Prepare for long, long delays. This is what people kept telling us in the days leading up to our departure on the train from Nairobi to Mombasa.
Although supposedly a 13-hour journey, I’d heard the horror stories – arriving at the station 5pm Friday afternoon for the scheduled departure, waiting until 3am for the carriages to finally pull away, arriving in Mombasa two days’ later.
We accepted we were in this for the long haul, and packed accordingly: wet wipes to keep clean, flip flops for sticky toilet floors, soup in a thermos and plenty of sandwiches.
Imagine our surprise, then, when we arrived at the run-down old station on the edge of Nairobi’s Central Business District to learn it was on schedule.
“The train is perfectly on time,” the ticket officer announced as he stamped our ticket and waved us in the direction of the platforms with a grin.
The British began construction of the line, nicknamed the Lunatic Express, in 1896, to cement their control over the source of the Nile: Lake Victoria.
With a price tag of £5 million, it was roundly denounced by one British parliamentarian as “naught but a lunatic line.”
Over a five-year period, the British brought in 32,000 Indian labourers who had to contend with malaria, hostile tribes, and the famed man-eating lions of Tsavo, who snatched victims while they slept.
The two lions held up construction for nearly a year as they picked off their prey, which included a British engineer, a police superintendent, and at least 28 Indian labourers.
After long nights lying in wait for the lions, Colonel John Patterson shot the first one dead in late 1898, and the second was killed a few weeks later.
When it was completed, it offered colonial style comfort for the white elite making their way to the coast.
The train today retains a merest hint of its former style, and we settled into our cabin with its split leather seats, and faded advertisement for a Game trackers safari.
Before departure, we joined the other passengers hanging their heads out of the windows in the corridor to watch the last few stragglers arrive.
We watched as passengers ignored the underpass, climbing down onto the tracks, lugging suitcases behind them.
At 5:05pm, the train grumbled into life and off we went, clicking along the track to the coast. As we snaked through the outskirts of Nairobi, grinning passengers ran between the corridor and cabin windows, faces catching the breeze as they leaned out to see the view.
Taking the train, we mused, felt like stepping into a time capsule: a moving museum. We were transported into early 1900s Kenya, when travelling on this line would have felt like the height of sophistication. What an adventure!
The country expanded out either side of us as we settled in to the rhythmic chugging of the train, playing cards and drinking beer.
Meanwhile, life on the train had erupted. In our cabin, a group of party girls played R&B on a speaker. An elderly German couple stood to watch the sunset, smudged with cloud cover, ripple shades of peach and gold.
After an hour or so, we discovered the kitsch dining carriage with maroon leather seats, faded floral wallpaper and cracked crockery that clattered as the train rocked from side to side.
It was packed, and having brought our own food, we soon retreated to our cabin to eat our picnic in peace.
We returned to made-up beds. Sleepy from the rocking of the train, my partner nodded off.
I lay awake, acutely aware of every noise, and snuck out into the corridor to catch the evening breeze.
As we clattered through the night, the soft glow of the lights settled on the surrounding grasslands, and stars scattered the sky.
At the front of the train, a bright beam of light cut through the darkness, guiding us all the way to the coast.
As the sun rose, it grew progressively warmer, the sand redder, and the scenery more arid. The cabins began to bake in the heat of the sun; a hot breeze filed in through the windows.
We passed old signalling stations, crumbling outhouses and thorn trees.
Children chased us through the countryside as fast as their legs would carry them. Nearing the coast, the soil turned to sand.
We spotted our first palm trees and the smoking rubbish piles – a sure sign we are now on the outskirts of Mombasa.
The last hour of the trip was the worst: hot and muggy, the wet wipes used up and our water run dry, our skin sticking unpleasantly to the leather seats.
All the way, we chased the new Standard Gauge Railway: an obnoxious juxtaposition of old versus new.
It towers high; built on an embankment and tall pillars, with new stations along the way that are white, stark and empty.
Construction of this new railway, which will cut the journey time to just a few hours, is scheduled for completion in December 2017, and the Lunatic Express will be decommissioned.
As we clanked and clattered into Mombasa this thought stayed with me.
Adventure complete, I felt glad to have experienced this charming, grubby, extraordinary rail journey before it is relegated to the history books.
[…] In short: where are the things that made Kenya’s original Mombasa – Nairobi railway line, the Lunatic Express, so delightfully […]