world. The result was that the project was abandoned and the government was left with 120km of unfinished railway into the middle of nowhere.
The Round-in-Nine Rail Trip
The Selati Railway’s story might have ended there, but fate had other plans. In 1909, with the Second Anglo-Boer War in the rearview mirror, the government resumed work on the railway. By 1912, construction was complete, but the golden dreams that had sparked its creation proved elusive. Yet, out of this endeavour emerged an unexpected gem—the Round-in-Nine Rail Trip.
In 1923, the South African Railways (SAR) devised a 9-day journey through the Lowveld, including an overnight stop at Sabie Bridge, which would later become Skukuza Restcamp in the Kruger National Park (KNP). This adventure’s popularity was unparalleled, marking a pivotal moment in the history of wildlife conservation. James Stevenson-Hamilton, the first warden of the KNP, known as Skukuza, recognized the potential of allowing tourists into the reserve. On 31 May 1926, the KNP was officially declared a national park, and in 1927, the first tourist cars rolled in.
The Significance to Londolozi
The original family farm, Sparta, was purchased by Charles Boyd Varty and Frank Unger in 1926. This was the same year that the KNP was proclaimed but was not part of it, however, it did sit adjacent to it and with no fences around the KNP meant that animals could roam freely between Sparta and the KNP.
The two new owners had not seen the property when purchasing it from Transvaal Consolidated Lands after their cattle ranching exploits in the area had failed. They then decided to catch the train from Pretoria all the way to the Lowveld and used the Selati Railway stopping at a platform called Siding 61 which lies on the southern stretches of what is today Londolozi. The train would only return a week later and met by a local in the area with an ox wagon, they set forth across their new property, until they reached the Sand River. Upon reaching the river they pitched their tents under a Jackelberry tree which is still the home of Varty Camp today.
End of the Line
But as the steam train wove its way through the game reserve, it left a trail of unintended consequences. The year 1973 marked the end of an era, as the last steam train journeyed through the park, unable to coexist with the fragile ecosystem. Though the tracks vanished, the remnants of the Selati Railway still echo through Londolozi’s landscape, preserved in the gravel underfoot and the tales that linger.
The Selati Railway, with all its twists and turns, is an indelible part of the Lowveld’s history, its reserves, and its unforgettable stories. It is a testament to human ambition, resilience, and the delicate dance between progress and preservation—a legacy etched into the very fabric of Londolozi’s existence, where past and present merge seamlessly.