The Lunatic Express

Posted On 14th June 2016

It is, after all, impossible to revisit the history of Kenya without a mention of the Uganda Railway Line; what was termed the ‘Lunatic Express’. Not a misprint considering what is today Rift Valley Railways began as Uganda Railways whose key goal was to connect the Kenyan harbour to what was perceived more productive Uganda. Construction of the line would begin at the Kilindini Harbour in Mombasa in 1896 arriving at the extant site of the city around 1899 then later at Port Florence (present day Kisumu) around 1901 before its eventual completion in 1926.

In its heyday, the Railway Corporation was an extremely wealthy and successful enterprise and as noted by M.F. Hill in his book Permanent Way Volume I. The corporation posted a profit exceeding £2 million in the year the line was completed supplemented by immense land and real estate assets owned across the country. That was then. Writer George Omondi captures the present situation best: “The tourist-rich Nairobi-Mombasa route– once the backbone of Kenya’s rail passenger transport – is today served by a single track. This means service must be suspended frequently to make repairs. Unlike decades ago when commuters flocked the rail stations, only criminals working in cahoots with unscrupulous scrap metal dealers still find use for single gauge rail materials these days”.

Nine O’clock. Choo chooooo…a whistle tears the night; Chuk chuk chuk…wheels chug grumblingly and laboriously haul a millipede of metal carriages. I peer out of an upward-drawn window at the missus wind in her hair just like in the movies, waving me off on what is to be an unforgettable ride to the coast. As the tiny dot that the station now is fades from view, I flash my third-class overnight ride years earlier from the capital to the dry winded, red soiled Voi town. I thought I had suppressed the memory but alas! Nasty experiences are hard to erase. Truly third class: Rock hard seats, jammed or missing window panes letting in nature with all her love, strewn perishables and runaway poultry thanks to traders keen on saving a buck. Oh! How can I forget how unsettling it was being cooped up in a tin box with unsavoury appearing characters and that brooding broad-bottomed female who seemed eager to knuckle down with anyone who dared sit in her meant-for-three seat. As if she was not impolite enough, her insistence on sampling all foodstuffs that the hawkers had to offer- with disastrous results- sums up the experience.

It would be different this time I assured myself. I am, after all, different folk from back then, going for a different stroke. I had upgraded to sleeper class and had even managed a drink in the ‘white’ section at the station. Sh2, 300 afforded me a four-pax cabin sleeping on berths and couchettes, fitted with a wash sink and lockable door. With a toilet in each carriage, this is a rather decent arrangement when it is not a packed train or one is travelling in a group. Imagine lying with four strangers in a locked cabin. Luckily I only had to acquaint myself with one cabin mate, a gentleman based in Mombasa whose frequent use of the service put me at ease. Along the corridor, most of the passengers who were dominantly tourists seemed eager for the ride going by the animated chatter and the frequent trips to the smoker. Turns out, this is the most recommended and preferred mode of transport to Mombasa by back packers.

An extra Sh1, 000 on your ticket buys you dinner, which was served an hour later as we approached Machakos County. When the dinner bell rang, Ben (my cabin mate) did not join me having opted to pack his own food. He explained that the menu rarely changed and for the same amount, he could afford packed variety. He made a splendid argument, but I was keen on the meal so I made a beeline for the quaint restaurant carriage in what was oddly blood-rushing manoeuvre across carriage corridors. There, I joined an American working for the Clinton Foundation here in Kenya at his table. With him were his mother and sister who are first time visitors. We had the monotonous state of the nation dinner talk as we mulled over the modest menu: Fried rice, vegetables with the option of grilled chicken or beef stew. It did look like much served, but the well prepared chicken won me over. I remained for a nightcap and struck banter with a Kenyan couple whose passion for travel impressed me-the most gripping being their impromptu visit to the Congo that was cut short by army and rebel fighting. 

As I broke my fast the following morning, I could not help, but admire the landscape characterised by acacia and shrub. Ben informed me that we would miss our arrival mark having had a two-hour long delay in Kibwezi at 06:00Hrs. I had not noticed a thing meaning the berth and the sufficient beddings provided lived up to their bill. 
Passengers began getting weary after we arrived at Mtito Andei at 13:00hrs. At least two with urgent business to attend to opted to catch a bus. The rest stuck on contending with the now seering heat. It took complimentary lunch to calm the party down and I could not help but imagine how inconveniencing it was for those in third class, especially mothers with children, who had to go without lunch. Good thing train pit stops are ample for one to grab food from kiosks. We got to Voi at 15:00hrs, then Maungu at 16:00Hrs. At the latter, what seemed like a short stop for repairs of the cracked rail soon turned into a torturous wait. The drooping faces told it all, a far cry from the full faces that had boarded the previous night. Tired from the boredom, a few more, simply had enough and opted for alternative means. We were the exception having made friends from our carriage. This friendship came in handy after the train stalled yet again at 21:00Hrs in Mazeras station. This time, word had it that an oncoming train had broken down and it would take a while before it was remedied. Passengers scrambled to organise for transfers into the Island and we got off easy hiring a van for Sh7, 000 split among seven. Those unable to afford taxi transfers had to either stay put or risk walking to the main road hoping for public transport. 

Forty minutes later I arrived at my destination having survived a 26-hour ordeal on the Lunatic express. Would I ride on it again? You bet, yes!

Images: NzomoPictures/ Thorn Travels