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Aboard the Lunatic Express


What it will cost no words can express;
What is its object no brain can suppose;
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry there's none can define;
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
It clearly is naught but a lunatic line.


London MagazineTruth, 1896

I 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.

It was 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.

It would, 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.

They were energetic. They were optimistic. They were wrong.

First, 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.

It was 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.

Today 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.

To do 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.

The 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.

The 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.

In another 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.

At the 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 prey.

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.

But 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.

The 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.

We met 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.

To enjoy 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.

Breakfast 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.

By night 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.

All 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.

Before 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 medications.

How 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.

Among the best: Abercrombie & Kent International, Inc., 1520 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Illinois, 60521. Phone: 801-323-7308.

Getting 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.

Trains leave nightly at around 5pm and 7pm and arrive the next morning in Mombasa. The fare is approximately $54.00 round trip.

Where 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 1904.

© Linda Watanabe McFerrin


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