“Please look out of the window to your right, to see elephants as we pass through the Tsavo National Park,” a polite voice advises over the loudspeaker.
As we glide through the arid, yellow grasslands of one of Kenya’s oldest national parks, all eyes are peeled for big game trundling between the iconic bao-bab trees that define typical postcards of African plains at sunset.
The Tsavo is home to the classic big five game animals: lion, black rhino, cape buffalo and leopards, as well as the elephants. Any of them could be spotted from our seats. But this isn’t a safari. Rather, it’s a ride on Kenya’s new high-speed railway that links the cosmopolitan capital of Nairobi in the north, with its hipster cafes, bourgeois boutiques and high-rise towers, to the Indian Ocean oasis of Mombasa on the West coast of Africa.
Built and financed by the Chinese, it was conceived by the Kenyan government as a faster way to move cargo from the city to the port of Mombasa – the train line was never meant to be a tourist attraction. But since opening in May 2017, it’s become exactly that.
The Kenyan Railways Corporation has had to lay on extra services to meet passenger demand (there are now two passenger trains per day in each direction), and says that it has moved 2.7 million passengers to date. The service regularly sells out at busy periods.
The safari-esqe announcements were added as a response to the tourist demand and have become a staple of the journey, delivering interesting snippets of historical and geographic information as the railway zooms through Nairobi National Park, then bisects Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks, with the bluish peak of Mount Kilimanjaro visible in the distance just after half way through the ride. Dazzles of zebras regularly trot along beside the tracks, casually eyeing up this modern new beast as the train pulls into various stations along the route.
Before the Madaraka Express tourists travelling from Nairobi to Mombasa by land had two options: they either braved the treacherous, single-lane road that snakes down the country and is regularly besieged by sandstorms and held up by freight trucks overturned while trying to overtake – a journey that takes 16 hours, on a good day.
Or they could have bought a ticket on the storied Lunatic Express, the single-gauge railway line built by British colonialists at the turn of the 20th Century, which became something of a legend among travellers and historians alike.
The Nairobi Railway Museum, opened in 1971, tells much of its legendary history. This dusty corner of the capital, which looks like a junkyard for old steam trains (you can easily climb inside trains from more than 100 years ago without being spotted or stopped) and where the gift shop is only sometimes staffed, images and relics from the now-retired line give a glimpse into Kenya’s colonial past.
The Uganda Railway, as it was officially called, was built by 32,000 workers, many of whom were shipped in from India, and newspaper cuttings at the museum reveal just how many men were savaged as lions attacked their tented camps at nighttime – and sometimes even climbed into the train cabins. In total, about 2,500 men died building the line – more from the back-breaking work than the hungry wildlife – but this phenomenal engineering achievement succeeded in joining the British protectorate of Mombasa to the colony of Uganda, uniting the disparate tribes in between as the country today known as Kenya.
The Lunatic Express – so named for the mental state it drove the labourers who built it to – was a matter of British pride. The now-threadbare seat once sat in by the Queen of England when she rode the train remains in the museum, utterly unprotected and unmanned.
By the end of the 21st Century, however, it was tourists who were being driven crazy by the British line. It regularly left Nairobi hours behind schedule, and could take as long as 24 hours more than scheduled to finally pull in to Mombasa, leaving travellers stranded in obscure stations such as the mountain village of Voi while engineers were called to repair a patch of century-old track, or scrape big game road kill from the line. It undeniably had a romantic charm, but for anyone on a schedule it was an enemy to timekeeping.
The Madaraka Express, by contrast, has never once been late, according to the Kenyan government, and takes just four and a half hours to reach Mombasa, costing passengers 1,000 Kenyan shillings for a ticket in first class – that’s four times faster than the Lunatic Express, when the British train was having a good day. Seats can be booked in advance online.
If the Lunatic Express was a symbol of Kenya’s past, the Madaraka Express is what the government wants visitors to see as its future. The comfortable cabins are spotless, being mopped and swept every 30 minutes, there are phone charging stations by every window seat and friendly staff dressed in flight attendant-style uniforms regularly bustle down the aisle with a packed food and drinks trolley. As the train sweeps through the countryside, you get a sense of how vast Kenya is and the modernising effect the train line is having at everywhere it stops. Huge, glass spaceship-like stations have now landed in previously small rural outposts such as Voi, a jumping off spot for those going on safaris in the East Tsavo where the long grass now grows over the old train tracks. Locals say that since the trainline began stopping in Voi the town has swelled, with high-rise apartment blocks springing up and new restaurants and hotels to cater to the tourists who pile in twice a day.
As the train pushes further south and nearer to Mombasa, the land becomes more lush – fertile hills stretch out like inviting green gardens as the twinkling blue sea of Mombasa comes into view, illustrating just what a diverse nation Kenya is geographically.
The government has plans to showcase that botanic brilliance and ecological excellence even further when the next section of the line opens later this year (the exact date is currently unconfirmed, but the line is built). The next phase will take tourists north of Nairobi through the big blue skies of Kenya’s Rift Valley, zooming past the huts of Maasai Mara people all the way up to Naivasha, famous for its geothermal hot springs and the jumping off point for Hell’s Gate National Park, home to the famous rock formation that inspired the opening scene of the Disney animated classic film The Lion King.
With so much new scenery to take in at 120 kilometres an hour, this definitely isn’t a train ride you’ll be wanting to sleep through.