Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Nairobi to Mombasa by Rail

White sandy beaches were on the brain, we wanted some sand in between our toes, smell the ocean and indulge in some fresh seafood, so Mombasa seemed to fit the bill.  Sure we could easily fly there but we opted for a more adventurous journey, to take the train from Nairobi to Mombasa operated by Rift Valley Railways (RVR) and often referred to as "The Lunatic Express".  The rail line has a lot of history and being that Kevin has an affection for train travel and had done this train journey in 1989 he was eager to do it again.  I had never been on a train so we were excited about our choice.

The rail line began construction in 1896 and was intended to connect the interiors of Uganda and Kenya to the coastal city of Mombasa.  The tracks, locomotives as well as a lot of skilled and unskilled labor to build the railway came from India.  Many Indians remained in Kenya and Uganda after the completion of the railway line largely contributing to the Indian communities in those countries today.  The building of the line took its share of lives as the working and living conditions were poor and many succumbed to diseases resulting in death.  Probably the most famous incident occurred in Tsavo in 1898 when two "man eating lions" stalked and killed approximately 130 workers.  The entire project to build the railway seemed to be such an enormous undertaking and at such a great cost that skeptics who doubted its economic worth endearingly starting referring to it as The Lunatic Express.  The entire project was completed in 1929 and is said to have opened up East Africa to the rest of the world.

Our journey began in Entebbe where we boarded a plane bound for Nairobi.  We arrived in Nairobi early in the morning and the train was only scheduled to leave the station at 7pm, so we had an entire day to explore Nairobi.  Our first stop was Giraffe Manor to have a  moment with the Rothschild Giraffe.  I love giraffes and ever since I had seen Giraffe Manor on a television program years earlier, I had wanted to visit.  To see those big black eyes with long luscious lashes so close was amazing and I didn't leave without getting my "kiss".  We continued our exploration of Nairobi with a visit to the Karen Blixen Museum.  Karen Blixen (1885–1962) is best known as the author of Out of Africa.  The museum is full of history and is definitely worth a visit.  By this time we were hungry for some lunch and relaxed for a couple of hours at the Talisman before making our way to the Nairobi Railway Station.

Getting to the station was an adventure in itself as we fought our way through the taxi park full of matatus, buses and people. A brick building came into sight, we had reached the Nairobi Railway Station. We entered the building and received our tickets for the journey.  With a little over an hour to wait in the station before the train was due to leave, we sat and watched the hustle bustle of it all.  Other passengers were arriving as well as vendors sending merchandise to the numerous towns en route.  We received the call to board the train and with great excitement we found our cabin.  Although the fan didn't work, no water came out of the water tap and the lights flickered, I was pleased with the beds as the bedding was clean and crisp.  There was a small closet for our personal belongings and clothes, a mirror and our bags conveniently fit underneath the bottom bunk bed.  I was equally impressed that on the stroke of 7, the train's whistle blew and we started to move away from the station.  As we watched from our window the lights of Nairobi grew further and further away.  In the hallway outside our cabin we could hear a large bell clanging, the dinner bell.  We left our cabin with all our valuables as the cabins do not lock from outside and headed for the dining car.  We were sat at a table for four and soon, two others joined us.  As we got to know each other the servers came around for drink orders and to serve food from huge dishes.  The scariest part was the soup course, the waitress carried a large pot of steaming hot soup and as the car lurched back and forth she balanced herself and the pot and didn't spill a drop.  The food was average, we were served chicken stew with rice and potatoes followed by fresh fruit.  As we sat in the dining car I wondered what the atmosphere and service was like back in its day knowing the reputation of white glove service with fine silverware.  After dinner we returned to our cabin settled into our beds and were lulled to sleep by the gentle swaying of the train.  Periodically through the night I woke, sometimes as the train was slowing down to stop at villages along the tracks to unload and load passengers and goods and other times as it was hurling down the mountains feeling almost like a runaway train. I found the train to be a comfortable place to sleep.

At first light we were awake and peering out the window as it was the first opportunity to see the countryside since the first part of the journey was in the dark.  We passed small villages, roadside markets and watched children running towards the track as fast as they could to wave at the passing train.  Once again a bell could be heard in the hallway which indicated that breakfast was ready in the dining cart.  Juice, coffee, tea, fruit, eggs and toast were served as we gazed out the window fascinated by everything that we saw.  When we returned to our cabin after breakfast our bedding has been removed and the top bunk folded up leaving us a bench seat to sit on for the remainder of the trip.  The train was due to arrive at the Mombasa station at 10am but having read numerous reports of poor time keeping we really weren't sure when we would get there.

We travelled through fields and villages, under bridges and over rivers. At one point the train was running parallel to the highway next to it.  Eventually we got our first glimpse of the light blue waters that we were yearning for, the Indian Ocean.  This was an indication that we were not far from Mombasa.  Palm trees began to dot the landscape and the smell of the sea was in the air.  The train crossed the Nyali Bridge that connects the island of Mombasa to the mainland.  The settlements and markets were getting more concentrated and closer to the tracks.

At almost precisely 10am, the train pulled into the Mombasa station.  Impeccable timing, especially considering the number of stops that were made through the night.  We collected our personal belongings and disembarked the train having had a memorable and pleasant experience.  Now the only thing on our minds was where the beach and a cold cocktail was.  It was time to enjoy the coast for a couple of weeks before taking the train back to Nairobi for the trip home.

The train approaching Nairobi on the return journey
In the first week of March 2012 it was announced by Rift Valley Railways that they would be investing 23 million dollars to rehabilitate dilapidated sections of the main line from Kampala to Mombasa.  The project is due to start in July of 2012 and we are excited to see the changes that it brings.  Maybe one day we'll have the opportunity to simply board a train in Kampala bound for the ocean.


If you're planning to take the train, there are a couple of things I recommend taking with you:

  • Drinking water
  • A wash cloth for freshening up
  • Toilet paper in case they run out
  • Snacks in the event that you really aren't wowed by the food
  • A sense of adventure
Also note that there is no shower's on the train only toilets.  Do a little exploration of the toilet facilities as there are squat ones as well as conventional toilets.

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