Blog: Crossing Kenya by Train

31

Oct 2019

Crossing Kenya by Train

Posted by / in Africa, Blog, Featured Posts, frontpage, Tavistock Travel Agents, Traveller's Tales /

Taking the train across Kenya.

Take the train from Nairobi to Mombasa.

Travelling by train in Kenya used to be “unpredictable”. The colonial period narrow-gauge train that ran from Nairobi all the way to Mombasa on the coast was called the Lunatic Express and was a 15 hour overnight sleeper service.

Brand new for 2019
The brand new Chinese-built railway has reduced the travel time to 4 ½ hrs and is really reliable. It follows the same route as the Lunatic Express, so spotting big game while you travel makes this train journey unique.

The new service is called the Madaraka Express and can carry 1,200 passengers. The train departs Nairobi in the morning and you can be on the beach just after lunchtime. The Nairobi terminus is close to the international airport (6 Km from the city centre) so you could go direct from airport to beach. The Mombasa terminus is less than a Km from the airport, or about 15 mins from the Likoni Ferry which gives access to Diani and the southern Mombasa beaches (which are the best!).

Buying tickets: crossing kenya by train
Tickets are incredibly cheap (approx £10 second and £30 first class, each way) but can’t be bought on-line, only in person. Venture Co can obtain tickets via our partner in Nairobi (no fee charged). 2nd class is crowded, but perfectly comfy. 1st class has reclining, rotating seats, fold-out trays, power socket and air conditioning; and only first class has access to the buffet car. All the rolling stock is made in China.

Crossing kenya by train: the Nairobi terminus

Crossing kenya by train: the Nairobi terminus

Time to kill in Nairobi: here are some ideas.

Security
The safari business is incredibly important to the Kenya economy, and the nation is justifiably proud of their new train service, so security is really tight. You go through two separate screening processes: the point being, allow plenty of time to board the train.

The Lunatic Express Remembered
In 1898 the Brits began building the ‘Coast to Kampala’ railway line. Local Kenyans had no clue how to build such a thing, so the Brits imported several thousand labourers from India where railways were an established institution. Several canvas villages were established to accommodate the labourers in the area of Tsavo National Park through which the track runs. Then the mysteries began: labourers kept disappearing … at night. Lion attacks were identified and the horror spread through the workforce. The project leader was a military man and he decided to employ 20 experienced Sepoys to track the lions, which proved elusive. Weeks and months passed and the lion attacks continued, munching their way through 31 people. Eventually the first lion was shot and it was a huge, mane-less male which looked terrifying. The other lion was identified as another mane-less male of equal size but possessing more cunning. Night after night they tried to shoot it, but it transpired that the lion was stalking the guns, rather than vice versa. The second lion was eventually shot an incredible nine times before it died and they say it was crawling towards the guns and sank its teeth into a fallen branch in defiance, with its dying breath. The lions became known as “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” and the skins and skulls were sold to America and now reside in the Chicago museum.

And so the Lunatic Express was born!

I remember the old train service, with three classes, as a mission in itself. You would leave Nairobi in the evening and chuff through Nairobi National Park before settling down for the night. 14 hours later you arrived in Mombasa, maybe. Break-downs were not unusual; big game on the tracks slowed things down and the whole thing was a bit of an adventure, but great fun. The rolling stock was all British and had that ‘Agatha Christie’ feel to it. Now it’s all Chinese and utterly reliable …. ‘plus ça change’.

Crossing kenya by train: the Mombasa terminus

Mombasa terminus

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