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Just what it is like riding the ‘Lunatic Express’

By Thorn Mulli | April 22nd 2014

By Thorn Mulli

[email protected]

It is impossible to revisit the history of Kenya without a mention of the Uganda Railway, what was termed the ‘Lunatic Express’. What is today Rift Valley Railways began as Uganda Railways, whose key goal was to connect the Kenyan harbour to what was perceived as a more productive Uganda.

Construction began at the Kilindini Harbour in 1896, arriving at Nairobi around 1899, then Port Florence (Kisumu) around 1901, before its eventual completion in 1926.

In its heyday, the railway corporation was a wealthy and successful enterprise. As noted by M F Hill in his book, Permanent Way, Volume I, the corporation posted a profit exceeding £2 million (Sh290 million at current exchange rates) in the year the line was completed, supplemented by immense real estate assets 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.”

On that list, Omondi should have included curious writers.

Nine o’clock. A whistle tears through the night. Chuk chuk chuk…. Wheels chug, grumblingly and laboriously hauling a millipede of metal carriages. I peer out of the window at the Mrs, 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 station fades into a tiny dot, I flashback to my third-class overnight ride years ago, from the capital to Voi. 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 elements, 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-looking characters? There was a brooding, big-bottomed woman whose mean stare scared off anyone approaching her meant-for-three seat. Her insistence on sampling all foodstuffs the hawkers had to offer — with disastrous results — did nothing to improve the atmosphere.

It would be different this time, I assured myself. I had, after all, upgraded to Sleeper Class. Sh2,300 afforded me a four-person cabin, sleeping on berths and couchettes, and fitted with a wash sink and lockable door.

Dinner bell

With a toilet in each carriage, this is a decent arrangement when the train is not packed, or one is travelling in a group. Imagine sleeping next to three 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 rail service put me at ease. The other passengers were dominantly tourists. Apparently, this is the preferred mode of transport to the Coast for backpackers.

 An extra Sh1,000 on your ticket buys you dinner, which was served an hour after our departure, 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 oddly blood-rushing manoeuvres across carriage corridors, towards the quaint restaurant carriage. The modest menu consisted of fried rice and vegetables with the option of grilled chicken or beef stew. It did not look like much on the plate, but the well-prepared chicken won me over.

I remained for a nightcap and struck up a conversation with a Kenyan couple whose passion for travel impressed me. The most outstanding tale was on their impromptu visit to the Congo, which was cut short by rebel fighting.

As I broke my fast the following morning, I could not help but admire the acacia and shrub landscape. Ben informed me that we had missed our arrival mark, courtesy of a two-hour delay in Kibwezi at 6am. I had not noticed a thing, meaning the berth and bedding lived up to their billing.

Passengers began getting weary after we arrived at Mtito Andei at 1pm. Two with urgent business opted to catch a bus. The rest soldiered on, but with the rising heat, things were tumbling south. It took a complimentary lunch to calm the party down, and I could not help but imagine how inconveniencing it was for those in third class, where meals are not served. Luckily, train pit stops are enough for one to grab a bite at the railside kiosks.

We got to Voi at 3pm, then Maungu at 4pm. 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 beaming faces that had come on board the previous night. A few more opted for alternative means to their destinations.

We got moving again, but the train stalled, again, at the Mazeras station at 9pm. Word had it that an oncoming train had broken down, and it would take a while before a solution was found.

Passengers scrambled to organise for transfers, and we got off easy, hiring a van for Sh7,000, split among seven. Those unable to afford taxis had to 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!

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