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A trip through old Kenya on the Nairobi-Mombasa train

The lunatic express

When he took the Nairobi-Mombasa train, Daniel Knowles saw a side of Kenya that is disappearing – which, in some ways, is just as well

When he took the Nairobi-Mombasa train, Daniel Knowles saw a side of Kenya that is disappearing – which, in some ways, is just as well

Daniel Knowles | August/September 2016

It is 3am in Nairobi’s central railway station and the staff on the night train to Mombasa are beginning to serve dinner. Why this is appropriate is unclear, but the train was due to leave seven hours ago and the staff seem determined to pretend it is on schedule. So, packed into the red-leather-lined first-class dining car, its ancient bakelite fans hanging idle from the ceiling, a battered photo of Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, beaming down on us, my travel companion and I pick at the early breakfast of beef stew, boiled greens and rice. It is all served on plates embossed with the logo of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, which was wound up in 1977.

From the moment I arrived in Kenya, I wanted to travel on the “Lunatic Express”, as the Nairobi to Mombasa railway is known. I love railways. Not as a trainspotter: I can hardly tell one locomotive from another. But railways open countries up in a way planes and buses can’t. I’ve travelled on old railways in Egypt, Morocco and Vietnam; in Burma, I convinced a girlfriend to share a second-class bench with me over the Gokteik viaduct, a single-span steel bridge across a vast gorge, allowing passengers to lean out of the window and look down into the abyss. None of this, however, prepared me for the old Uganda railway.

Rush hour
A queue forms at the ticket office

We were warned about the lateness, so we arrived at the railway station at 10pm, three hours after the train was meant to depart. We didn’t board the train for another four and a half hours, giving me time to wander the station. With its grey brick arches, its station master’s office, its printed timetables and the battered “Nairobi” sign, it all reminded me of Britain – not of the real, modern country but of a mythologised Britain, the Britain of “Brief Encounter”. We sat in the station bar drinking Tusker beers under a neon sign, and if you ignored the inexplicable pile of broken bathroom fittings it was almost romantic. In a city where almost everything is new, from the flash shopping malls to the luxury apartments and executive mansions sprouting out of every hill, anything old has a particular charm.

The history of modern Kenya starts with the railway. Sir Charles Eliot, the commissioner of British East Africa who presided over its construction, proclaimed after the task was completed that: “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” He was pompous but he wasn’t wrong. Without the train, Kenya – a colonial confection that brought together dozens of tribes in a territory drawn with a ruler on a map – would not have come into existence. Nairobi, a city which a century ago was little more than a few streets built around the station, would never have turned into much more than that.

When you look out of the train window, you feel like you are in an older Africa. Not the fake, packaged Africa of Land Rovers, lions and safari camps, but one far removed from the new highways, trilling mobile phones and palatial malls that cover the continent today. At 7am, I glanced out to see a slight mist hanging on scrubby fields. Young women tilled them, while their children massed on the embankment to watch the train go past. As I stuck my head out of the window, they shouted out: “Mzungu!”, or “white man”, and “How are you?” We would hear that a lot over the course of the day.

The line was born in the late 19th century, when European countries were engaged in an unsightly “scramble for Africa”. British officials were worried about German expansionism in Tanganyika (the mainland of what is now Tanzania) and French movements in Sudan. To protect British interests in Egypt, they wanted to seize control of the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria. The surest way to do this was to connect Britain’s territories on the Kenyan coast to the northern shore of the lake in modern-day Uganda. Tens of thousands of workers were recruited from India to start construction on the railway. Everything from sleepers through to loco­motives was shipped in from Britain. The line’s name was given to it by Charles Miller, who wrote its history – dozens of workers were eaten by a pair of man-eating lions.

This folly was so expensive – it cost some £5.5m, or almost £650m in today’s money – that the Foreign Office, at that point generally averse to settlers, invited Britons to move to Kenya. White commercial farmers, shuttling their produce to port, were the only hope for making the line profitable. Thus Kenya became one of Britain’s last settler colonies and Nairobi its new capital.

Dreaming of Mombasa

Down the red dirt track

Contemplating whether it would be quicker to walk

The legacy of imperialism lives on in Kenya. When I first arrived in the country I found myself surprised by how noticeable it is, for little in Nairobi dates from the colonial era. The city centre is a planned, 1970s affair, and most of its suburbs have been built since then. But turn on the radio and you hear that the Flying Squad has busted a robbery, the CID is investigating a murder and Parliament has gazetted a new law, all in carefully enunciated English full of delightful archaisms. Schools put their children through A-levels, there are plenty of Anglican churches and everyone drinks their tea with milk and huge ladings of sugar. Even the typography and colour of the road signs are the same as Britain’s.

The role of the railway in this legacy is largely forgotten – indeed, so too is the railway. The rich in Kenya travel by plane or helicopter, or in black Land Cruisers with tinted windows. The poor squeeze into matatu minibuses which travel vast distances for peanuts – when they do not crash in headlong collisions or get hijacked by armed robbers. My Kenyan friends reacted with astonishment when I told them of my plan to take the train to the coast. That is because almost nobody does it. On our train, there were no more than 50 passengers – about a dozen in first class, and perhaps three times as many in second and third class.

In first class, there was Massawa, a sixty-something Eritrean exile who makes a living bottling water in South Sudan, and his daughter; Dietert Bernaers, a Belgian reporter with his wife and small son; a group of Kenyan schoolchildren; a German engineer and us. With the possible exception of the schoolgirls, we were all there for the adventure – first-class tickets cost only a little less than a flight. In second class, there were only four passengers, and they weren’t particularly talkative. The third-class passengers were traders who like the train because they can carry lots with them and ordinary Kenyans who take it because at just 675 shillings (a little under $7), it is still the cheapest way to get to the coast.

The passengers were united by the delays. In first class, Massawa moaned, sitting with his legs dangling out of the open door as we meandered through Tsavo national park. “I used to take this train in the early 1990s. In the old days, it started at 7pm and it arrived in Mombasa at seven in the morning. Now it is taking the whole day. You have wasted a whole day. It is rubbish. It is a disaster.” In third class, Leakey Miano, a farmer from Nyeri, was equally unhappy. “The traffic superintendent should answer why it is late,” he exclaimed, glancing angrily at an attendant. Later, when the train had stopped, he clambered down onto the tracks with his eight-year-old son, Roland, and strode towards the locomotive to demand redress. Having unwisely believed the schedule, he and his son hadn’t eaten since the previous evening.

My companion and I, who had been warned of what to expect, were in a mood to enjoy the view. A group of five elephants paraded in majestic formation, as red as the earth they walked on. A little later, a group of zebras huddled on the track opposite. Baobab and acacia trees punctuated the endless bush; on the horizon, sudden mountains loomed. That view – both scrubby and ineffably glamorous – is the essence of old Kenya, as was the stew of rice and lumps of meat, indistinguishable from dinner, that was served up for lunch.

But the train no longer crawls through the plain on its own. A new track, mounted on huge concrete pillars that stretch into the horizon, runs alongside the old one. At one point we passed a supply train with Chinese characters on its side, a Chinese worker in a straw hat sucking a cigarette in the cabin. And suddenly the new Africa jumped back into the picture.

This corridor ain’t big enough for the both of us

Breakfast in the blaze of noon

A lot of Kenyans are excited by the new line, which is to be President Kenyatta’s crowning achievement, but the workers on the old train are not among them. “We do not think of it,” said Douglas, as he took away the bedding from the bunks in the late afternoon. “For us, this is the train.” Certainly, the new railway will run differently – unlike the old one, it ought to be able to get from Nairobi to Mombasa in just three or four hours, enough to make several trips a day. But it is reasonable for people who work on the old railway to fear the new one; the jobs on it may be fewer, and they may require skills that the current staff do not possess.

The new railway will be more expensive than the old one, but it may at least work. As our train neared Mombasa, it stopped about ten miles outside the city for several hours. Our sweltering compartment was filled with tinny music from a nearby bar. Mosquitoes buzzed through the open windows. Douglas was optimistic about our progress, but we stopped repeatedly, and the final few miles took almost two hours. The other passengers sat and looked out of the window. I curled up reading a book, quietly swearing every time we stopped. We arrived, finally, 24 hours after boarding.

An executive from a big hotel I met shortly after our trip told me that his firm has developed a plan to reboot the old railway as an “African Orient Express”. Customers would start at his hotel and, after a tour of historical Nairobi, they would be dispatched overnight. “They would wake up for a glorious breakfast in Tsavo and go for a safari, then to Mombasa, then back on a first-class flight.” I’m sure they would have a great experience, but I doubt it would be as memorable as our journey through the heart of old Kenya.

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