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JOHANNESBURG — Back in 2020 when South Africa went into a strict COVID-19 lockdown, a local company pressed on with opening a hotel with a difference in a tourism hot spot — and two years later that gamble is paying off.

The hotel is a near 100-year-old train that sits on the Selati suspension bridge, which spans a river in the heart of Kruger National Park.

Lovingly restored, it offers 24 full-carriage rooms against a spectacular natural backdrop, a wildlife viewing deck, and even a swimming pool jutting out beyond the tracks.

“I thought we were taking [a] very big risk. I never thought we are going [to] operate and have guests coming in during that time,” said cabin manager Justice Muchinya.

But the Kruger Shalati: The Train on the Bridge proved an instant hit.

“Ever since we opened, we had lots of guests who would be extending or guests who will be returning and that doesn’t normally happen with lodges,” Muchinya told Reuters.

“So that tells you we’re offering … something that people haven’t experienced before.”

Kruger Shalati has also been a lifeline for locals in need of jobs amid a record high unemployment of nearly 35 percent. Since taking off, the hotel has employed almost 200 people.

The business has lost 20 percent of revenue since the Omicron coronavirus variant emerged late last year, with many international tourists canceling. But with travel restrictions now eased, visitor numbers have picked up again, said hotel manager Gavin Ferreira.

“We’ve seen a myriad of animals [while] just sitting in bed … brushing my teeth, you know? So nowhere in the world that you can experience something like that,” local tourist Rogan Pillay said.

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