I can’t ever remember a night that involved quite so much shaking. I’ve travelled on long distance trains in many parts of the world and the Rift Valley Railway line that runs out of the Kenyan highlands from Nairobi to Mombasa is probably the shakiest train ride in the world.


I woke a couple of times thinking we’d come off the rails – and once I lay awake wondering if maybe they’d never laid rails in the first place. After three weeks of humping a camera bag around Kenya the nightlong pounding massage seems to have done me the world of good though. We’d rolled out of Nairobi in the dark – the shanties and slums just showing as patches of lantern light and smog-zones of burning garbage along the trackside. Dinner was served in the dining car and about the time we were approaching the great truckers’ haven of Athi River with its, gas-stations, beer shops and whores, we were tucking into dollops of curry and rice.


A waiter came around with a pyramid of sweating beer bottles on a tray and instead of risking removing a Tusker from under the heap I carefully lifted the top one – a bottle of White Cap with its label showing the peak of Mount Kenya which would be a hundred or more miles directly to our north.


“Old man’s beer,” jibed the friendly Kenyan couple who were taking the train journey as part of their honeymoon on the coast.


Our first-class cabin was basic. Even in India, it would barely have qualified as second-class but a first-class supplement means that we had it to ourselves. We slept well apart from the occasional jolting reminders that we were rattling through untamed African bush. I woke about 2am to a distinctive rattling and figured that we were probably going over the Tsavo Bridge. I’d driven this way in a hired 4wd years before and knew that this famous bridge is actually a surprisingly humble little suspension span across a river that is rarely more than a trickle. Yet this engineering job had been the greatest challenge in the building of the line. It has been called ‘the Lunatic Railway’ because it was only really a fit of pointless colonial bravado that convinced the British to build what would be the greatest railway in East Africa, all the way from Mombasa, through Nairobi to Kampala. It took two rogue Tsavo lions to teach the British bwanas (and, unfortunately, their Indian coolies) the real error of their ways. In the course of a few horrifying weeks the lions brought the might of the British Empire to a standstill when they killed and ate 38 Indian labourers. They became so brazen that in the end they would go into the tents to drag their victims out.


I wake just before the sun rises and staring, bleary-eyed, through the fly-screened window I can make out a landscape that is now spiked with shaggy headed palms along with the stumpy form of baobabs. The white-washed minarets of little village mosques rise above the thatched and corrugated shacks. We’ll arrive on the Indian Ocean coast in Mombasa in a few hours.


The odds were completely against this line ever being completed built…and these days it still seems to be pretty much inexplicable why the Lunatic Express continues to run. The long-distances air-con buses that run along Trans-Africa Highway are cheaper and faster and the dangerous little crammed matatu combis are MUCH cheaper…and probably faster still.


There’s only one reason why this train continues to make its lunatic run three times a week. It’s almost the same reason for which it was built in the first place: sheer inexplicable railway mania.


Contact Twiga Tours for details about travel on the Nairobi-Mombasa express, or for help with domestic travel arrangements around Kenya.



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