In May last year, the colonial-era metre-gauge Lunatic Express sleeper train from Nairobi to Mombasa, which used to last anything from 16 – 24 hours, ended. It was replaced by a new fast standard-gauge line (SGR) taking only four hours and 30 minutes.
I’ve yet to travel on the new line but needless to say, travelling on the Lunatic Express (that really was its name) is an adventure I’ll never forget.
The train travelled through the middle of the most expansive slums I’ve ever seen and cut a swathe through acres of new development where the remains of villages clung to hollowed out valleys. It hurtled at break-neck speed through Tsavo National Park and flew around oval-shaped corners that seemed to never end.
Everyone thought I was crazy to travel by train especially as a plane ride from Diani to Nairobi would have only taken one hour. But I loved train travel and relished the thought of sleeping in my own cosy quarters as Africa’s wild landscape sped by.
On the train, I met a toothless Tanzanian – it was his first time on a train, but in his feverish excitement he drank too much Tusker beer, passed out and missed the entire journey.
I watched locals throw their belongings through the windows in the dead of night and leap on board with only seconds to spare, and even woke at one stage to see several pair of hands feeling their way through my open window.
The train was like something out of the 70s with narrow corridors and orange walls and a tiny restaurant carriage with about ten tiny fans hanging from the ceiling and absolutely no room at the American style diner tables, so your arms were wedged in by the seats very tightly. The corridors were in fact so narrow I had to shuffle sideways most of the time and once had to jump over a pair of live chickens tied by their feet outside my cabin door.
My cabin was old and battered but comfortable with seats that flipped over into beds and the linen fresh and clean. I did however have to get the door between my cabin and the Tanzanian’s nailed shut after he kept opening it to tell me it was his first time on a train.
A piece of duct tape also came in handy when the mirror cabinet began to swing back and forth as the train shook and shuddered along the track.
Meal times were Fawlty-Toweresque with the train (and often our meals) lurching from side to side (they actually served hot chicken soup which ended up all over one customer when the train veered to the left). With your arms wedged tightly in the seats there was little you could do to protect yourself from the flying food.
I won’t even tell you about the drop toilet except you had to hang on for dear life…and not carry anything as it would no doubt end up on the track.
The views though from the train were to die for and I was lucky to see zebra, wildebeest and giraffe from my cabin. People along the way waved from the side of the tracks and children ran alongside the train shouting ‘Muzungu muzungu give me money!”
Sometimes we would stop for an animal on the track while other times we went so fast I thought we’d end up flying off the tracks, end up in the middle of Tsavo National Park and be eaten by lions (I probably shouldn’t have watched the movie about the man-eating Tsavo lions before I took the journey)
By the time I reached Nairobi, I felt like I’d been travelling for days (it was about 16 hours in total) and yet I felt a little sad to be leaving my cosy cabin with a view.
Would I have done the trip again? Probably not as once was enough, but for a real taste of adventure it was worth every shilling. And while the new SGR is apparently faster, air-conditioned and more modern, I’m glad I got the opportunity to experience train travel through Kenya the old-fashioned way.