I wrote this piece for Nomad Magazine and it appeared in the July 2017 edition
It’s 7am and I’m on the back of a boda (motorbike taxi), winging my way down the Mombasa road toward Nairobi’s shiny new railway station to take the much lauded, somewhat controversial (here’s my piece about the cost), (and my piece about lives ruined by sand harvesting needed to build it), Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) train to Mombasa.
After 40 minutes of careering along, cutting through the traffic and hanging on to my boda driver for dear life, I decide this should not be called the ‘Nairobi Terminus’ but the ‘Somewhat Out Of Town Terminus That Is A Real Pain In The Ass (literally) To Get To’.
This is not the first time my boda driver Wycliff has visited the station for me. With no online booking or telephone system at present, going to get tickets in person is the only option. It should also be said that I discovered all this only after a series of long-winded phone calls to Kenya Railways and Facebook messages with those who had already taken the trip.
So, my mood is somewhat sour (I still can’t feel my bottom) as I arrive at the huge new station with its sleek grey structure and fancy glass walls. Through the two stages of security I go – both involve bag checking and frisking – and up the escalators into the bright, clinical waiting room. It’s now 8am, and the train departs at 9.
At 8:45 we’re called through to the platform. Elegant women in smart uniforms stand at the entrance to every carriage: smiling, checking tickets and welcoming people on board. Excited passengers examine the carriages, storing their luggage in the overhead racks, taking selfies and commenting on how clean and spacious second class is.
It’s true – the train is very nice. Comfortable seats, spacious walkways, clean toilets. For some reason though, I’m starting to feel somewhat uneasy. I can’t quite put my finger on it and then it hits me – everything is so organised. Where are the passengers clambering across the tracks, or leaping aboard when the train is already moving? Where is the floral dining cart with the clattering crockery and dodgy soup? In short: where are the things that made Kenya’s original Mombasa – Nairobi railway line, the Lunatic Express, so delightfully charming?
I’m beginning to resent the Chinese construction company that (very expensively) brought Kenya’s railway system into the modern day and at the same time helped it lose all its charm in one clean sweep. On the Lunatic Express, my legs stuck to the cracked leather seats. The hot, dusty air poured in through the windows. It was magical. This new train is air-conditioned. It’s dull.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other passengers don’t seem to share my nostalgia for the rickety old train. They settle into their seats, and at 9am on the dot we jolt off toward Mombasa.
Just as I was beginning to think all sense of personality had been omitted from this new line the speakers in our carriage crackle into life, playing tinny 90s power ballads over the mellow hum of passenger chatter. Yes! And there’s more: along the journey, we’re given little updates on what we’re seeing out of the windows or the place we’re about to travel through. Emali, apparently, is “a town that never sleeps due to its vibrant nightlife, and a popular truck strop for drivers coming from or to Mombasa.”
We snake through hundreds of miles of scrubland, past small clay houses, narrow dirt tracks disappearing into the distance, donkeys grazing in the hot sunshine and kids herding cattle. Occasionally, we parallel the steady stream of trucks slugging their way down the Mombasa road, before bending away into the bright terracotta landscape mottled with green trees. In our carriage, a sliding screen tells passengers it is 32 degrees Celsius outside.
At Tsavo National Park, passengers stand up to try and catch a glimpse of one of the big five, children’s faces pressed up against the glass windows. Soon after, we have to pull in to let the train coming in the opposite direction pass. The reaction from the carriage as it speeds past is brilliant – everyone, and I mean everyone, leaps up and erupts into cheers, clapping and laughing like their favourite football team had just scored a goal.
The scrubland turns to sand, palm trees and neatly cultivated luscious farms: a sure sign we are nearly in Mombasa. Our train pulls in to the strangely elaborate Mombasa Terminus at 13:49 – 20 minutes after it was scheduled to arrive. Still, the whole journey took just under 5 hours, knocking an impressive 8 hours off the journey time on the Lunatic Express.
We’re still about an hour out of Mombasa at this terminus, and I have a flight to catch, so I hop in a tuk tuk and wind through the traffic filled, polluted streets of Mombasa to the airport. By 16:40 I’m in the air, and by 17:45 I’m back in Nairobi, on the back of another boda, heading home. It may have cost a fortune to build, and it might not have all the charm of the old Lunatic Express, but the new SGR is smart, not totally without personality, and most of all, quick.
First class: 3000ksh
Seats in first class are more comfortable than in second. They recline, and can swivel all the way around so you can sit in pairs or as a group of four facing each other.
Second class: 700 KSH
Seats in second class are in clusters of four or six, with a small table in between.
- Tickets are released three days in advance from the Nairobi Terminus. Advance booking in person is currently necessary.
- Journey time: 4.5 hours
- Nairobi Terminus is at Syokimau – 30 minutes from the CBD, beyond the airport
- Mombasa Terminus is at Miritini – about an hour’s drive from central Mombasa