East Africa’s best kept secret
The wind whips ominously about the cabin windows as I peer into the gloom outside, but nothing stirs. The stuffed remains of the Tsavo man-eaters, which were eventually tracked down and killed, now growl at school parties in a Chicago museum. Yet theirs weren’t to be the last instances of lion attacks on the Lunatic Express. A few years later, a British hunter turned pest control vigilante named Charles Ryall set out to exterminate the ‘Kima Killer’ – a lion that had been scaling station rooftops to swipe at the humans inside. Lying in wait in a railway carriage, Ryall dozed off with his rifle on his lap – only for the lion to climb on board the carriage and maul the slumbering hunter to death.
Ryall’s remains were buried at a railway depot named Nairobi, now Kenya’s capital, where trainspotter David Gitundu is one of few visitors to his grave.
‘The tribes who lived in this region didn’t like the railway being built through their land,’ he explains after we arrive in Nairobi the following morning. ‘They believed that man-eating lions were possessed by the spirits of their ancestors – and they were returning to destroy the Iron Snake.’
Born in the yard of Nairobi railway station, David spent his childhood climbing trackside trees to get a better view of the engines; now he sits on the platform selling postcards of steam engines to curious passengers. He grumbles about the state of the line today – as Kenya’s road network has expanded, fewer train services run. I am directed to Nairobi’s Railway Museum where, among rusting locomotives, the carriage where Ryall was mauled is parked near a row of cherry blossom trees.
There are other strange relics from the history of the Lunatic Express on display in the museum – and none stranger than a park bench mounted on the front of an engine, from which passengers spotted wildlife as they passed through the countryside. Graced by famous buttocks including those of Winston Churchill and Edward VIII, the bench carries a discreet notice stating that the authorities ‘will not be liable for personal injury (fatal or otherwise)’.
I ask the desk attendant if she can tell me more about the man-eating lions of the Lunatic Express. She smiles coyly, before rooting around in drawers full of paperwork to produce a small, plastic container.
‘Don’t be scared,’ she says, opening it to reveal the claws of the Tsavo man-eaters – the same claws that tore through the flesh of scores of men.
Despite the best efforts of fearsome lions, it was at the end of the railway line where the first safaris really got going – and no safari was more infamous than that of Theodore Roosevelt. Not one for a quiet retirement, in late 1909 the former American president disembarked the Lunatic Express near Nairobi and marched off into the wilderness with a small army of servants in tow. To Roosevelt, safari meant big-game hunting, and he set out to shoot almost every species in East Africa, diligently noting their sizes and weights, speculating on their relative abilities to kill humans and occasionally remarking on how tasty they were to eat. After a hard day dodging charging animals, Roosevelt was determined not to sacrifice home comforts. Thus, scores of hapless porters slogged across swamps and savannah, carrying everything from a bathtub to a library for the president to peruse at his leisure.
I board a propeller plane heading east from Nairobi, and the territory where Roosevelt and his expedition once roamed rolls out beneath. From high up in the air, the African landscape looks like the scene of metaphysical drama. Grey columns of rain shift imperiously across the rusty brown earth as slanting towers of sunlight break through the clouds. Beyond the starboard wing are the hills of the Great Rift Valley, stretching northwards to the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, to the south is Kilimanjaro, rising abruptly from flat plains – as if K2 had been transplanted to the middle of East Anglia.