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Have You Traveled the Lunatic Express?

By Diaryofamuzungu @CharlieBeau

More 'lunatic' than 'express'...

Lunatic Express train Nairobi to Mombasa, Kenya: survival tips, how to book tickets, East Africa's railway history, Tsavo's man-eating lions. This is the muzungu's personal account of the Lunatic Express train journey from Nairobi to Mombasa.

  • - No. of KM journey: 530
  • - No. of Kenyan shillings for 2nd class ticket: 3,385 (USD 33)
  • - No. of hours delay leaving Nairobi Railway Station: 10
  • - No. of hours on train journey (forecast): 13
  • - No. of hours on train journey (actual): 23
  • - No. of degrees Celsius on the train: 40+
  • - No. of beers consumed: not enough
  • - No. of National Parks traversed for free: 2
  • - No. of elephants seen on Tsavo safari: 3

The name should have been warning enough... yet, behind every travel nightmare is the makings of a good travel blog. (Oh, the situations the muzungu gets herself into in the search for a good story!)

We travelled in the light of the Full Moon or should I say: we travelled under the effects of the full moon. Lunacy indeed!

What made the Muzungu want to travel on this notorious train journey?

My ride on Kampala's recently relaunched passenger train service made me want to discover more of East Africa's rail network, and its history.

Daydreaming about my next train adventure gave me a reason to plan a trip to Kenya's coast: first leg from Kampala to Nairobi by bus (although once upon a time, you could do the whole trip by train). One day - in the not too distant future - passengers will again be able to cross East Africa by train. With that in mind, I wanted to experience what is left of the old Lunatic Express train service - so I can compare it with the new one. If you're familiar with this journey - and the old train journey from Kampala to Nairobi too - I'd love to hear your own experiences.

What is the Lunatic* Express?

Although the entire 660 mile / approx 1000 km length of the Uganda Railway actually runs through Kenya - from Mombasa to Kisumu on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria - the railway derives its name from its final destination: Uganda. Sources states that the purpose of the railway was to protect British colonial interests from the Germans. The fact that the Uganda Railway resulted in opening up commerce across Uganda and Kenya was simply a 'by the way.'

Charles Miller came up with the term 'Lunatic Express' in his 1971 book The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism to describe the challenges and calamities of the Uganda Railway's construction, notably:

  • - 2,500 (of 32,000 workmen) died during construction, mostly from disease
  • - 28 Indian "coolies" ('workers' to you and me) killed by man-eating lions of Tsavo
  • - 135 African laborers also killed by said Tsavo man-eaters. It's interesting that 28 is generally the number of people recorded as killed by lions. However, according to Ugandans at Heart / 'EKB' Ekitibwa Kya Buganda "the Africans were considered not important enough for an accurate count or record to be kept." Actual toll of all men killed by lions must therefore be 163+ - scroll down the page for more about those pesky pussy cats...
  • - Very demanding terrain

  • - Lack of water / drought
  • - "Hostile natives"
  • - Derailments and collisions

*A lunatic endeavour is something considered to be extremely foolish or eccentric. The word lunatic is derived from the Latin word luna, meaning moon. The Latin word lunaticus means "moon-struck" and a lunatic someone who is "affected with periodic insanity, dependent on the changes of the moon."

How to book your tickets for the Lunatic Express train from Nairobi to Mombasa

The start was very promising. The call to the booking office at Nairobi Railway Station (tel +254 728787301) confirmed that it would be cheaper for us to purchase tickets when we arrived in Nairobi than to buy them in advance online. So far, so good ...

Upon arrival at Nairobi Railway Station, the humourless security woman insisted I delete my photos of the front of the station. (Lord knows there must already be enough photos in circulation, what difference would mine make?)

The interior of Nairobi Railway Station is an exact replica of Kampala Railway Station, with all its original features in place. In Nairobi however, someone has tried to give the place a modern facelift, circling the century-old fittings with bright gaudy paint.

Generally, Nairobi Railway Station is in a shocking state of repair. (By contrast, the interiors and platforms of Kampala Railway Station remain in near perfect condition, having been closed to the public for 30 years).

We purchased our Lunatic Express tickets from the wonderfully helpful Evelyn. (Elias was very helpful too). My friends opted for a two bunk first class compartment while I opted for second class. Our tickets cost 4,405 KES (approx 43 USD) first class and 3,385 KES (approx 33 USD) second class and included breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The train passes through 530 km (300 miles) of East Africa, from Kenya's capital Nairobi to the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa. The part I was looking forward to most was traversing Tsavo National Park (now split into East Tsavo and West Tsavo). Tsavo is most famous for the man-eating lions, as many unfortunates were to discover to their peril back in 1898.

The train was forecast to leave at 7 PM on Good Friday. As Evelyn took our booking, she asked for our phone numbers "for when there is a delay." I didn't think much about that; we just booked our tickets and went on our way.

The Lunatic Express: day of our departure

Keen to embark on my first train Safari, I decided to get to the railway station early - unusually for me: several hours early.

In the meantime, Evelyn called my friend Julia to advise of a delay. Evelyn said the train would not be leaving until 10 PM so we headed into town to kill time in a bar. We ate some goat and ugali and received another phone call from the railway station: the Lunatic Express departure time was more likely to be 11.30 pm or midnight. Needless to say, when we arrived at Nairobi Railway Station, there was no sign of the train. It had not arrived from Mombasa. A number of very annoyed bazungu tourists requested refunds.

Children were curled up asleep with their parents on hard wooden benches. In the sofa area (which was in total darkness, thanks to a power cut) a man at a tiny bar served people while holding a small torch. Inside the station was a retro lounge bar of a bygone era.

We were invited to board the train at 3 am. At 5 o'clock in the morning - 10 hours later than the advertised departure time - our train rumbled out of Nairobi Railway Station. The muzungu was curled up asleep in the top bunk of compartment B in coach 2326 by then.

I awoke to see we were traversing what looked like savannah.

I woke up on a moving train.

I had only slept four hours in two days but I was too excited to go back to sleep. What's more, the compartment was quickly heating up (the weather in Nairobi had been roasting hot). I tried to pull down the window, but it refused to open more than a few inches.

A member of staff walked along the corridor outside my compartment and announced "breakfast will be ready soon."

"Soon" turned out to be an hour or more later!

Our journey from Nairobi pushed us into a coastal heatwave. Rather than travel in the relative cool of the night, our late departure meant we traversed the 483 km in the heat of the day, our train absorbing every ray of the hot sun.

Kampala and Nairobi had been hotter than normal and I had been rather dreading the predicted heatwave at the Kenyan coast. However, after 23 hours in the moving sauna, I felt thoroughly acclimatized!

"There really should be a swimming pool on the roof of the train," Julia said.

"Don't you think they should first switch on the ceiling fans, fix the air conditioning and make it possible for us to open the windows?" I suggested.

Much like Nairobi Railway Station, the Lunatic Express train is in a state of total neglect. There were few locks on the toilet doors, none on compartments (except when inside) and just two power sockets per carriage.

Yet there were glimpses of the train's former splendour. Although from the outside, the Lunatic Express is an average-looking modern train, the interior features wooden benches, some 1930s-style fittings, including cupholders and other metal fittings engraved with RVR, faded old posters and the occasional piece of original silver tableware.

My favourite piece of tableware was the metal butter dish. I loved its air of faded opulence. Julia removed the lid to reveal a messy dollop of cheap Blue Band margarine. Humph!

Travel on the Lunatic Express is not a gourmet experience

These days, everything about the Lunatic Express is cheap, including the train tickets to be honest. But like they say: "you get what you pay for" and our three meals were basic and not particularly appetizing. Dinner was simply a second serving of lunch.

Cooked breakfast (eggs, sausages and baked beans) included cheap sliced white sugary bread (toasted one side only! To save time? To save money?) The weak-tasting coffee was of the instant variety (in Kenya? In one of the world's major coffee producing countries?) But ignore that: I loved the way the waiters expertly poured our hot beverages from beautiful old tea and coffeepots, while the train rumbled along.

From the train windows, we watched the landscape change as we passed through open countryside, mile after mile, kilometre after kilometre.

We saw the occasional human: a young girl collecting firewood, a man tending a flock of goats and cows.

As we rattled through one of the numerous derelict railway stations and outposts, I watched a woman and baby watching us...

At one point a few people approached our slowly-moving train. A handful of children shouted at us for money.

A safari through Tsavo - and no park fees to pay!

A real draw for me was the chance to experience a train safari - and I was not disappointed!

Tsavo is Kenya's largest national park and covers nearly 22,000 sq km. It is one of the largest in the world. The park was split into two by the construction of the railway: Tsavo is now two separate parks, Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park.

After the new viaduct, crossing Tsavo, everyone moved to one side of the train carriage to watch elephants. I also spotted baboons and Thomson's Gazelles.

We moved too quickly to identify many birds but I couldn't miss a vibrant Lilac-breasted Roller, and larger bird species like Marabou Storks, and a Chanting Grey Goshawk perched on the roof of a derelict railway building next to the track.

Two children shouted that they had "seen a lion lying in the grass"- their mother and I exchanged looks of disbelief and held back our sniggers.

The story of Tsavo's man-eating lions is gripping! Keep reading...

How apt. By the light of the Full Moon, the Lunatic Express arrived in Mombasa.

As we sensed our journey ending, Julia and I got a new lease of life. (Or was it that I had remembered the half bottle of vodka in my bag?) We bounced along the train corridor, to and from the buffet car, gently thrown left and right; it was like being on a ship.

I lost the whole concept of time... one staff member said we were an hour from Mombasa; another estimated two and a half hours. Everyone - staff included - moped around listlessly in the heat. Few people had phone battery left; for much of the journey there was no phone network anyway.

The shadows of tall palm tress silhouetted against the moonlit sky waved us "karibu" - WELCOME into the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

The marathon endurance trip was finally behind us.

Several very sweaty hours and a few cold beers later, the Lunatic Express arrived at the coast. The advertised 13 hour journey was actually a 43 hour adventure from start to finish.

How to ride a tuk tuk

Thanks to the brilliant Jane Spilsbury at the Watamu Marine Association, we had a booking at Regency Park Hotel, plus a rough idea of how much to pay for a taxi from Mombasa station, thanks to RVR train staff member George, who organized the taxi to meet us. We'd bonded with our Norwegian / German train companions by this stage and shared the phone number of our hotel.

"Do you want to share a taxi with us?" I suggested.

"I'm not sure there will be enough room, will there?" One asked. We were five people with five sets of bags.

"Let's see," I said, "we can try."

Our lumbering great taxi driver was there on the platform to meet us. We walked towards his vehicle...

... a tuk tuk!

We all laughed out loud. "I think we need another vehicle!" Someone said.

The giant taxi driver proceeded to pack all our bags and all five of us into his miniscule motor. How would our tall friend fit in? He shared the driver's seat with him - one bum cheek each!

There may have been no red carpet at Mombasa, there may have been no fanfare of trumpets, yet we arrived at our hotel in style.

Parting thoughts

No-one can board the Lunatic Express train without seeing its potential and bemoaning the very poor actual facilities. Back in the day, this would have been a state-of-the-art train experience. All the facilities are there, including air conditioning and announcement system. There are also locks on toilet doors. (Sadly few of these work anymore). Few of the train windows open, even if the muzungu asks a strong man to assist her, and many of the window mosquito nets are torn.

Beyond that, we found the train to be clean enough and the bedding was clean (although patched in places). The staff were helpful, although there were no explanations for the train's late arrival in Nairobi, late departure and even later arrival in Mombasa! We realized at certain points that our train was stuck moving behind a slow goods train. On other occasions, our train had to pull over into sidings to let an oncoming goods train passes on the single track.

This train journey really could be a spectacular experience. Let's hope it will be again when the new Standard Gauge Railway is complete and the rolling stock is upgraded.

For much of the length of the trip, we ran parallel to the new railway line. Many sections appear to be complete; in other areas, it's still a construction site.

In time, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) network will expand to Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda. In Uganda, it will comprise of three major routes with a total route length of 1,614km. The SGR will stretch to the DRC border.

End of the line for 'Lunatic Express?' Kenya begins multi-billion dollar railway

How to survive the Lunatic Express! An essential packing list
  1. - A flexible itinerary
  2. - African concept of time!
  3. - GSOH good sense of humour 🙂
  4. - Toilet paper
  5. - Soap
  6. - Hand gel / wipes
  7. - Mosquito repellent
  8. - Earplugs
  9. - Playing cards or other non-electronic amusements - power sockets are hard to find
  10. - Rechargers / Smartphone power packs
  11. - A map of East Africa so you can trace your route
  12. - Snacks
  13. - Cold beers, sodas and water are available and not expensive. (I doubt we could have had tea or coffee unless during meal times, tho I didn't ask).
  14. - An ice box
  15. - Strong liquor!
  16. - Cigarettes? I'm not sure if we could smoke on the train, but smokers opened a side door and sat on the steps as we moved slowly along
  17. - A fan
  18. - Kichoi (or sarong), flip-flops / sandals, shorts and T-shirts / vests. Forget underwear, at least during a heatwave!
  19. - A mirror! I did not see / use / even thinking of using a mirror on the train (as the photos probably tell!)
  20. - Contacts for a hotel in Mombasa "for when there is a delay."

More survival tips for travelling the Lunatic Express
  1. - The Glory Hotel in Mombasa was recommended to us, but full, so we stayed at Regency Park Hotel. The staff were very helpful and the breakfast was generous. Choose from rooms with fans or air conditioning). Pay 300 - 500 KES for a cab/tuk tuk from Mombasa Railway Station.
  2. - You may think you're going to save one day by travelling overnight but if the train delays, you are likely to miss that important meeting, flight or even wedding! And if you don't sleep very well, you will lose a day catching up on sleep as well. I'd say: only take the train from Nairobi to Mombasa when you have two or three days to spare.
  3. - Although second class accommodation means four people share a compartment, it is bigger than the first class two-person compartment - and thus allows more air to circulate. Incredibly important if you're travelling during a heatwave!
  4. - I later realized only a few passengers got off the train at Mombasa. They must have decided to get their money's worth and sleep until they were chucked off the train (and save renting a hotel room like we did).
  5. - Shower in the sink - cos there ain't nothing else!
  6. - Get to know your travel companions right away. You will surely end up interacting at some point on the journey, so leave behind your sensibilities and connect with them early on. Remember: what happens on the train stays on the train! 😉

Despite the lack of communication, zero explanation and no apology for the delays, we thoroughly enjoyed our adventure on the Lunatic Express train to Mombasa. We maintained our sense of humour throughout!

Thanks to the ever smiling George. He received every complaint with a big smile and ran up and down the train all day and all night trying to keep everyone happy.

Are you interested in the history of East Africa's railways?

Nairobi is the biggest city in East Africa. It is immense.

It's incredible to believe that Nairobi sprang up around the railway, just a little over 100 years ago. From my account of today's rundown Lunatic Express service, you might dismiss the railways in East Africa - but history tells a very different story.

If you are interested in history, I highly recommend these articles:

The construction of the railway in the 1890s from Kenya to Uganda was hindered by several factors including hostile natives, marauding lions, rough terrain and diseases.

The Lunatic Express - a photo essay on the Uganda Railway - viewed from Kenya.

Save the railway! Many of the railway's original buildings are being bulldozed - and with it so much history.

Following the line of Kenya's development is as easy as following the development of railway lines through the country.

A Ugandan perspective: read Jerry Burley's Potted History of the Lunatic Express.

How did so many railway workers get killed by lions?

"The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and other East African Adventures" recalls the nine month period of terror during 1898 when over 100 men were killed by two man-eating lions. This book made British engineer Lieutenant Colonel J. H. Patterson, D.S.O. a celebrity.

"Night after night, workers disappeared in ones and twos..." an American hunter was called in...

"Arriving in the continent he has dreamed of forever, Patterson meets his project. There are problems with it: competing French and German rivals, ethnic hatred among the crews and, on Patterson's first day there, a worker is attacked by a lion. He goes to "sort it out" by shooting the beast with one shot; gaining the admiration of his crews, lifting spirits, adding motivation to complete the bridge, and unleashing a nightmare."

"Only weeks after the shooting the camp is suddenly besieged by a pair of giant man-eating lions. Their first "kill" is Mahina (Henry Cele), considered the strongest man in the camp. This serves to unnerve every man on the project, including Indian rabble-rouser Abdullah, who doesn't like Patterson from the start. Nerves jangle and fray as the lions repeatedly and relentlessly attack and attack and attack! They strike under the cover of night AND during the heat of day; They kill not for hunger, not for sport, but simply because they like it. Men are dragged from their beds and mauled to death in the tall grasses; the hospital becomes a blood-bathe; Laborers aren't safe as the beasts leap out and snatch them from their work. Everything is falling apart and Patterson is at his wit's end as Beaumont arrives to make matters worse. And still the lions attack and attack and attack."

"Enter Big Game Hunter Charles Remington who is as determined to destroy the lions as the lions seem determined to eat every man in camp." Taken from a review of The Ghost and the Darkness, a 1996 Oscar-winning film, staring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

Watch this brilliant short clip below! Fantastic black and white photos of railway construction from 1898 when Tsavo's man-eating lions were running amok...

Have you traveled on the 'Lunatic Express' train from Nairobi to Mombasa?

Writing about these journeys prompts other people to share their experiences.

When I was in Watamu, Richard told me how he took the Lunatic Express after graduating from Cambridge University. "I took the train in 1982 when I was a student. I travelled down to the coast with my fishing rods. I didn't get a (sleeping) compartment. I threw my fishing rods in the overhead bag rack, climbed up and slept there for the whole journey, from Nairobi to Mombasa." That's an uncomfortable way to spend 12+ hours, believe me!

Kampala resident Mike told me "Once upon a time, the train ran all the way from Kampala through Nairobi on to Mombasa. Nairobi was very different in those days. Even before the train reached Nairobi airport, you were in the bush. There were first-class compartments and a first-class dining car." (It all sounded pretty fabulous!) Back in the day, the train drivers were all Sikhs.

What are your tips? If you've enjoyed this article, please share it! And if you enjoy my East African travel stories, please sign up to the Muzungu's free and occasional newsletter or Like the Diary of a Muzungu Facebook page.
And what are your memories of it in its heyday?

" Why Kenya's ivory burning makes sense #worthmorealive

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