One of the last journeys on The Lunatic Express

Mark Walker recalls one of the last journeys on the Lunatic Express.

The Lunatic Express
The "Lunatic Express". Photo: Mark Walker ©MWPhotography

A lot of friends have said I am on the fringe of lunacy at times , especially when I am telling them of a proposed solo travel plan.

“What you must be off your head!”

“Are you going on one of your crazy long train journeys again?”

“Do you enjoy being a masochist?”

These are only a few of the more polite things that have been said to me about my adventuring spirit and my wanting to be one of the last passengers that shall board

“The Lunatic Express”

The Lunatic Express is the nick name given to the railway line that ran, originally from Mombasa on the Swahili Indian Ocean coast of Kenya right the way through to Kampala Uganda near the shores of Lake Victoria.

It was a grand imperialistic project which courted much criticism, even in the British parliament of the time.

In 1896, Henry Du Pré Labouchère a Liberal M.P. was quoted as saying:

“The railway starts from nowhere and nobody wants to use it. It goes nowhere and nobody wants to come back by it !!”

Rain , rain , go away and don’t come back for another day !!

This old rhyme was going through my head as I looked out of my Mombasa hotel window to the flooded streets below.

It was early May and right in the middle of the rainy season but the journey must be made as I was leaving Kenya from Nairobi in a few days time ,coming at the end of a three month personal journey through Tanzania and Kenya which covered over 5,000 miles, all by ground transportation.

Bajaji Tuk Tuk
Getting to the Bajaji (Tuk Tuk) was tricky with the rising water level. Photo; Mark Walker

Even getting to the Bajaji (a 3 wheeled motorcyle derived taxi) was a challenge as the water came up over the pavements and almost to the hotel doors…go, go, go, I said to myself as I got drenched just trying to open the flimsy door of my 3 wheeled carriage while holding an umbrella and not stepping down a drain.

I knew not to expect a super modern station but this really was “The end of the Line“ — an ancient building in a derelict yard leading to a few dusty and weed strewn platforms, was not what I had expected to see.

This journey after all is often described as a must on a railway enthusiasts bucket list.

Railway Shop
Railway Shop. Photo: Mark Walker

The Kenyan railway system is undergoing a complete transformation from being unkept, underfunded and decrepit to modern, fast and comfortable.

From 2017 a new Chinese built and financed railway shall let you travel at speeds up to 120mph through Tsavo National Park on its way to the Kenyan Capital and later ,on to Uganda , Rwanda and South Sudan.

I was advised to arrive at least 45 minutes before the scheduled departure hour, in reality the old train left 2 hours late into the dusky Mombasa night and was to arrive in Nairobi late evening the following day, not mid morning as advertised. So travelers are well advised not to have any forward travel arrangements or international flights booked for that day.

The carriages had all seen better days, I suspect they were British Rail castoffs from the 1970’s, as I remember the old narrow corridor sleeper trains that ran from my home town of Edinburgh down to London. Two middle aged people my size would find it hard to pass each other.

I needn’t have worried about having to squeeze past anyone, as I was the only Caucasian mad enough to have booked a “First Class” journey on this ghost train.

Lunatic Express First Class
“First Class” travel on the Lunatic Express. Photo: Mark Walker

To call the sleeper First Class is a misnomer but the cabin attendants were pleasant, friendly and kind, telling me I could use two compartments to myself as I was the only person traveling in this manner. There is an upper and lower bunk in each, along with a small sink, which had a strong smell of disinfectant. I was told some travelers can’t be bothered with the walk to the loo during the middle of the night so pee in the sink. It may be preferable to using the onboard rank smelling facilities at the end of each carriage. Water was scarce and the toilet stopped flushing half way through the journey long before the tanks were replenished at one of the larger stations.

Tourist and business travelers must be few and far between as there was only two first class sleeper carriages on the whole train, which consisted of about 12 carriages in total.

The sleeper ticket package including Dinner, Breakfast and Bedding costs approx 55usd.

There are too other means of travel, second class 4 berth sleepers and also second class unreserved seating , which involves sitting on fairly uncomfortable seats in very crowded compartments. Many folks have no choice due to poverty and have to endure such a journey.

Dinner was calling, so I made my way through to the Dining Car.

A relic from the past, with formica covered walls and tables set with off white stained linen and colonial style crockery.

The menu was also typically British and would have made any pith hat wearing racist feel very comfortable.

Breakfast on the Lunatic Express
Fruit salad on board the Lunatic Express. Photo: Mark Walker

Brown windsor soup, beef, potatoes and over cooked vegetables followed by fruit salad.

I had nothing better to do than eat the acceptable 3 course meal, wash it down with a few bottles of Tusker lager and head back along the shaking, rattling corridors to read a Paul Theroux travel book, a great companion on such a journey.

Mombasa is only 59 feet above sea level with Nairobi being over 5,000 feet, so this old slow train sometimes has it’s work cut out climbing up some steep inclines.

The Lunatic Express
The Lunatic Express. Photo: Mark Walker

The passing scenery is spectacular, even if I did not see much wildlife on this particular trip.

Lunatic Express
Photo: Mark Walker

The horizons are vast, during day light it is fascinating to watch the day to day life of the farmers tending to their shambas (name in swahili given to small piece of family owned land used for cultivation).

You also get a good if often noisy view of the new fast line that is being constructed in parallel with the old one. I momentarily wished at times I was on a new fast, sanitized journey and not enduring the snails pace of this one.

The Lunatic Express
Photo: Mark Walker

The moonlit night air is cool, the sky so full of stars that makes you want to try and count each one.

The Lunatic Express
Photo: Mark Walker

The many baobob trees can look really eerie, local folklore says it is the upside down tree and that spirits live within it’s branches.

Baobob Tree
A baobob tree. Photo: Mark Walker

There is always something very soporific about lying in bed in a sleeper train so i tuned in to the noise of the tracks and the engine.

I barely read 20 pages of Dark Star Safari before my eyes closed.

I was rudely awaken by the sound of banging metal as the train pulled into a station siding. The morning sun was cool and the horizons vast. I got out and walked along the grass to the platform thinking we were somewhere near Nairobi — nope we were only at Voi.

Voi is almost at the middle of the journey and it used to act as a major junction for the now defunct line down to Moshi in Tanzania.

School children ran beside the slow train to see if they could keep up with it.

Children running by side of Lunatic Express
Children running to keep up with the train. Photo: Mark Walker

The fact that freight traffic takes precedent over passenger trains was the reason given for the long delay.

Chinese engineering expertise is being used to complete the new railway.

Even the welfare of wild animals is taken into serious consideration as the line has to pass through Tsavo National park.

The track shall be elevated to go above and not through the natural water holes and migration routes., not only being environmentally friendly but also allowing travelers spectacular views of wildlife at the right time of year.

I noticed that many of the passengers seemed to know each other , soon realising that the majority were in fact staff off Rift Valley Railways who now run the service on behalf of Kenya Railways.

When I am on a journey like this it can be either amusing or irritating if i am the only caucasian.

Amusing when people ask me questions like “ How many cattle do I have ?”

Irritating when they say “Heh Mzungo”, which means ‘White Man’ in Swahili.”How about buying me another beer?“

I found it best to leave the bar/dining car shortly after dinner other wise things can get a bit raucous.

Inside the Lunatic Express
Photo: Mark Walker

At about 6pm on the second day, I built up courage to ask the question, “Are we nearly there yet ?“ To which the reply was “ yes Sir, soon, soon.“

Power for charging phones was only available for a few hours, my battery was nearly dead and I had a hotel booked near Nairobi station that I could not contact.

This was indeed a journey that is well nicknamed, eventually arriving very late around 10pm.

I managed to borrow a phone, contacted the hotel and they sent a member of staff down to the station to accompany me through the mud, rain and puddles the few hundred yards to the Karibu Hotel. Karibu in Swahili means welcome.

If i had seen the hotel in daylight I would have probably walked straight out again and found another but I badly needed to eat , shower and sleep.

The restaurant was closing in 30 minutes, it was dark and dingy, reminding me of a 1970’s Scottish pub and had the same smell, greasy food mixed with lavatory cleaner. By this time I was hungry so I would have eaten a scabby horse, unfortunately they only had day old fried chicken and chips on the menu.

I gulped this down with a mug of strong milk tea, as if I had lingered the staff may have switched all the lights off and gone home.

My room was small, though the bed was comfortable and the shower hot.

This was the end of my train journey to Nairobi but tomorrow would bring the beginning of a new day and much more to explore and write about.