East Africa’s best kept secret
An African elephant journeys through the grasslands of Amboseli National Park. (BBC)
It is bedtime in Mombasa, and the trade winds from the Indian Ocean draw a thick quilt of cloud over the sleeping town.
At Mombasa station, however, the overnight train to Nairobi is already several hours late. On the platform, a solitary busker sings songs from The Lion King to bored passengers and a cat snoozes under a stack of luggage. The stationmaster checks the time as he sips on a cup of milky tea, but anyone could be forgiven for supposing he is waiting for a train that departed decades ago. All around us are bare timetable boards and iron rails swallowed up by long grass.
Then something stirs – from the gloom ahead comes a rasping whistle that startles the cat, drowns out Hakunah Matata and causes the stationmaster to splutter his tea. Rattling out from the darkness comes the train from Nairobi, a legendary service known to some as the Kenya–Uganda Railway, to others as the Iron Snake, but most famously as the Lunatic Express.
Now part of Kenya’s railway network, it was this line that helped create our modern concept of safari, a means for wealthy Westerners to be whisked away from the African coast and into the continent’s interior. Opened in 1901, the Lunatic Express earned its nickname carrying a cast of swaggering aristocrats, scoundrels and hunters of suicidal daring – a generation to whom the railway was a ticket to a land of infinite adventure.
Though the history of the line is intertwined with the ugliness of colonial exploitation and the bygone era of big-game hunting, passengers on the Lunatic Express sought the same kicks that safari-goers in Kenya look to experience today. They craved Africa’s wide-open spaces – the adrenaline rush of a land where human beings are still part of the food chain.
‘You can see why they called it the Lunatic Express,’ says John the stationmaster, sipping on a second cup of tea. ‘If they came all the way from Europe to build this railway through the bush, then they must have been mad!’
The construction of the line was celebrated as a feat of daredevil engineering by Kenya’s British colonists. Rhinos charged the locomotives and giraffes chewed on the telegraph lines. A century on – with much of the dense bush that the line once traversed now tamed – a sense of the wildness of the Lunatic Express survives. Leaning out of the window can still mean being rewarded with a mouthful of tropical foliage. And animals still periodically blockade the track, leaving the driver little choice but to stop the train, get out and chase them off with a big stick.
Finally, our train heaves out of the station and past the creeks of Mombasa Island, belching out plumes of thick smoke as we swoop around shanty towns where corrugated iron roofs glisten in the rain, and ditches where frogs croak in the darkness. Carriages beat out chaotic time signatures as we jolt over the rails – a medley of slamming doors and creaking joints.
The bumpier stages of the line can induce a mild seasickness – in the early days of the Lunatic Express, passengers were advised to remove their false teeth before travelling. No such announcement is made on the train today, but some old-world pomp lingers. Passengers travelling first-class are politely summoned into a dining car, where a portrait of the Kenyan president grins down at white linen-covered tables, while attendants shuffle dutifully about the corridors, dispensing blankets stamped with faded Kenya Railways logos.
The glow of Mombasa fades into the night behind us as our train clatters past derelict signal boxes and a decaying station lit by the feeble light of a paraffin lamp. Eventually we approach the bridge that crosses the Tsavo River – the site of the grisliest chapter in the construction of the railway. A century ago, a pair of man-eating lions stalked in the darkness outside my cabin window – snatching construction workers sleeping in their tents, claiming as many as 100 victims in just a few months.