Riding the Lunatic Express: through Kenya by train

by hubris

Overland travel in Africa need not involve dusty trails or tightly packed buses. Kenya has maintained its rail network meticulously for 40 years and it acts as a living museum piece today

It can feel as though are fewer miles of rail in the whole of Africa than in London alone, and most of what exists has been decimated by economic decline or gaudy concessions to tourism. So for the train buff, Kenya presents an arresting opportunity.

The train line from the Kenyan Port of Mombassa once ran all the way to Kasese in the extreme west of Uganda, and was laid by the British to act as a lifeline into the heart of one-time "British East Africa". The Lunatic Express (so called because of a contemporary satirical poem by an MP opposed to the development) acts as a living, breathing museum piece.

Kisumu

Today, the journey begins in Kisumu, a delightful town on the shores of Lake Victoria with whitewashed colonial facades and rolling boulevards. It feels no less tiny for being Kenya’s third largest city. Stay in one of the small hotels in the centre of the city (The New Victoria Hotel is within walking distance of the train station and the shore of Lake Victoria, where you can eat fried fish and drink Nile beer) and you can walk out in any direction to soak up the charms of this easily digested city.

Remarkably, when we arrive at the station (which resembles one from 1960s Britain and initially seems as dormant as a seaside hotel in January) we are met by a man in green overalls who attentively whips up two first class tickets, receipts for dinner and an enormous helpful grin, all of which while doing long multiplication under his breath.

All aboard

Our first journey is the Kisumu-Nairobi section, on which we are the only tourists and the only people riding 1st class. We eat in a dimly lit dining car with one be-clothed table and antique silverware. When the meal comes, it is stodgy but characterful, and the crockery and cutlery are variously labelled by the historic appellations (British East African Railways, Kenya Rail etc) that mark the periods through which the network has operated.

The entire ride is like stepping back to a day when British colonialists thought nothing of announcing dinner with a four chime glockenspiel and riding on the front of the engine on a specially designed wooden bench to spot the giraffes. The existing carriages are a shadow of their former selves, but the sense that one is travelling non-stop to 1962 is very potent.

It is the antics of the jokers involved in building the railway that make it so much fun. Imagine if you will one Harry Ryall who, on hearing of a pesky lion that had been eating the engineers building the track, decided he should put his hunting experience into service. He had a special carriage set up and rode it out into the dark East African wilderness. His plan was to stay up all night with his gun, and shoot the now notorious animal when it came to investigate.

Only, he fell asleep.

Nairobi

The carriage where Ryall was dragged out by his throat and devoured is now on display at the Nairobi Train Museum just a short walk from the capital’s central station. It marks the halfway point of the line and is more lovingly, meticulously maintained than any other establishment in town. You can walk through ancient, gently rotting carriages in the warm African air and examine the delicately handcrafted engineering plans resting beneath glass inside. The budget traveller’s choices have diminished over the years but the Iqbal Hotel is a comfortable and central affair with a laid back approach and communal areas that encourage the sharing of tales and tips.

The Nairobi-Mombasa section of the railway is so full of mzungus (a Swahili word for wealthy white foreigner that is applied regardless of actual financial status) that the train team has to run two sittings at dinner. This is the popular chunk of the journey, although restricting yourself to half of the functional line seems sad, both for reasons of completeness and because of the intoxicating sense of isolation generated by being the only non-African traveller aboard the first leg.

Mombasa

This part of the journey represents a significant drop in altitude, so as you wake up, you notice a distinct increase in heat and humidity. For the first time, disembarking feels decidedly appealing. Savannahs flick past the window, populated by giraffes and zebras, a thrilling free glimpse of the kind of game that is increasingly associated with expensive safari packages. Then the slow roll into Mombasa, and arrival at a terminus that is just a short tuk tuk ride away from the azure blues of the Indian Ocean.

Cross on the short Likoni ferry ride to a stretch of coast south of the main city and you can retreat to the affordable but positively luxurious Twiga Lodge. This secluded complex of chalets and sea-facing rooms allows the visitor to drift across white sand into a bath warm sea among gently drifting palms. Within minutes of arriving you will have forgotten the attendant strains of negotiating foreign transport systems and busy African cities and be ready to settle into a place so captivating you may never leave.