bedtime in Mombasa, and the trade winds from the Indian Ocean draw a thick
quilt of cloud over the sleeping town.
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.
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.
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
For all of
its silliness and excess, Roosevelt’s expedition kick-started the world’s love
affair with safari and its seductive cocktail of luxury and danger. It inspired
a generation of smooth-talking European aristocrats and grizzled American
pioneers to look upon East Africa as a playground – a wilderness in which to
set about importing the trappings of Western life.
American inspired by Roosevelt was Charlie Cottar – an Iowan maverick who
envisioned East Africa as a new Wild West, and decided to found his own safari
service here in 1919. Cottar’s Safaris were among the first to bring
photographic equipment to the bush, the first to bring cars on safari and the
first to dredge these cars out of the sea when the ship carrying them sank off
Our plane dips
below the clouds and grinds to a halt at an airstrip near Cottar’s Camp – a
cluster of tents on the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where
Charlie’s great-grandson runs what’s now Africa’s oldest safari business.
those guys were nuts,’ says Calvin Cottar, gesturing at a portrait of his
great-grandfather mounted on the canvas wall of the tent. ‘They’d do anything
to collect scars.’
recounts stories of Charlie’s experiments in the early days of safari – from
lassoing almost every beast in the bush, including a lion, to his colleagues
forming a conga line in a bid to creep up on confused animals. The safari
business has grown up somewhat in the years since, but the lavish traditions of
Roosevelt’s era are preserved at Cottar’s Camp. Scattered about our tents are
antiques: Persian rugs, pith helmets, four-poster beds, and gramophones that
crackle and squeak to the accompaniment of the chirping crickets outside.
through an old scrapbook and happen across an article by Charlie Cottar,
bragging of his antics: ‘Three times I was mauled by leopards, stomped on by
elephants, to say nothing of minor brushes with lesser species. If you keep on
taking chances, sooner or later some wild thing will get you.’ Sure enough,
Charlie Cottar was killed by a charging rhino close to this camp in 1940.
Having managed to discharge a fatal gunshot before it hit him, Charlie and the
rhino died side by side.
a dangerous animal behind every corner,’ Calvin tells me, watching clouds gathering
on the horizon. ‘There’s something special about living at the edge of human
existence. This is a place where you could walk off on your own in any
direction and you’d be guaranteed to be shit-scared within half an hour.’
more than half an hour later, we are driving through the Cottar’s Concession –
a stretch of crumpled green hills on the edge of the Maasai Mara, where lions,
leopards and elephants roam freely.
of wild mint hangs in the air as we pass dusky ravines where baboons swing from
the fig trees, swerving past brilliant white bones stripped of flesh by
vultures. Here, Mother Nature goes about her business on a blockbuster scale –
insects built like tanks on wings buzz past and mammals leave dinosaur-size
footprints in their wake. It is the same wild landscape early safari-goers
some things you see here that you can’t explain,’ says my guide, Douglas Nagi –
a man so accustomed to the bush he was once bitten by a poisonous snake and
didn’t notice until days later. ‘One time I saw a leopard fighting a
reticulated python for two hours for an antelope carcass. If I had put it on
YouTube I’d be famous by now.’
in Roosevelt and Charlie Cottar’s time, stories about dangerous animals are
treated as badges of honour in the bush – but often it’s the less likely
goings-on that catch the eye. I glimpse an African wildcat – a creature that
looks like a domestic moggy that has mistakenly wandered from the suburbs into
the savannah – scampering off into the distance. I spot a solitary wildebeest
in the midst of a herd of bulky eland antelope. ‘A wildebeest with an identity
crisis,’ Douglas nods sagely.
there is some spectacle unfurling in the bush – part of some vast, never-ending
drama of which safari-goers only ever catch the slightest snippet. Lumbering
over a fold in the hillside comes a herd of elephants – their combined weight
equalling that of an airliner – quietly and solemnly plodding past our vehicle.
With their masses of crinkly skin, they seem like prehistoric impostors in the
savannah – ‘some odd grim straggler from the Stone Age,’ as Churchill once put
it during his travels aboard the Lunatic Express.
climbs to the crest of one hill, where Douglas spies a lioness guarding a
giraffe carcass from a mob of vultures. Having hunted the creature the previous
night, her pride will return to dine out on their kill – but as she turns her
back, the vultures shuffle forward and peck surreptitiously at the carcass.
Suddenly, the lioness turns and lunges at the birds, swiping speculatively into
a flurry of feathers, landing her paw right on top of one squawking vulture.
big cat charging at such close range seems to trip some forgotten switch in
your DNA – some reflex inherited from distant ancestors that quickens the pulse
and sends a shiver down the spine. Primeval thrills like these are increasingly
hard to come by in Kenya. In the century since the days of Roosevelt, big game
populations have nosedived across the continent, and this region counts among
the last wild pockets left in the country. Rhinos that would, in another time,
have charged at the Lunatic Express are threatened with extinction; some
predict that lions could disappear from Kenya in a few decades.
The role that
the first safari expeditions have played in this tragedy is complicated. They
were accomplices in colonialism, and helped engender the complacency that has
brought destruction to big game populations across Africa. Yet the story of
these expeditions remains a compelling one. These were some of the first times
that outsiders witnessed the majesty of the continent’s wildlife. They would
also be among the last times when humans were confronted by a land where
creatures more powerful than themselves were sovereign.
to camp, where the earth takes on a rich caramel hue in the sunset. Soon the
night air rings with the notes of swooning birds and the thuds of mammals
plodding about nearby. Having heard stories of the Tsavo man-eaters, it’s
difficult to lie in bed without calculating the odds of some claw slicing
through the canvas of my tent, or to mentally rehearse jabbing at an intruding
beast with the nearest available piece of furniture.
arrives, but the soundtrack of the bush plays on outside the tent as it has
done for time immemorial. Out of earshot nearby, lions will be grunting,
baboons barking and elephants busy demolishing a tree. And somewhere far away
from here, intermingled with this racket, is the whistle of the Lunatic Express,
rattling on regardless into the night.
The article 'East Africa's best kept secret' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.