Sunday, April 15, 2007

Nairobi by Rail

We had to go back to Nairobi to finish the second half of the in country VSO Training. VSO split the classes up because there was a second group of volunteers coming 6 weeks after we arrived. Like the movie, our options were Planes, Trains and Automobiles. We had originally traveled to Mombasa by bus so this time we opted for the Train.

The railway was built in 1895 by the British after Kenya and Uganda became a protectorate. It ran from the eastern edges of Uganda to the south east coast of Kenya. Construction took over 6 years and hundreds of Indian laborers lost their lives. Like so many projects of its type, it cost far more to build than it would ever recover financially, and those costs continued to climb long after it was finished. Its construction opened up the fertile Kenyan highlands, and travel time from England, by ship and rail, was reduced to just a month’s journey. With its now secure supply lines and easy access to the interior, Kenya was suddenly opened up to a flood of White settlement paving the way for the creation of an apartheid like governance in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Sadly, with it’s chronic under funding and the result of much of its finances being siphoned off by the powers that be, most of the rail service lines were halted in 2001. There were too many railway accidents and the passenger service was considered unsafe for travel. Fortunately the Nairobi to Mombasa service was never stopped and this was our chance to ride a traditional steam engine with classic colonial services such as train conductors, sleeping berths and fine china in the dining car. The train has 3 classes of service. First class gets you a private car with 2 person births, one above the other, a tiny sink and offers dinner and breakfast the next morning. Second class has a private car with 4 births, offers breakfast in the morning and is supposed to be same sex only. Third class has only seats and you are on your own for a meal. It costs half the fare of a bus to Nairobi and it’s packed.

We were told that the train leaves at 7:00 at night and arrives in Mombasa the next morning between 8:30 and 10:00 AM. Delays are routine. Cindy and I have gotten very good at waiting for transportation and being idle. Our year of travel trained us well. The most common answer we received while traveling in developing countries to the question of “When does the bus leave?” was “When its full’. After waiting in the station for almost 3 hours, our train finally showed and we quickly loaded in and headed off into the night.

The car was quaint and comfortable and in it’s hey day would have provided everything needed for the distinguished traveler. There was a fan mounted high on the wall (didn’t work) a small closet, a tap just for drinking water (I didn’t dare try it), a small sink for washing up, a medicine cabinet, a screen over the window, and two beds. The top one folded up against the wall when not in use and the bottom one doubled as both a bed and a settee. The wash room was at the end of the car and was of the typical Asian style. There was a sign on the door asking that you not use the facilities while the train was in a station. I looked down and saw that there was no tank, just a pipe to the tracks below and understood why.

The attendant came though almost immediately sounding the dinner bell and we made our way up to the dining car. The tables were set with china and silver utensils all stamped with the initials KR (Kenya Railways). Waiters in white uniforms walked up and down the aisle serving a full 3 course meal. Beer, wine and soda was also available. I could just imagine myself sitting there 50 years ago rubbing elbows with British colonials and dining in high style. It wasn’t until later that I noticed that the uniforms on the attendants were stained, threadbare and patched and that the china was dull and chipped. Signs of the under funding and the faded grandeur of what the railway used to be.

All night long the train stopped at various unknown destinations along the way picking up and dropping off passengers or parcels. While we were at dinner, the conductor set up the bedding in our compartment. Sometimes the train would just stop in the middle of no where for up to an hour and then mysteriously start up again. I was told later that it was waiting for another train to pass. I woke before dawn, climbed out of the bunk, entered the narrow passageway and watched the sun come up over the countryside while the train was stopped at yet another of its many way points. It was perfectly quiet and unimaginably beautiful. I didn’t know it yet but we still had over 7 hours to go before we got to Nairobi. The total trip actually took 17 hours to get there and 16 hours for the return. The bus averages about 8 hours. Both of us were glad for the delays. Otherwise we would not have been able to see the countryside by day. And unlike a bus you can get up and walk around to stretch your legs or lie down to read or take a nap. I spent hours just staring out the window watching the scenery pass by…...... Like I said we are good at being idle.

I got off of the train and felt like I do when I have been on a boat for a while. Sea legs. It lasted for days. A reminder of the gentle rocking that you felt constantly on the train and of my new favorite way to travel.

Check out our latest video about the train at

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