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All aboard the lunatic express

I secretly wished the train I was rushing to catch would leave without me.

I’ll admit it: I was scared.

I was navigating through the streets of Nairobi at rush hour, weaving through people and cars and intersections, somewhat nervous that I’d miss this train to Mombasa for what I hoped would be a relaxing long weekend on that city’s beach. But that hazy late afternoon, I was mostly hoping it would leave me in a trail of Nairobi’s dust.

When I finally made it to the Nairobi Railway Station, I had to step back and seriously consider reconsidering this trip to the coast.

I’m no worrywart, but as I boarded car number 2301, my heart pounded a little harder and I almost broke a sweat.

This was no ordinary train ride.

This was a train with a complicated past; a train where ghost stories are born. I was about to board what author Charles Miller dubbed the Lunatic Express – the 13 hour, 530 km Nairobi-Mombasa overnight train ride.

I decided to travel by train in the first place, in spite of its not-so-appealing nickname and sordid history, to avoid the expense I would incur from flying to the coastal city. In the process, I would put the rumours behind this colonial vestige to the test.

The train’s reputation has been soured since its construction in the late 19th century. Scores of Indians who were brought to East Africa to build the rail line along with many of their African coworkers were mauled by lions in the process (Man Eater’s, a junction about 300 km south east of Nairobi, is named in their memory). Some of the British engineers commissioned to build the rail line also weren’t spared. A major derailment in 1999 contributed to the bad rep.

Kenyan colleagues of mine were a little concerned when I told them I was traveling southeast by train. The train would crash, they quipped (or warned), as it slithered its way down the heights of Nairobi on endlessly curvy rail tracks to sea level. They said the brakes would give and, after loosing control on the last winding turn down the Kenyan highlands, the train would derail. Then, hyenas prowling the backcountry would attack, savagely chomping my bones to bits. Or maybe elephants crossing would use my fellow unfortunate passengers and I as doormats. Right.

Clearly, none of these worst case scenarios occurred. The train to Mombasa is memorable not for its rare misfortunes but for the unique traveling experience it provided. You just have to be open-minded about it all.

The thrice-weekly coach leaves Nairobi at 7 p.m., as the last glimmer of the hot sun disappears and dusk sets in. I watched Nairobi’s lights grow dim behind me as the train slowly slid its way out of town. Instantly, the bright stars above Africa became apparent.

Immediately after the train choo-chooed for the first time after departing, I joined most of the train’s passengers in popping our heads out of the car windows, to view the starry light show that continued uninterrupted for hundreds of kilometres – there are no city lights on the route to interfere.

The air was fresh and surprisingly I was relieved – I hadn’t left Nairobi since my arrival in Kenya and needed a break from the city. Astonishingly, this was it.

While the train probably doesn’t have the same elegance and luxurious feel it did before Kenya gained independence, it retains some of its colonial flavour. For one, the railway station seems to have been left untouched since colonial times. There are no automated ticket machines: tickets are written out and stamped by hand.

The locomotive might well also have been left untouched from British rule. It chugs forward so slowly that today’s bullet trains seem light years away. A traveler seeking a quick and smooth ride should stay off the Lunatic Express. The train jerks and jumps slightly throughout the trip, but can become more of a soothing rocking motion as the trip goes on – if you’re open minded, it’s all part of the adventure.

The beds are a little hard, but bedding is provided and does the trick.

And no doubt, the half-day ride was lengthy. Sitting for that long in a dimly lit sleeper car isn’t for everyone. But if you value good conversation and are lucky enough to have entertaining travel companions, the ride flies by.

Dinner and breakfast are served in an intimate dining car by staff dressed in uniforms out of Murder on the Orient Express. The three-course dinner, which on my trip consisted of soup, curried chicken and rice followed by a white cake and tea, was much better than expected. The continental breakfast was also satisfying.

Fine – it takes a little longer to get to your destination than a flight does and you have to bring your own toilet paper, but the train trip to Mombasa offers a view of Kenya a plane just can’t.

I woke up in the morning to the hills and greenery of eastern Kenya that many frequent flyers miss. Since this was my first time leaving the concrete, cars and crime that define Nairobi, I was delighted to see Africa the way it’s depicted in movies.

I popped my head out the window around 6:30 a.m. and shared the sunrise with fellow passengers and the residents of Coast Province.

Their homes, made of straw and wood, speckle the green hills. Women going about their business dressed in vibrantly coloured wraps balanced baskets of supplies or water on their heads. Men and boys herding cattle barely blinked as the train hurtled by. The train even careens through Tsavo, one of Kenya’s largest National Parks. Unfortunately, most of it is traversed at night, but if you’re lucky and have the patience to stare for long enough once day breaks, you may catch a glimpse of Kenya’s big five game animals. For those who are a bit more impatient, like myself, hordes of children, from the rural areas outside the park, run alongside the train waving and scream “Jambo, Wazungu (Hello, white man, in Kiswahili).” That’s probably as priceless as witnessing a zebra herd.
I arrived to Mombasa with a newfound connection to Kenya. Train travel allowed me to see an underrated but important part of the country’s colonial past and drove me through the scenery that makes up its present.

And, while I was tired from a bumpy night of interrupted dozing, the denouement on Mombasa’s beaches was a perfect way to sleep off the fatigue.

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