Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

Nostalgia for Kenya's Lunatic Express

(China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-06-02 11:18

It's bittersweet news hearing that the 472-kilometer rail line connecting Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya has been modernized, reducing the travel time to four hours, which seems impossible.

When I used to ride the smaller gauge line back in the late '70s, it was still an overnight affair. It would depart Nairobi right at 7, equatorial dusk, and emerge out onto the savannah just in time to see the light show of sunset, when the red clay earth and blue sky would trade colors.

If you got a window seat on the south-facing side of the dining car - where white tablecloths, sterling silverware and seven-course meals were still served - you could also watch the daily routine of the clouds that clustered around and hid Mount Kilimanjaro through the daybreak and race off to the west, unveiling Africa's tallest mountain, Ngai's (God's) magnificent throne, which back then still had its thick glacier crown.

The Iron Snake as it had been called in ancient Kikuyu prophecies (that would one day join the salt lake with the fresh one, i.e., Indian Ocean with Lake Victoria), puttered along at such a lazy pace you felt like you could jump off and jog alongside for a little exercise after dinner.

Not that you'd want to, because the big animals of the plains would appear everywhere in the twilight - elephants, giraffe, zebras, gazelles and you could assume the unseen predators that attend them.

The rail line's other - and most celebrated - nickname, of course, was the Lunatic Express. In the age of Queen Victoria, with Germany to the south in Tanganyika, the race was on for Africa's interior. Britain pushed this line through her colony against appalling obstacles.

Starting at sea level, the route climbs 1,500 meters through jungles, forests, over vast chasms and crocodile-filled rivers that carried the full menu of tropical diseases - malaria, bilharzia, sleeping sickness, elephantiasis, not to mention some of the most deadly snakes on Earth.

Of the 32,000 laborers, most of whom were from India and local tribes, nearly 2,500 were killed - 500 in one attack by Maasai warriors alone.

The most haunting deaths - the ones I would always think about tucking into the bed sheets (the porter would make your bed while you dined) just as the train approached the area - were at the Tsavo River bridge.

During the nine-month construction of the span in 1898, two enormous maneless male lions feasted on laborers, dragging as many as 135 from their tents and barricades. The two monsters were eventually killed. One measured nearly 3 meters from nose to tail and took nine men to carry back to camp.

Both of the so-called Man-Eaters of Tsavo are now stuffed and greet visitors to the Field Museum in Chicago.

Dawn would break on that lazy train ride just as you were descending into the lush tropical world of Kenya's coast. As the engineer slowed the train to a crawl, children would run alongside and yell things at the lumbering, old Iron Snake. You could open your window and call back to them. There always seemed to be swarms of butterflies, and those endlessly noisy birds.

The ride was one of those anachronistic joys you knew wouldn't last forever.

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