My husband and I had been living in Nairobi for a month when we decided it was time to visit Mombasa, a coastal city in Kenya. Mombasa is about 475 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Nairobi. The trip is a 50-minute flight, a 7-hour drive, or a 14-hour train trip lovingly referred to as “The Lunatic Express” — guess which one our group opted to take 😉
When my husband told his Kenyan coworkers that we were going to take the train to Mombasa, they said things like, “I’ll start walking to Mombasa now and I’ll probably beat you there,” and “Why would you do that?” Clearly, we were lunatics for taking the train.
We bought first class tickets, which entitled us to a ramshackle room with two bunk beds, worn-out bed linens, and a mediocre dinner and breakfast on the train. That’s right, we needed two meals on this train because apparently it was going to take us 14 hours to get to Mombasa.
Welcome to “The Lunatic Express”
I imagine that our train car was “first-class” fifty years ago. And to be fair, it was nicer than third class, where passengers spend the entire night on hard plastic seats. But even so the first-class car was lacking in certain first-class amenities, such as toilet paper, light bulbs, and cleanliness.
Surprisingly, we left the Nairobi train station on time. Unsurprisingly, the train’s generator broke immediately. So, we began our journey chugging through one of Nairobi’s slums in the dark. I stood at an open window, breathing in the dirty air of Nairobi and taking in the scene until a train employee said, You should shut the window. We are in a slum and sometimes people outside throw rocks in here.”
I dutifully shut my window.
The train had a disconcerting pattern of lurching from side to side, so dinner was a messy affair. We spilled our soup, and our drinks. We worried that the lantern swinging wildly above my head, might fall. Luckily, it didn’t and after two lengthy stops, the generator was back up and running and the lantern was turned off.
The rocking of the train made sleeping difficult. My husband slept on the top bunk and we actually had to fasten a net across his bed so that he wouldn’t come crashing to floor in the middle of the night. I found that I would usually fall asleep when the train stopped moving (and for some reason, it stopped a lot), and then I would wake up when it started moving again.
At breakfast the next morning, we learned that we would be arriving in Mombasa “a bit late.” So we settled back down in our tiny cabins and watched Kenya roll by. Children stood next to the track and waved. Men sat outside traditional bomas, watching us pass. Women waited patiently at the intersection of the train tracks and the road, huge bundles balanced on their heads.
At 10:45 am, we pulled into the Mombasa station. It had taken us almost 16 hours to get from Nairobi to Mombasa. Luckily, we had already booked the 50 minute plane flight home.