The Lunatic Express

April 26, 2016

** NO LONGER OPERATING AS OF APRIL 2017 **  The route from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and the economic hub of East Africa to Mombasa, Kenya's port town on the Indian Ocean is 330 miles long and traverses through two National Parks: Tsavo East and Tsavo West. The epic 18 hour journey on-board the Lunatic Express, famously named by Charles Miller in his 1971 book "The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism" where he described the challenges faced during the construction of the Uganda Railway is an incredible journey deep through the African savanna. It is worth keeping your eyes fully peeled open as sighting game is a real possibility within Tsavo East and West National Parks. 

 

 

The construction of the railway began in 1896, reaching Nairobi in 1899 after being plagued by untold misfortune; diseases, drought and most infamously man eating lions. Until this time the city of Nairobi was a vast area of swampland, however today it is a sprawling metropolis home to Kenya's business district and over 3 million inhabitants. The railway line itself continues to Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria but sadly no passenger trains have operated past Nairobi towards Kisumu since 2012.

 

At the western end of Nairobi station, a small railway museum displays a range of steam locomotives, carriages and railway memorabilia from the days of the Ugandan Railways. Hidden among the collection is a grey wooden coach from where, in June 1900, railway superintendent Charles Henry Ryall was savagely attacked and killed by a lion he had come to hunt. The carriage was preserved as a reminder of the hardship that the railway staff had endured.

 

Nairobi railway museum

 

My Story

 

We arrived Nairobi railway station early, as advised by our tour operator and found a fenced off bar on platform 1. I can't say much for the food selection but we quickly settled down with an ice cold Tusker and made conversation with a group of travellers from Austria. The station was noisy, bursting with commuters all heading home on one of the occasional, dilapidated local train carriages after a long day at work. The station platform had a strange familiar and welcoming feel. It was like stepping back in time to the days of British Rail with antique like memorabilia still in everyday use.

 

 

Our mood remained positive even as the clock ticked past 19:00 without even a glimpse of the Lunatic Express. More time passed by and soon it was 23:00; the bar was empty except for the few foreigners also insane enough to consider travelling to Mombasa by train. Suddenly, out of the blue, without any warning all the station lights were switched off and the music which had been playing in the background went silent. It was clear that the staff had gone home and we had been forgotten. It became eerily quiet and pitch black dark.

 

 

Having sat in darkness for an hour, the sound of a distant train horn gave us a glimmer of hope. A few minutes later, the inbound Lunatic Express rolled into the station with the carriages clanging and banging as the train screeched to a halt. It had arrived 14 hours late. The weary travellers disembarked and disappeared into the night. It was finally our turn to experience an African railway adventure and I eagerly climbed aboard coach 1217 and found cabin 'D' - our home for the next 24 hours. 

 

Having expected to have dinner at around 21:00, and being totally unprepared for  such a long delay we were delighted to be informed that dinner was to be served in the dinning car. It was a simple yet satisfying meal. We didn't hang around long though and quickly retired to our 2-berth sleeping compartment for a night of rocking to-and-fro, with the distinctive clackity clack sound as the train departed Nairobi 7 hours late.  

 

 

Waking up in the morning to the African Savannah was spectacular. I spent the morning gazing, leaning or just merely looking out of the train window at the beautiful open landscape. Due to late running of the service, the train passed Tsavo East National Park during late afternoon and my dream of sighting wild animals came true - Zebra, Elephant and Giraffe all occasionally appeared from the bush as the train gently rolled along towards Mombasa. 

 

The highlight of my trip though was an unexpected cab ride with the driver and second man. I had introduced myself to train steward half hour earlier and talked about my railway job back home in England. At the next stop, also the crew changeover point half way to Mombasa, the train steward introduced me to Driver Edward and second man Isaac. They both welcomed me into the driving cab of train 9302, a General Electric locomotive, type U26C built around 1977 and explained the mechanics of diesel locomotives and the principles of route clearance along the route. For the next 6 hours, I watched as the drivers carefully adhered to the tedious amounts of 20 kph speed restrictions around bends and over worn out track sections. At Voi station, I thanked Edward and Isaac, climbed down and rejoined the rest of the passengers. 

 

 

It was another six hours before we finally arrived Mombasa at midnight, after what felt like forever broken promises since leaving Voi station at 18:00. First it was supposed to take 2 hours, then 3 hours, then 4... but at least we arrived, albeit 14 hours late. The station was full of taxi drivers but thankfully, Ruben, a family friend of a colleague from work whisked us away in his clean, new car. An hour later we arrived Diani Beach - a stark contrast to the previous 24 hours. 

 

Timetable

 

From Nairobi Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 19:00 arriving at 10:00

From Mombasa Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 19:00 arriving at 10:00

 

*Our train actually departed at 02:00 arriving the following night at midnight (14 hours late)

 

Ticket cost

 

One-way 1st class (2-person compartment) US$60 - includes dinner, breakfast and bedding

One-way 2nd class (4-person compartment) US$45 - includes dinner, breakfast and bedding

 

 

Suggested Links

 

East Africa Shuttles - www.eastafricashuttles.com

Seat 61 - www.Seat61.com

 

Photo Journal

 

 

 

There are always more photos to be shared, but sharing them all on this journal page will just make it look cluttered so if you want to see more photos for inspiration, check out my Flickr "2016 - Kenya" album.

 

Previous: I Kissed a Giraffe (Giraffe Center, Nairobi) – Wednesday 27th April…

Next: Diani Beach – Friday 29th April…

 

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