Kenya by rail: a colonial adventure on the train from Nairobi to Mombasa

The overnight sleeper train between Kenya’s capital, Nairobi and the white sandy beaches in Mombasa takes passengers cross-country via Kenya’s largest national park: Tsavo. Go with an open mind and you’ll be rewarded with an authentic, colonial experience...just don't expect to arrive on time, writes Lottie Gross.

Source: Lottie Gross

The handbell rang at 7:15pm to announce that dinner was being served.

I emerged from my first class cabin, which, much like the rest of the train, looked like it had seen better days and took my seat inside the dining car.

The tables were arranged in booths of four, which, as a single backpacker or pair, was great for meeting other travellers and locals.

The plastic tableware laid out in front of me was hardly the luxury I was expecting, but served its purpose.

The food was fresh and hearty, the air was pleasantly warm and our carriage was alive with conversation, with travellers swapping stories, itineraries and advice.

After an unnamed soup to start, the typical Kenyan choice of either fried chicken or beef stew was on the menu, alongside rice and curried vegetables.

Nairobi Railway Station, from where we had set off, wasn’t as hectic as you might expect a capital city’s only station to be, and was a welcome respite from the pandemonium of rush hour outside.

It seems that, despite years of British rule and exploitation of Indian labourers, we didn’t bless this East African republic with the same extensive railway system as other colonial territories. Although, considering there are really only two train lines to be explored from Nairobi – the Mombasa route and the Kisimu line – the station was relatively large.

Kenya by rail: a colonial adventure on the train from Mombasa to Nairobi

Dinner service was fast, to say the least. The whole three-course meal was over in a matter of 45 minutes and we were ushered back to our cabins by our waiters, eager to set the tables for the next sitting.

The sleeper cabins look as if they haven’t been refurbished since the middle of the 20th century, with beige and orange leather seats and fake wooden paneling lining the walls.

Years of neglect show where cabin doors don’t shut properly, windows have been repaired in hapdash fashion and the lighting is erratic, as if someone is playing with a secret dimmer switch that you aren’t allowed access to.

But these faults are immaterial when you’re faced with fields of greenery and a scattering of small huts, capped by a beaming sunrise the following morning. It’s a slice of Africa often overlooked by tourists who make the 330 mile journey between Nairobi and Mombasa by plane.

But don’t expect a good night’s sleep: it often felt more like a stormy sea voyage than a vehicle laid on tracks. So I thanked Kenya Railways for providing the rope restraint on the side of my top bunk as I rolled around with the movements of the train in the night.

Breakfast, served at 7am to the sound of that shrill ringing handbell again, was a feast of fruit salad, toast, omelette, beans and sausage. Again, the service was prompt and we were in and out before the sun had a chance to rise.

The train slowed and stopped a few times during the journey and we quickly learned that this was the best time to use the rather appropriately signed “Choo Lavatory” (“Choo” meaning toilet in Swahili). As much as there is nothing like peeing and watching the tracks fly past beneath your feet, this wasn’t a journey I was willing to test my balance on!

As we trundled along the track, my eyes diverted to the rural surroundings as I tried to identify what those pineapple shaped plants were out the window and waved at the children herding cattle out on the fields.

Often you hear people talk of “African Time” and if it was in the dictionary, the definition might read something like this: African Time – the infinite amount of time one can be expected to wait past the initial promise of arrival or length of journey. Synonyms – “slowly, slowly” or “pole pole” in Swahili.

While I had not yet experienced ‘African Time’ at the start of my trip in Kenya, I was about to experience it on the train, which was due to pull up in Mombasa four hours later than scheduled.

Don’t expect trains here to arrive on time, as apparently delays of up to four hours are common and after all, the British built the railway and we aren’t exactly known for our punctual train services at home either.

Kenya train adventure

As the train continued to drag itself, and us, along the tracks we were all in good spirits because there is no better way to take in the Kenyan countryside than hanging out the train window with the wind blowing through your hair.

We could tell we were drawing nearer to Mombasa as the mud huts turned to buildings of industrial size and the air became salty from the sea.

It was then that the scale of poverty hit me as we sailed right past an enormous, stinking rubbish heap where children and their parents slept under wooden shacks, foraging for anything of worth. It was a devastating and grounding sight to see after such a beautiful journey and a grave reminder that while Kenya has its beauty, there is an uglier side to life here.

As we pulled into Mombasa Railway Station I expected to see hoards of people waiting for tourists to alight the train, but like in Nairobi, it was surprisingly quiet with only a few taxi drivers and locals hanging about. When I stepped off the train it was a relief to be walking again, knowing that there would be are no delays – but then that’s just the African way.

Recreate the trip

  • Tickets can be booked with any good travel agent, safari operator or hotel in Nairobi. Try to book ahead as the train can get fully booked in first class.
  • There are three classes on the train. Only First Class tickets include meals, while second class will get you a 4-berth cabin and third class just a hard seat.
  • At the time of writing, a first class ticket costs $75 (£48) one-way for a 2-berth cabin, bedding, three course dinner and full breakfast served on board.
  • The fare doesn’t include drinks but these are reasonably priced on board.
  • The train leaves at 7pm but you must be on board by 6.30pm. The journey can take anywhere from 14 to 17 hours: delays are common.
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