sat back on my narrow bunk on the Kenya Railways train that runs
nightly from Nairobi to Mombasa, pulled up the window shade and
surveyed the exterior landscape. Outside the railcar, the dark
continent was truly dark. I saw giraffe, elephants, wildebeest,
zebra -- herds of fantastic ebony creatures on the move. But,
in truth, they were only baobab trees, kapoks, thorn trees, bush
-- denizens of the vegetable kingdom transformed, by starlight
and my imagination, into animals. By day, the high plains around
Nairobi would, in fact, be grazed by these creatures, but for
now -- moving in comforting shadow toward slumber -- this menagerie
of fancy seemed most appropriate. I was, after all, aboard the
Lunatic Express, a line that, to conventional minds, had always
been a bit far-fetched.
an eccentric enterprise and therefore perfectly suited to the
British temperament of the late 19th Century. Nevertheless, when
the Imperial British East Africa Company proposed its scheme to
lay track from the East African coast into the unsettled interior,
the critics stood up and raised voices. Media dubbed the proposed
railway a "lunatic line." According to the plan, the
Central African Railway, starting at Mombasa, would move through
657 miles of African bush past a little-known Masai watering hole,
at the time called enkare nyarobe or "sweet water,"
over the Great Rift Valley, across the equatorial highlands and
down to the shores of Lake Victoria where steamships could continue
the route through Uganda.
supporters conjectured, put an end to the slave trade which originated,
in part, in Uganda and to which the British were opposed; and
it would provide a route via Lake Victoria and the Nile through
British East Africa that would link the ports of the Indian Ocean
to the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, at the time, there was no
one to service along the way, but strategically, it seemed like
a very sound move. They could build it at a cost of £3,685,400.
were energetic. They were optimistic. They were wrong.
they'd have to build a new port to accommodate the supply ships.
Termites would devour the wooden risers as fast as they laid them;
lions would devour the workers; dysentery, tsetse flies, hostile
tribes and malaria would pick off the survivors, and torrential
rains would wash away what the termites had missed. It would end
up costing almost twice the estimate. It would take nearly a decade
to complete. At the end of the first year, they would have progressed
a pitiful twenty-four miles inland.
a heroic endeavor, and in spite of the obstacles, it was an insanely
brilliant success. It made white settlement of the East African
highlands possible. When completed, it shortened the journey from
Mombasa to Nairobi from six weeks to twenty-four hours. But the
name, "Lunatic Express," stuck and rightly so.
it is still a somewhat eccentric journey. You can fly from Nairobi
to Mombasa and back in two hours for a mere $180 roundtrip. But,
if you believe as they used to, that great travel is a journey
not just a destination, then you will have to step aboard the
legend so as not to miss out on the fun.
it rightly this journey must begin at the Railway Museum. It's
located in Nairobi, behind the rail station on Station Road, a
rutted tree and debris lined track. Unpleasant smells ripen in
the African heat. Here, as elsewhere in Nairobi, the ambulant
population, all afoot, pours along the margin of the road in antlike
streams. At one point, where the road turns sharply as a wart
hog's tail, a number of rough wooden and corrugated metal shacks
form a motley excrescence bringing to mind the shanty town that
grew up around the railway camp when the line reached Nairobi,
a camp that Army Engineer Lt. Colonel Paterson burned to the ground
when it was found to be infested with plague.
air is perfumed with the scent of grilled corn and meats, for
in these kiosks, foods are cooked and sold. Children press into
the fragrance, grins dancing on dark faces. Women and men lean
over the tables, loiter in doorways. Jacarandas and flame trees
surround them, sprouting purple and orange blossoms at crown,
garbage at foot.
museum itself is simple -- a big shed of a room full of marvelous
photographs, maps and rail car paraphernalia -- a place to while
away a day sitting at a table reading vintage issues of "Train"
and "Steam" if you are into that sort of thing. There
are pictures of Nairobi in its infancy and documents about the
building of the great Uganda and Kenya Railway. There is a bench
that was, in the early days of the railway, mounted just in front
of the engine like the seat on a carnival ride. Teddy Roosevelt
and Winston Churchill both enjoyed the view from that perch. And,
there is a satirical sketch of the corrugated metal and wood shack
on Whitehouse Road that served as first headquarters of the East
African Posts and Telecommunications Company and was still in
use by them in 1958. It looks a great deal like the kiosks selling
corn around the bend. The sketch depicts officials saying with
typically Kenyan pragmatism, "It'll do for a while."
Well, a while is a long time in Africa.
shed-like building that must stand for a new wing, more pieces
of machinery are on display, set up the way you'd find old car
parts in a garage. There's a bicycle attached to a small piece
of track. This was how the engineers inspected the rails. It's
amusing to picture one of them cycling along on a hot afternoon,
sandwiches balanced in a basket on the handle bars, lions in the
bush a few feet from the track on either side, pacing their progress.
Railway Museum you can also wander through the old train graveyard,
inch through narrow corridors and into startlingly small compartments
crowded even in their emptiness by the tables and leather banquettes.
Purity, the museum guide on the morning of my visit, showed me
the window through which Superintendent Ryall of the Railway Police
was dragged by a lion after he set a very effective trap for it.
Ryall sat waiting in the rail car with his gun. The lion entered
on cue; but sadly, Ryall had fallen asleep and there ensued the
usual African reversal in which the hunter suddenly becomes the
closed-shuttered window was very small. It was hard to imagine
a lion pulling a man through the tiny rectangle. We studied the
frame for damage. "Maybe it was repaired," Purity suggested
in softly accented English. Not at all. It looked original and
unimpeachably sturdy. It was the man who would have gotten the
worst of that window and the lion. But fortunes do reverse, and
eventually train and lion also languished in their respective
bone yards, other men swarming the remains -- stories of those
dark and dangerous escapades -- like flies.
probably the most appealing aspect of this legendary line, the
Lunatic Express, is that you can still ride it. The night journey
from Nairobi to Mombasa takes 14 hours and costs around $54 round-trip
for a first class sleeping compartment which is the only advisable
way to go. There are two trains nightly. One train leaves at 5:00
pm and another at 7:00 pm and both arrive at Mombasa the next
morning roughly on time.
train seems to have changed little since the old days of the Uganda
and Kenya Railway. The railway station and platforms are crowded
with a colorful mix of travelers, all of whom seem more interested
in adventure than appearances. The train corridors are still brutally
narrow. In those early days, passengers had to disembark for a
meal. Today, there is a dining car on the Kenya Railway train.
It's hardly the height of elegance though the tablecloths are
starched white, and there are flowers on every table. But the
sensible brown-striped Kenya Railway china is cracked and chipped
and the six or seven dining car waiters have permanent yellow
stains on their laundered white jackets. As on any train the dining
car is the best place to be, but on this one a dimension of intimacy
is added by crowding strangers together to make use of all space
and hurrying them through dinner to accommodate multiple seatings.
Gavin, a surveyor from Edinburgh, Scotland, and Jane, a software
consultant from Manchester, England, at dinner. A bottle of Spanish
"Caprice" white, two bottles of Mateus and 10 pints
of Tusker beer later -- all Kenya Railway's best -- we were sitting
on the bed of our compartment having one of those rousing international
discussions that is very personal and very general and leads nowhere
except ever deeper into the core if one's hidden troubles. At
some point, if one goes far enough, one hits the center of those
woes and then tears fall or fists fly, depending on their nature.
Of course we became very argumentative in the way that drinking
buddies will, and it was a good thing the steward popped his head
in around midnight to say that he was going to bed and he wasn't
going to watch their luggage anymore. He went on to say he'd had
a hard time finding Gavin and Jane since they weren't in their
compartment. We think the dining car waiter directed him to the
compartment to which he was delivering all of the liquor.
the train, you must leave all your standards of cleanliness behind.
Bed service consists of clean linens that I hope were boiled somewhere
-- many times from the look of them -- and a dark blue woolen
blanket. Doors cannot be locked from the outside, and every Kenyan
will warn you about theft on the train.
is Kenyan coffee, heavy with yellow milk and grounds, thick toast
with a big knob of butter on a metal dish that looks like it's
been laid upon it with an ice cream scoop, eggs cooked to your
specifications, sausage so well cooked that it no longer resembles
meat and the usual bean and tomato garnishes. The marmalade, like
the chutney that is served with the vegetarian dinners, is tasty.
I imagined that it, like the chutney, came from an impossibly
sticky, grungy-looking jar in the narrow wallow of a kitchen.
By the way, take a look at the kitchen. The food is serviceable
unless you are squeamish, in which case, don't take a look at
the kitchen. Remember, though, this is Kenya and that is why you've
had all those shots; so eat hearty.
the surrounding terrain is a dreamy mystery. By day, the banks
of the track are peopled with children of varied demeanor -- laughing,
sullen, desperate, silly -- all with the hands extended. "Jambo.
Jambo. Hello. Hello," they say in sweet, musical voices,
shadows flitting in the early light thrown up against the retreating
tarp of night. In the background mud huts, banana and coconut
palm, goats and cattle move out of silhouette.
too soon, the train is crossing Makupa Creek on the narrow neck
of land that connects the mainland to Mombasa Island. After the
cool, dry climate of Nairobi, the heat and humidity come as a
surprise. Tropical breezes stir coconut palms. Beyond the lime-white
city, float the waters of Kilindini and Mombasa Harbors and beyond
them, the Indian Ocean. The journey over, there is nothing left
to do but enjoy the East African coast until it's time to climb
aboard again for the journey back to Nairobi. Of course, at this
point, one can always decide to rent a car, take to the roads
and drive, but that, in Africa, would be madness.
you go: It’s best to plan travel to Africa well in
advance to allow for immunization schedules. Your doctor can
advise you on who to contact for a list of required shots and
to get there: Although you can piece together an
African adventure on your own, to travel comfortably -- especially
on your first trip -- an experienced tour company is highly
recommended. Most tour companies can modify standard tours to
suit your tastes.
the best: Abercrombie & Kent International, Inc., 1520 Kensington
Road, Oak Brook, Illinois, 60521. Phone: 801-323-7308.
around: Travel in East Africa is possible by plane,
car, train or bus. The crowded public buses, called matutus,
are cheapest and most popular; they look like wildly colored
sardine cans on wheels. By far the safest and most reliable
method of transport, when available, is the train. The trip
from Nairobi to the Kenya coast via Kenya Railways “Lunatic
Express” is a classic. Your travel agent or tour company can
book this trip for you in advance.
leave nightly at around 5pm and 7pm and arrive the next morning
in Mombasa. The fare is approximately $54.00 round trip.
to stay: A great place to stay in Nairobi is the
Norfolk Hotel, P.O. Box 40064, Nairobi, Kenya. Phone: 335800.
Fax: 336742. A bit dated, but charming, it’s been a home away
from home to personalities like Elspeth Huxley, Ernest Hemingway,
Baroness Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Teddy Roosevelt since