The Lunatic Express

Our first journey to Mombasa was not by car but by train. We took the train that run everyday leaving Nairobi at 19:00hs and arriving at Mombasa the following morning at 06:00hs. We were advised to buy First Class tickets as these gave you access to a sleeping coach.

The Ugandan railway was born in the late 19th century, when European countries were engaged in the “scramble for Africa” and the British were worried about German expansionism in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and French interests in Sudan. It was an imperative undertaking for Britain (to keep its interests in Egypt) to have access to the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria.

Connecting Britain’s territories on the Kenyan coast to the shore of lake Victoria in Uganda by rail was considered the solution. The project created such a clamour in the British Parliament that it ended up known as the “Lunatic Line”, a name given to it by Charles Miller, who wrote its history [1].

However it was Henry Labouchère, writer and politician, that in 1896 attacked the then Foreign Minister Curzon’s backing of the idea with a satirical poem that called the project “a lunatic line” [2]

A train on bridge of the Uganda Railway leading from Mombassa to Nairobi; insert in lower right-hand corner shows the train at Mau Summit. Credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

Despite dissidence the British government marched on with the plans, and sent Sir George Whitehouse to build the railway. Work on the one-metre gauge railway commenced in the port of Mombasa in May 1896 and thousands of workers were recruited from India to start construction on the railway and all the materials, from sleepers to steam engines, were brought from Britain.

Soon the Lunatic express ran into severe trouble such as the lack of water at Tatu and the man-eating lions that threatened to halt construction at Tsavo. However, five million pounds (today £ 660 million) and about 2,500 dead workers later, in 1901 the railway line arrived to Kisumu (then Port Florence) in the shores of Lake Victoria.

The building of the railway was an amazing feat of engineering that succeeded in joining the British protectorate of Mombasa to the colony of Uganda, uniting the disparate ethnic groups in between and consolidated a country today known as Kenya!

The train gained a “romantic” fame with the early settlers and visitors alike as migration to Kenya was promoted in Britain with the hope that the commercial traffic that this would create would pay back such a high investment.

A poster promoting the Uganda Railway. Picture taken by bushsnob from a copy of the poster acquired in Kenya at the tme of the journey.
Theodore Roosevelt and traveling companions mount the observation platform of the Uganda Railway. Credit: Wikimedia, Public domain.

Luckily, when we got to the Nairobi Railway Station with its grey arches and the Nairobi sign hardly legible, the railway’s cost was not remembered and the man-eaters were not interfering with the running of the train. We soon found our names written on cards attached to the outside of our carriage and we boarded.

Locomotive with fuel tanks in Kampala. Credit: Iwoelbern / Public domain.

The old brown-leather padded carriages were very clean and the seats comfortable. After settling in we waited for the train to move but before this happened, the in the Sleeping car assistant came to check our tickets and to ask us if we wished to have dinner at 21:30hs or at 22:30hs.

As we were feeling hungry we chose the first shift and a few minutes afterwards we heard the whistles of the Stationmaster and the loud horn of the train while we felt the pull of the locomotive and heard the steadily increasing chugging sound and then we were moving!

Slowly we moved through the station and then gradually away from it and, still slowly, through the outskirts where most people ignored us but some returned our greetings and some children shouted “muzungu!, muzungu!”[3] at us. Gradually it gathered some more speed and the the clickety-clackety sound of the wheels passing over the fish plates that join the rails started to become more frequent and we were on our way, faster now!

After a while it was time to move to the dining car and we were impressed by its neatness and luxury. The car was lined with brown-red leather and old fans gently turned moving the air inside the carriage.

Clearly dinner was a serious affair. Waiters, wearing fezzes and white gloves helped us to find our table and be seated at our reserved places. The first course of the three-course menu was immediately brought. It was a hot soup that would be followed by fish and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and potatoes. Dessert was fruit crumble with excellent custard sauce.

We declined the freshly brewed Kenya coffee offer for fear of not being able to sleep. All dishes and drinks were served on crockery embossed with the logo of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, which had been defunct since 1977 but that were still in use!

Dinner over, as new commensals were arriving, we left, satisfied with our meal. We arrived at our cabin to find it transformed into a bedroom with immaculate starched sheets and pillows monogrammed with the same East African Railways logo. The change was such that I went out to check if we were in the right cabin!

Mabel slept soundly but I had difficulties as my bed was placed across the track so to say and every time that the train changed speed I would roll backwards and forwards and I feared falling until its speed stabilized again. The whistle sound and the brakes’ hiss and screech when the train slowed down did not add to my comfort either!

So, although the train was great from the historical and glamour sides, it was not a sleep coach for me. Lucky Mabel woke up just before we entered Mombasa!

The early morning arrival in hot and sticky Mombasa, coming from the rather cold and cloudy Nairobi, was like a miracle that truly brought me back to the early days of the train. The station was like a beehive with people vying with each other to get our luggage and offering you tropical fruits and all sorts of other goods! It was clearly a station with special character.

Once outside the station, the light was unbelievable and we needed to spend sometime adjusting to it to be able to find our transport that would take us to our hotel where I could have a “morning siesta” to recover my lost sleep while Mabel enjoyed the Mombasa markets under the tropical heat.

Unfortunately, after our time in Kenya, the railways service from Nairobi and Mombasa gradually deteriorated [4] and started running increasing delays and it could take the train 24 hours to do the journey we did in less than 12. Often the train would breakdown in truly dark areas or, if lucky, you could be stranded at Voi or other stations until repairs could be carried out. Although it still had a romantic touch, it was wearing thinner and it was just a question of time until its final journey.

When a new train known as the “Madaraka Express” started to be built by the Chinese, the fate of the Lunatic Express was sealed and it has then been replaced for a train that now takes 4.5 hours to get to Mombasa.

The train started to operate in May 2017 but, as the Lunatic Express it has also been the target of severe criticism due to its high cost of £2.5 billion, Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since independence [5] and comparatively even more expensive that the Lunatic line!

We have no desire to take the new train but prefer to still remember that we were lucky to taste the last voyages of what was one of the classic trips the world had to offer.

Footnotes

[1] Miller, C. The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. Head of Zeus Editor. Kindle edition. Originally published by Futura; First Thus edition (1977).

[2]
What it will cost no words can express; 
What is its object no brain can suppose; 
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going to nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry none can define... 
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
"It is clearly naught but a lunatic line."
See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001241674/end-of-road-for-first-railway-that-defined-kenya-s-history

[3] White person in Ki-Swahili.

[4] For a recent (2016) description of the Lunatic express deterioration see https://www.1843magazine.com/features/the-lunatic-express

[5] The end of the lunatic express: https://www.emirates.com/zw/english/open-skies/6336316/the-lunatic-express-is-no-longer

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