Riding The Lunatic Line across Kenya
In Swahili, they called it “The Iron Snake.” Aging, poorly maintained and perpetually late, this 120-year-old relic made its last wheezing journey in 2017, a symbol of Old Africa. Greg Kelsey rode the line in late 2016.
By Greg Kelsey
I had been staying at Diani Beach, on the Kenyan coast, where the sands were of the purest white, the days warm, and the resort bar well-stocked. So relaxing was my sojourn, that I had forgotten to apply sunscreen on a snorkeling trip and my back was the same color and texture as sashimi.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay forever. I had to catch a plane from Nairobi in three days, and I had decided to take advantage (if that’s the word) of the infamous train journey from Mombasa to the capital.
There was a certain amount of foreboding on my part: the first-class compartments were doubles, and it was likely that I would be bunked with a stranger, hopefully not an Al-Shabab terrorist.
Booking the beast is no mean feat. A website, apparently put together by a person with kindergarten level skills, both in the English language and at website construction, requests your details and the proposed date of travel, and in return you receive a stuttering response, requesting that you immediately make payment.
I was apprehensive: what sensible person gives their credit card details online in Africa? Yet my choices were limited, and with trepidation, I keyed in my digits.
I closed my eyes as I hit ‘enter’. Within minutes, a further email arrived, thanking me with gratitude, and enclosing an odd receipt/voucher in Excel.
My ticket would be available for collection on the day of travel from the ticketing office, it said.
My taxi driver was unfamiliar with the entrance to the station, which rather suggested a low level of popularity. He circled the platform before asking a random security guard for directions and was shown to a pot-holed track that looked like nothing so much as a quarry.
At the end was a dirty shack made from scraps of corrugated iron left over from when Moses was patching the ark. A sign proclaimed it to be the fabled ticketing office.
The service window was a curious device, with iron bars protecting the occupant from molestation. The bars were in two layers, each running perpendicularly for greater effect.
I squinted into the darkness and thought I saw a fellow in the depths. An old man in his hundreds sat on the bench outside, smoking and muttering imprecations to himself.
“Hello?” I called into the mire.
“Yes?” returned a terse voice.
“I have a ticket, today, for Mombasa.”
“Where is it then?”
“I got an email. I can show it to you on my phone.”
He was unimpressed. “What was the name?” I gave it, and he shuffled through one pile of green books, then another. Nothing grabbed him.
“I don’t have it,” he said.
With difficulty, I shoved my phone between the bars to prove my veracity. He looked at it, and sighed like his mother was dying.
“Wait.” He said, testily. He made a call, presumably to the Nairobi office. It went on endlessly and I sat down on the bench next to the old guy, seeking shade. He nodded. “Jambo,” he said, agreeably.
After a few moments I heard a faint call. “Gregory, Gregory…” It was like the chirping of a baby bird from within a deep well. I went back to the window. My server was less than impressed.
“I was calling for you, why you not respond?” he asked.
Because you’re behind a soundproof wall, I thought. “Sorry,” I said.
“Your ticket is in Nairobi,” he said, unimpressed.
“I think you travel on Wednesday.”
“But you have no ticket.”
“Yes I do.”
“Where is it?”
“In Nairobi, You just told me that,” I said. “I need to travel today. I have a plane to catch.”
“Then you’ll need to buy a ticket.”
“I have bought a ticket.”
“Yes, from an agent, but not from me. It is against the law to travel without a ticket.”
“But I do have a ticket.” This was getting a bit Abbott and Costello. Who’s on first?
He sighed. If he wanted me to buy another ticket so that he could collect a commission, it wasn’t going well. He wrote out a boarding pass and handed it over. “You will need to collect your ticket in Nairobi,” he said, although why I would do so after the train ride escaped me.
A 100-year-old Train Operation
The train was waiting on the platform, which was nothing more than a long, rusty shelter. I showed my pass to a guard and asked for directions.
“It’s all the way up there,” she gestured to the front of the train. Its inception was barely a blip on the horizon. I thanked her and set off.
This train has been in operation for over 100 years. Nowadays, a single black-throated diesel drags this machine over 600 miles to its destination, twice per week. It has a terrible reputation for punctuality: it can be as much as three days(!) late.
When I reach the front, my carriage and compartment are fairly easy to locate. My room is made for 2 people, with one fold-out bed at head height, and another at seat level.
The seats are grimy, blackened with the sweat of generations. A drinking water dispenser sits above a small sink and does, in fact, release a thin stream of liquid when teased into action, but whether it is actually water and/or drinkable is a question I don’t intend to investigate. A non-functional, art-deco fan ornaments the wall.
There are also two ash trays, a cup holder, a light, a rubbish bin, and cupboard. The corridor is barely wide enough for a single person of modest build. Two cannot pass.
The African sun is streaming in the window. It’s airless and roasting, and although I open a window, sweat drips from my arms almost instantly. There are toilets at each end of the carriage, and some are squats, the piss-hole leading directly onto the tracks. If I drop my glasses down there, they are gone for good.
This cabin is comfortable enough, but things will get awkward if I’m joined by a stranger, and I pray that the other seat isn’t booked. There is very little movement on the platform to suggest that there will be a rush of occupants, though.
At 4.55pm there is an announcement: the train will leave in five minutes, all passengers please board. Thankfully, no-one joins me, and I settle into solitary relaxation.
The train clunks into activity. Without fanfare, it rumbles slowly through the outskirts of Mombasa, where houses and shacks edge right up to the tracks, which seem to be somewhat of a refuse depot. Masses of household garbage mount up and stink the verge.
Small children make smiling runs alongside, waving and yelling “Jambo”. Some just stand, dreaming the train will one day take them away, out from the small compass of their lives and into something bigger. Eventually, the city gives way to savannah and small villages.
This line is properly known as the Uganda Railway, so named because the line was originally meant to terminate there, or at least at the close-by town of Kisumu, on the Eastern side of Lake Victoria. In fact, the line to Kisumu was discontinued in 2012. In the 1990s, the trip took 12 hours, though through neglect and lack of maintenance travel times have blown out to its current 24 hours.
Construction commenced in 1896 when European countries were scrambling for influence in Africa. The British East Africa Company employed over 30,000 Indian workers at the then extraordinary equivalent cost of 650 million pounds.
There is still a thriving Indian community in Kenya as a consequence.
Construction was far from smooth, with dozens of workers being killed by hungry lions, and it was dubbed “The Lunatic Line” by an angry and parsimonious British Parliament.
Meeting My Valet
A smiling fellow in a shabby uniform introduces himself as my valet and confirms that I’m the only passenger in my compartment. It turns out that this isn’t at all unusual: the train rarely carries more than a dozen in first class and 50 in total. A third-class ticket is only about $7.
Dinner will be served at 7 pm, he says, listen out for the bell. Most importantly, he says there is a bar, selling beer, open right now in the next carriage if I want one. By god, I want one: it’s sweltering, and my face must be gleaming with sweat.
Unfortunately, he proves to be wrong. Although the next carriage is definitely the dining car, there is no bar open, at least not yet. Well, we’ve only just started: perhaps they need a little while to set up.
In an hour, I again go searching. The dining car is deserted. I’m about to knock on the kitchen door when I hear the crash of a dozen pots and pans, accompanied by Swahili curses.
They’ve obviously come adrift with the jolting of the train and ended up on the floor. I don’t think my intrusion would be welcome, and I slink away.
Dinner Time on Board
At 7:30, a tinkling bell wanders through the carriage, announcing dinner, and I make my way to the dining car.
The rest of the first-class passengers are already there, and I’m asked to squeeze in with a pair of Polish fellows. Nice chaps. They, unlike me, have beer.
Two enormous, camouflaged guards join us for dinner, toting equally enormous automatic weapons. They sling them around rather carelessly, squeezing into their table.
I ask the waitress for a beer, and she promises to get me one, but she doesn’t.
A different waiter comes by, and I ask him for a beer. He nods.
Again, no beer arrives, but the food does–rice, cabbage, beef or chicken stew. We eat from ancient crockery with silverware on cracked leather seats. Immobile bakelite fans provide no relief from the heat. At one time, this may have been swish. In its early days, this service hosted dignitaries like President Roosevelt: he rode primarily on the front of the locomotive, in 1909.
I walk to the kitchen, where I remind them about the beer. Yes, someone will bring it. And this time it arrives, just cold enough, and I’m thankful.
Dinner is rounded off with tea and fruit. It’s not gourmet, but adequate. My new Polish friend extracts a bottle of vodka that he brought with him against just such a contingency and shares it around. It’s sweet, spicy and citric. He teaches us to say “cheers” in Polish. (“Naz-droh-vee-ay”).
After dinner, we retire to our compartments, which are still hot, despite the open window. The lower bunk has been made up into a bed.
Not an Easy Sleep
It’s not an easy night’s sleep. The train lurches between dangerous out-of-control speed, listless meandering, and complete inactivity. Well after midnight, the temperature cools sufficiently for me to pull up the blanket. My sunburn stings and these sheets are rough.
The next morning, the bell tinkles at 7, and I dress for breakfast. Baked beans, a small sausage, fried egg and toast, and get out we have another sitting.
The countryside is different now: wide plains and small farms. Larger, wealthier houses appear, and the occasional herd of zebra and wildebeest. We stop to pick up locals at small stations, neat grassy affairs without platforms. There is no drama or pushing, just the occasional box of clucking chickens.
Last Legs of the Lunatic Line
By the time I took my journey, in late 2016, the Lunatic Line was on its last legs. Its final trip was on 28 April 2017. Construction of the new standard gauge railway (“The Madaraka Express”) was completed in December 2016, with the first passenger service on 31 May 2017.
The journey should now take only 3-4 hours, and will be President Kenyatta’s legacy – should he survive the disputed 2017 election.
The new track generally follows the old route and was 90% funded by China at a cost of $3.6b USD. It’s eventually planned to connect with other standard gauge lines in East Africa and is constructed with viaducts and embankments to allow wildlife to cross safely.
Passing through Kibera Slum
As we approach Nairobi, the train passes through Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. Four million people live here, cheek by jowl, without running water.
Again, children jog by, yelling “Jambo” and dodging the community’s refuse.
At Nairobi Central, the train wheezes in, not a moment before it’s due, and I exit. I need my ticket from the booking office, and a guard retrieves it for me, allowing me to depart the aging platform.
This colonial edifice contains a railway museum for the trainspotters, and I suspect that the Lunatic Line will find its own way there soon. In the meantime, I hope that the new modern line is symbolic of an emerging Kenya.
Booking a Ticket
Business: 3000 Ksh (one way) – $29 USD
Economy: 1400 Ksh (one way) – $13.50 USD
Child: 50% adult prices
Standard gauge (1435 mm)
Where to Stay at Each End
Mombasa (Diani Beach)
Diani Beach is a short trip south of Mombasa. Uber is available in Kenya, and much cheaper than taxis.
I recommend Kenyaways Beach Hotel
Rooms range from $250 to $435 USD (3 nights)
In Nairobi, stay at the five-star Sarova Stanley hotel, first open in 1902, and a favorite of Ernest Hemingway’s.
Rooms range in price from $450 to $120 USD