Maai Mahiu's neglected tunnel that exploded, killing over 50

The dam overlooked hundreds of villages and farms below. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Known for its serene hot springs, caves, rich wildlife, Mount Longonot, old railway line, Kinale Forest and lush landscapes, Maai Mahiu attracts tourists year-round. 

The area’s hot springs maai mahiu - after which the area is named and which loosely translates to hot waters - have drawn visitors for years.

Maai Mahiu’s Mau Mau caves date back to Kenya’s independence struggle.

However, beneath this picturesque façade lies a chilling tale of neglect and tragedy - a tale centred around a forgotten railway tunnel ominously dubbed the “dark tunnel” by locals.

Located deep within a dense forest, the wooded area is protected by the Kenya Forestry Service. The dark tunnel once a hidden gem is now an abandoned relic of Kenya Railways. The neglect is evident from its visible cracks and signs of decay.

Walking towards the tunnel, you see old railway tracks partly covered by moss and undergrowth, disappearing into the darkness. Inside the tunnel is cool and damp, with river water seeping through, muddy soil hanging from the walls, and signs of destruction stretching beyond to nearby villages.

The tunnel is now a major worry, destroyed and no longer hospitable to tourists and has caused the halting of Saturday and Monday train trips.

A ranger who did not want to be named told The Standard that the area, blessed with frequent rains, is home to various wildlife, including leopards and hyenas, which inhabit the caves, rocks, and trees surrounding the area.

“When we (rangers and tour guides) wear boots, we are usually safe. They just need to smell us, and they will walk away. Some wild animals even accompany us; they are peaceful,” said the ranger who has worked in Maai Mahiu for 12 years.

He was accompanied by tour guides who took us up the hill, a distance of more than two kilometres since vehicles could not access the area.

A tour guide revealed that deep inside the forest, where the dark tunnel lies, was a serene place with sounds of chirping birds, swaying trees and buzzing insects.

Naivasha East MCA Stanley Karanja told The Standard that the place had been a sanctuary for wildlife, tourists and scientists.

Beneath its picturesque exterior however lurked a grim reality - a neglected railway tunnel, known locally as the “dark tunnel,” silently accumulating water, soil deposits, and debris.

The work of nature eventually blocked the tunnel, creating a dam overlooking hundreds of beautiful villages and farms below.

“We are happy to live, but unfortunately, the consequences are brutal,” said Karanja adding, “I lost my brother in 2020 when another tunnel on the opposite hill burst and swept away seven people. Six were found, but my brother was never found.”

Three days to the fateful Sunday, he reached out to many people, including area chief, Kenya Railways, and the government, that the tunnel was filled up, but they failed to respond.

Karanja said he went around the homes that Saturday using his car with blaring speakers asking people to move out, but they told him they didn’t have a place to go.

“We all informed Kenya Railways that it was risking the lives of millions of Kenyans because we could see the cracks,” Karanja said.

“The burst, which swept away the railway station, happened during the day, and people who lived near or worked at the station had time to run away. We informed Kenya Railways, who came to assess the damage on other tunnels the same Thursday and then left,” a ranger said.

A Kenya Railways official visited the site again on Friday, two days before the tragedy, to assess the situation. 

“On Saturday, Kenya Railways came back with a team of people and left,” said a tour guide, who requested anonymity, fearing consequences from authorities.

Tour guides and rangers reported that the tunnel was full after River Tongi, which flowed through the tunnel, was blocked, causing visible cracks that prevented access to tourist sites in the area.

Residents told The Standard that a company laying fibre-optic cables through the forest halted its work due to safety concerns.

“Their staff and casual labourers refused to work around the tunnel due to cracks, and you can see where they ended their work,” said a tour guide, pointing to dug-up trenches and cut trees.

When The Standard visited the area, Kenya Defence Forces and Kenya Railways had begun unclogging tunnels in the area. 

“The government is lying about the number of those who died or were affected. I also know a number of junior Kenya Railways officials who called their bosses; it’s just that I don’t want to mention them,” said Karanja, adding, “Kenya Railways even sent people who saw the cracks and just left.”

Efforts to reach Kenya Railways for comment remained futile since a top official said that the team was “busy in Mombasa at a conference.”

As action was delayed, the tunnel continued to fill up with water owing to the heavy rains in the area. 

On Sunday, heavy rains in the area and the higher sides of Kinale continued to exert pressure on the blocked railway drainage.

One of the survivors, Peter Waweru, who lost his wife and two children said he managed to escape despite suffering a leg and hip fracture. He was carried by water currents for over two kilometres.

Waweru said local churches had warned worshippers of imminent danger during Sunday services as heavy rains persisted. The 54-year-old father of four said he was unable to rescue his children due to the force of the water.

On Sunday, at around 3am, the tunnel’s walls collapsed sending a deluge down the hilly area, engulfing hundreds of people and livestock below

A survivor, Jacob Murungu, who has only found one of his neighbours, said area administrators had warned them and informed Kenya Railways. 

Survivors painted a gory picture, saying some of those rescued had missing body parts while others died in the hands of the rescuers. 

“The pressure was too strong, raging waters wiped out farms, homes, cars and trees, leaving the place deserted and with nothing to show for life,” said Murungu.

According to a Kenya Forest Service ranger who sought anonymity, preliminary investigations show that the tunnel was more than 500 metres deep and over 900 metres long.

Amos Njihia, a survivor who lives just behind another bulging dam blocked by a Kenyan railway tunnel, said a few years ago, the railway team used to clean the tunnel, but as time went by, they stopped.

“We used to see them clean when we were growing up. The tunnel is inside the forest, and it’s hard for us to know what is happening, though we knew it had filled up,” said Amos Njihia.

He said they had to walk two and a half hours to access the tunnel.

“We could not supervise the dam, but rangers, children, and other people who managed to reach the dam kept informing us of the developments,” Njihia said.

But amidst the devastation, stories of resilience and solidarity emerge. The local community, aided by emergency services, has rallied together to search for residents whose whereabouts are still unknown.

At the Naivasha Sub-County Hospital Mary Muthoni, who lost eight family members, was in immense pain as she grappled with the events of Monday morning.

She recounted that over 15 family members, including minors, had gathered at her home in Ruiru village to raise funds for her son, who is in remand for an assault case. 

Mary described how she clung to a log and eventually swam to safety, where neighbours rescued her.

Another survivor, John Kinuthia, admitted hearing warnings from residents about the dangers posed by the dam upstream but dismissed them because they were not official. He said the people living in the low lands were kilometres away from the dam.