Lunatic Express | Kenya to Uganda by Train

DE-2 Class Diesel Locomotive. Kenya RailwaysDE-2 Class Diesel Locomotive. Kenya Railways

The Lunatic Express - 'Express' is certainly a misnomer for this train whose trappings of colonial luxury gave our travel writer, Carrie Hampton, some things to ponder on. Join Carrie in her journey from Nairobi (Kenya) to Kampala (Uganda) on the Lunatic Express.

I have never had the need to ask to be downgraded from first to second class, but I did on the Nairobi to Kampala Express. The roomy second class compartments were empty and looked far more inviting than the cramped, but private, first class.

This once-renowned train with trappings of colonial luxury had been out of commission for seventeen years, and not many people seemed to know it was running again. But perhaps they knew something I did not.

Local passengers were few and even train enthusiasts with a passion for the old and the revived were absent from this five hundred-mile journey on narrow-gauge tracks taking a scheduled twenty-three hours. I decided to find out why.

At 10.45 a.m.- a mere forty-five minutes late - the huge blue diesel engine heaved itself out of Kenya's capital city, through corrugated-roof slums ragged children waved and the poorest people had the broadest smiles. I returned the smiles and waves, but the scene passed as quickly as if it were a television news report, enabling me to observe from a comfortable distance.

With the briefest glance back and a twinge of privilege-induced guilt, I returned to my own personal reality - a bell-boy summoning First and Second Class passengers to the dining car.

Meat for Lunch

The scene was something from a 1940's black and white movie. Waiters hovered around the tables in starched almost-white uniforms and served luncheon from once-gleaming silver platters. With a great sweep of his huge hands and a broad grin, Johnson shook out my napkin and placed it on my lap stating, 'Karibu (welcome) Mama, lunch today meat, very nice.'

Tarnished silver service was not the only colonial legacy on this journey. The British are blamed for the innate slowness of the train, as they installed three-foot narrow gauge tracks making speed impossible and derailment a distinct possibility.

This 'express' frequently travelled at a lazy-man's jog, which enabled an opportunistic thief to hop on and attempt a briefcase hijack while the owner dined. Only the profusion of watchful staff prevented its departure.

Rift Valley Dust

The afternoon heat and three-foot gauge rhythmic sway soon induced a deep satisfying slumber. One hour later I felt that the floor of the Kenyan rift valley had crawled into my mouth. The fine red dust and dry grit of the rift valley had whisked itself up and filtered through my open window to settle in my gently drooping mouth, up my slightly snoring nose, into the curves of my ears and the corners of my eyes.

This invasive fine red powder robed me in salmon pink and as I stood up, my sleeping silhouette remained etched on the pale plastic of the bunk. Attempts to wipe it off resulted in abstract orange smears all over me and the compartment. Staff came scurrying in with mops and cloths before I could make any more mess.

Swahili Coverstions

'It's very dusty.' I commented to the Swahili speaking guard while the compartment was being cleaned. 'No, it is Wednesday, it was Tuesday yesterday.' he replied! I persevered with the conversation, but the crossed lines became canyons wider and I returned to the compartment shaking my head in puzzlement, while the guard seemed quite pleased with the social exchange.

At 7pm sharp, the odd assortment of passengers - some businessmen, a handful of tourists and backpackers and some Kenyans visiting relatives or conducting trade along the way - gathered for a sedate dinner.

Johnson's whites, like all of our clothes, now had a firm reddish tinge, as did the damask tablecloths and the chef's hat. Johnson's grin had not diminished and he announced proudly, as if for the first time that day, that dinner was 'meat'.

Back in the compartment the beds had been prepared in our absence, with a thick comfortable mattress, clean sheets and blankets with a corner turned down, as done only in the best hotels.

These refined touches posed an amusing paradox to the affluent travellers, but a less amusing contrast to those sleeping under cardboard by the derelict station hut we chugged past. I slipped into bed feeling content and complacent, expecting to wake up just outside our destination - Kampala, the Capital of Uganda.

The Train comes to a Grinding Halt

At 11.30pm, while I was sleeping like a baby, the train stopped. It did not move again for the next ten and a half-hours.

Blame it on the Brits, as the Captain jovially proceeded to do over the intercom as ahead of us a goods train had skipped off the ridiculously narrow tracks. We sat at a curve in the line, three hours from the Ugandan border, eating bacon and eggs, while local children looked hungrily in.

By now I was feeling really bad about doing nothing but sleep and eat in comfort while being stared at by people who could not lay claim to either of these luxuries. I would willingly have passed my breakfast out if the window but Johnson forbade it saying, 'These scoundrels must go now, I will shout them gone for bothering you,' which he proceeded to do.

An hour after we should have been pulling into Kampala station, we were still a full day away from our destination. Our engine, which had disappeared round the bend up the track, suddenly returned and reattached itself to its rightful position. Cheering from passengers and crew alike seemed to give it new life and it gathered speed to settle into its average plod of 50 kph for the remaining nine and a half-hours.

If we had been running on time, nobody would have had a good night's sleep anyway because the train usually crosses the Uganda border post at Tororo at 2am, where everyone has to disembark. The disinterested customs official sat at his rickety desk pounding his rubber stamp over any stray piece of paper and after waiting for him to look up, I opened my passport and placed a blank section in his line of fire. He hardly noticed.

Travel on Africa Time

With a new meaning to the concept of 'express', we finally pulled into Kampala station twelve hours late after a thirty-five hour journey. This I knew was an omen to tell a city woman driven by time deadlines, to forget her concept of time. I took my watch off at that moment and have never worn it since.

Postcript: the Nairobi to Kampala train may or may not be running as you read this, so check if you are planning to do this 'express' trip.

The author of this article is Carrie Hampton - she can be contacted on email: carrieh@iafrica.com

Copyright 2002 Carrie Hampton. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without the permission of the author is prohibited

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