Lunatic Express

“Der Porzellan hat Macken, die Sitze sind etwas verstaubt.

Doch der Charme der ‘Lunatic Line’ (…) wächst dadurch nur.”

(Merian Kenia Reiseführer, 36)

I think living in Nairobi is all about the spontaneous trips you can take out of the city at the weekends. Just as we did this weekend when we decided on Thursday to go to the coast again. However, this time we were going to travel to Kenya’s more famous beaches – Mombasa. Perhaps more excitingly, however, was how we were going to get there: we were going to take a journey on the famous Uganda Railway. This Railway used to be the heart of the East African Community. It was also the reason Nairobi was founded as a city. The British built the railway line during the colonial times, to run from the port in Mombasa, Kenya to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. During the construction of the railway, the workers built settlements along the tracks. One of the largest settlements became Nairobi. Unfortunately the maintenance of the railway system has been poor and today all parts of the line, except for the last part between Nairobi and Mombasa, have been suspended.

Therefore, you can understand my excitement about taking a train, as I do not usually get excited about public transport. It has historical value; it is meaningful in terms of my job, as the revival of the East African Railway is one of the major projects of the East African Community; and sentimental value, as both my mum and my auntie had taken the East African Railway when they were children. Not even the fact that the train journey was estimated to be 15 hours, without delays, (when the same journey by road takes 6 hours) could put me off.

You can see the railway station from our office window, but I had never ventured down that way:

It is a very run down station, but not least its signs remind you of what is grandeur must have been like back in the day:

This can also be said for the train.

All the guidebooks we have between us (which are a fair few) are very split on the issues of travelling by train. However, they all concur that you should only travel by 1st or 2nd class and in fact no guide book we had would even specify how much a 3rd class ticket cost. We booked a 2nd class ticket just because we were 4 people and 1st class cabins on sleep 2 people. However, as it turned out the difference between the two is literally the number of beds and the price. In both 1st and 2nd class dinner and breakfast are included in the price. The train was so empty as well that it was nice to have a 4 bed sleeper and only 3 of us in it. Here is a picture of our cabin (because as you know, I tend to take pictures of everything):

I think the most surprising part of the journey was how scarily on time everything was (for Kenya). The train left promptly at 19:00 and the bell for dinner was rung at 19:15, as had been specified on our meal tickets (it reminded me of the bell summoning us for lunchtime at school). Dinner was in the dining car, which again, had seen better days, but was comfortable. There was a menu on our table, suggesting that we would have a choice of food. I was particularly intrigued by one of the menu items:

We had no choice. They came around with the same meal for everyone. Considering it was beef, however, I think this may have actually been (the most interesting interpretation of ) the “steak wennershnitzel:”

One of the main reasons many people take the ride on the railway, is to see all the wildlife along the way, as the train winds its way through one of Kenya’s largest national parks (Tsavo National Park). Unfortunately, when we were crossing through the park, this is what we saw:

However, sunrise was spectacular as always, and after much looking the next day, we finally saw some animals – although it was not the Tsavo Man-Eating Lions as I had hoped for:

It is interesting to note that it seems that children all over the world love to wave to trains. We saw lots of lovely smiley faces along the track. This is one of my favourite pictures from the trip:

We arrived in Mombasa 2 minutes ahead of schedule – shock, horror. And proceeded to spend the next two days lounging on the beautiful white sandy beaches and swimming in the crystal clear blue ocean. I know I posted lovely beach pictures from Lamu, but here a couple more from Mombasa to a. make you just a little bit jealous and b. to inspire you to come and visit.

All-in-all, I would definitely add the Uganda Railway as a “must-do” in Kenya either because you in for the historical/sentimental value or simply because it is a lovely way to see Kenya and get to the beach. However, I think one-way is more than enough, as 15 hours is a long time – and this is when it is on time, which, according to all the reviews we have read, probably only happened this once.

Note: For the full set of photos from this trip, please see my facebook album.

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One Response to Lunatic Express

  1. Ollie says:

    Hello Sis!

    Great article! Oh, and I am glad to see such detailed “trip report” – even though others might not understand why you took a picture of the cabin, you should know that you made your brother very happy:)

    I was aware of the colloquial labeling “Lunatic Express” that had been applied to the line, but I had never heard of the Maneaters of Tsavo. Apparently, they devoured around 28 humans between the two of them 🙂

    Finally, consider me “conviced” – I will definitely have to come over for a visit!


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