September 19, 2011

It goes clackety clack

The overnight train from Nairobi to Mombassa: they say it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which I now realize is quite the clever double entendre. Is it once-in-a-lifetime because it's an elusively rare gem of an experience that one will never be lucky enough to capture twice? Or is it because after you've experienced it once, you realize that once is quite enough; no repeat performance necessary.

For those who are fulfilling a decades-old dream of colonial elegance, perhaps the former. For those who live in Kenya, complete with repeat access, probably the latter.

But nonetheless, I did it! I traveled. By train! Who doesn't love trains? And lions! Who doesn't love lions?

The Nairobi train station on a Friday night is a mix of bustle and repose, as people either shuffle out of town or patiently await their turn to leave.

Going somewhere swiftly.

Going somewhere slowly.

Boarding with a cane and head full of luggage.

The overnight train leaves Nairobi at 7pm(ish) and arrives at the Kenyan coast in Mombassa at 10am(ish) the next morning, endowing passengers with a solid 13 hours of throwback colonial sophistication in a first-class sleeper car. Supposedly. But if you're thinking of the smooth, bump-free train trajectories of Europe, you're thinking of an entirely different brand of transporation. Dial it back by about 100 years to the 1890s when these tracks were built. Reflect upon the various nicknames this railway had: "the lunatic line" and "the iron snake." Recall that in one year a pair of lions (only two!) killed somewhere between 28 and 135 rail construction workers (so, aptly, the Kenya railways logo is a lion?).

Most notably, a night on this train is a ride through history, if not a restful night's sleep. It goes clackety clack and rocks back and forth with every chug. It's the type of train on which you'd send a no-good fella' packing with a one-way ticket to a soundtrack of "Hit the Road Jack." A choo choo train in the most literal sense.

So then what's the point? Why not just pay the extra $20 to fly down to the coast in an hour? Why, because you would miss this:

Sunrise over Tsavo park.

Dawn from the breakfast car.

And as you draw closer to Mombassa, the landscape changes to pineapple plantations and small villages where the children run outside to just wave and wave and wave at the train. If you lean far enough out the window, I'm sure you can hear them hollering, "Howareyou?I'mfine!"

Pineapples, all the way down.


Certainly there's an elegance, a romance, to train travel. An elegance shaded by a crimson hue when you think of the bloody history, not only from lions but also from an invasion into the land of the native peoples. If not the current pinnacle of luxury and glamour, the trip is evocative. Sensory and historically weighty, it probably is a once-in-my-lifetime affair... Clackety clacking our way through Kenya.


  1. Looks beautiful. And you've certainly been getting out and about lately.

  2. Hey!

    So, I stumbled across your blog quite randomly (I hope you don't mind...). I also live in Kenya, but I just moved here. I really like the way you describe your experiences - and these pictures are gorgeous! You've definitely convinced me to take that train at some point.

    Anyways, I'm looking forward to following your travels a bit...


  3. Hi Lindsey,

    Welcome! I see that you're living in Mombassa- how exciting. If I lived there, I think I'd be buying new spices to experiment cooking with every day.

    If you're going to take the train, I'd recommend flying to Nairobi (spending some time) and then taking the overnight back to the coast. I think the morning route is much more scenic in that direction than heading towards Nairobi.

    Safe travels,