The “Lunatic Express”

The old colonial train that chugs daily from Nairobi to Mombasa and back is colloquially known as the “Lunatic Express”. When I told my local colleagues that I was taking the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, they were intrigued. Why would anybody choose a rickety old train with broken fans that takes 18 hours when you can jump on an air conditioned bus that drives down the highway and be there in 8 hours. Of course it’s more practical to take the bus or even fly, but where’s the fun in that?

I travelled on the “Lunatic Express” during a weekend inbetween visiting the new local PHASTAR offices that we’ve been setting up during 2016. It’s a relative bargain – first class including dinner and breakfast is $60. Considering that gives you a bunk bed and you save on a night’s hotel, it seems a steal.

On arriving at Nairobi’s train station, we settled down with a cold bottle of Stoney (the local ginger beer) in the station cafe. There weren’t many platforms or trains at Nairobi station but it wasn’t that obvious which train was ours. After a while, we worked out that the boarding pass that had been issued by the “Upper Class Booking and Ticketing” hall had a coach number on it, that did match a coach in the station, so we embarked and found our compartment.

The first class compartments are very similar in design and layout to those of The Simplon Orient Express that travels between Venice and London. Unfortunately, the train hasn’t quite had the same level of upkeep. None of the fans on the train work. You need to bring your own bottled water as I wouldn’t trust the drinking water taps in the room (ours only shed a few tears). The leather on the seats seems original – is ripped in places and very tired. The windows and mosquito grids sometimes open and sometimes don’t – a drop of WD40 might help! The shared toilet was an Armitage Shanks loo on one side with no seat and the lock on the door didn’t work. The other side was a hole-in-the-wall affair but with no running water. Everything needs a bloody good clean!

One of the staff members introduced himself as our host, told us when and where meals were served, and said he’d be making up the beds while we ate. He also reassured us that it was safe to leave our bags in the unlocked compartment (there are a couple of security guards with AK47s, though I’m unsure whether this is a deterrent to potential thiefs!). Our host also explained there was a good chance of seeing animals as we crossed both the Nairobi and Tsavo National Parks.

A platform announcement went out (in English) saying the train would be 20 minutes late to depart as there were unavoidable circumstances. Looking on the platform, there were a load of bails of hay that still had to be loaded. An elderly lady carried one along the platform on her back, with a strap tied around her forehead. Another local explained to me it was grass for her animals. When I said it looked heavy, she shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.

After setting off we passed through a number of Nairobi’s suburbs. There are a number of fancy apartments which look like they’ve been recently developed, sitting alongside shanty towns and local markets. It’s fair to say that the amount of refuse – especially plastic-based refuse – is alarming. It seems to be becoming part of the topsoil in places. I can’t see how this isn’t then being sucked into the ecosystem in a harmful way.

Shortly after leaving, the train skirts along the boundary of Nairobi’s National Park. I’ve been on giraffe watch all week, as my hotel overlooks the park. There’s one major problem with the views into the National Park. China is funding a new Nairobi to Mombasa rail link, which reputedly will take only 4 hours. However, much of this new construction obscures the view from the existing train line. Saying that, I did manage to see various grazing type creatures. Sadly, still no giraffes.

After leaving the park, which was around sunset time, dinner was served. Another cold Stoney accompanied options of rice, veg (mostly carrot – looked like heated up coleslaw), roast chicken, or beef stew. Chunky chips and sliced bread were dished out (sadly I resisted the urge to combine these!). There were just enough seats for everyone at 4-seater tables, which meant we had to share. We met two sole travellers- Michelle, a Nairobi based entrepreneur (Instagram @thefemalenomad), and Dani, a digital artist, in Kenya for a project looking at recycling old electrical equipment (Instagram @daniploeger). After an entertaining hour or so, we returned to our cabin, and tucked in for the night.

One piece of advice. Ear plugs are essential for this trip! I was trying to persevere without earplus and had strategically placed our bags to stop doors  rattling around. A few pieces of rolled up paper were also strategically positioned in various places to minimise rattling noises, and the sink cover also needed to be closed. The rhythmic clanging noises coming from the underbelly of the train were still annoying me, but popping in a couple of ear plugs sorted this out. Next thing I opened my eyes and peeked at my phone. It was 5am and we had stopped bang in the middle of Tsavo National Park.

I jumped out of bed and looked out of the window. Other than a spatking view of 1000s of twinkling stars, there wasn’t much more to see. I was hoping the driver deliberately stopped there so we could see some big animals when the sumn came up. Shortly after, a freight train pulled up alongside, and although it took a while, I think we’d stopped to allow the other train to pass. Frustratedly, I waited on the sun to rise whilst looking at some vague shadowy shapes, hoping to spot an obvious giraffe or elephant.

Tsavo National Park is mostly famous for the man-eating lions from the time when the railway was getting built. Two lions terrorised the Indians building the railway and killed 35 before they met their deaths, at the hand of British guns.

Tsavo did deliver. At first, I could see various wilderbeast and antelopes, but shortly afterwards, I spotted a lone elephant in the distance. Over the next hour, I saw around 10 elephants, some in small families. Sadly, I noticed near the end of Tsavo that I didn’t have my memory card in my camera, but I still managed to get a few shots of the elephants.

Breakfast was served in the dining car after the manual ceremonious ringing of a bell by our host. We joined Dani and Michelle again, for our beans, (yokeless), sausage and bread. Michelle helped me negotiate a no-sausage option (thanks!). We were served pineapple juice that tasted just like orange juice, but it was cold and tasty nevertheless. After looking at photos of Michelle’s ascent of Mount Kenya, discussing the benefits of spontaneity when travelling, and the spiritual design of the Aloe Vera plant, we swapped contact details (i.e. Instagram accounts) and went back for a post-brekkie nap.

On the outskirts of Mombasa, the scenes resembled those of Nairobi, albeit with more shipping trailers and brightly coloured outfits. Our host pre-organised taxi to meet us. We arrived around 13:00, a couple of hours late. The train seemed to go at near walking pace for the last 50km into Mombasa. But then again, if we were in a hurry, this wouldn’t have been a good choice of transport. What a fun trip!