Taking the Train from Mombasa to Nairobi
by Archie Melrose
(Aberdeen, Scotland, UK)
Train from Mombasa to Nairobi
I was totally seduced by the thought of taking the night train from Mombasa to Nairobi. A journey that many have written about and survived.
This train is from a bygone era when the white man ruled supreme in Kenya and was the only link between the coast and Nairobi city.
Needless to say the train is full of Britishness and is unique in every way. The dining car is resplendent in 60's decor, red leather seats, old pictures of white hunters with their kills, pristine white tablecloths, silver cutlery and somewhat chipped china plates. The mustard pot was shining amidst the myriad of condiments on the table.
Peris my fiance was totally amazed for so many reasons. First time on a plane down to Mombasa, first time seeing the oceans waves, first time finding sea shells, first time on a train. The joy of giving her such experiences was incredible, things that we take for granted each day.
How could anyone question the decadence of another generation when it comes to breakfast in the middle of the African heartland.
So how did this journey start? It was quite simple, a booking, a ticket, turn up at the appointed time. Much like a journey anywhere else in the world. You would have thought that this would be simple but of course you have to realise that you are in Africa and nothing is simple, in fact you have to make sure you have some extra money in your back pocket to make things move. That is the norm, its expected by both parties, its acceptable and understood.
Mombasa is a cosmopolitan city, full of history that goes back to invaders from Portugal, Arabia, Britain.....back to Portugal and so on.
There are the modern districts, but there is the old town with narrow streets, bazaars and coffee houses, all of them clamouring for your attention. We had the joy of being beaten into a coffee house by the torrential rain and an experience to share with you.....shoes off....ushered into a darkened room....mattresses on the floor....for a moment I wondered what the mattresses were for.....
However my fears were allayed when the menu arrived and it did not contain pictures of available women. Just many different varieties of coffee, I was lost but eventually went for the local blend which was full of ginger and the warm glow made me think of eastern promise....I am convinced it was full of something else. However the rain went off and we managed to splash through the flooded streets.
As time rolled on it was the moment to visit Fort Jesus which used to be the protection for the area when it came to invaders. A very stout castle as we would call it here in Scotland with many rooms and escape routes for those that could not bear the cannonballs.
I had a smile on my face as the guide showed me the rows and rows of black painted cannons which had the seal of a Scottish company... near Glasgow. So many hundreds of years ago and Scotland keeps coming up with all its influence in the world. I smiled a lot!
So I digress, one of the most enchanting moments was to turn up at the main railway station for our journey back to Nairobi. Make sure our tickets were good, booking was confirmed and it was ok to get the pink slip to show the train manager - more of him later. Once again it was stand in line and wait...this can normally take an hour or so, patience is good.
Oh yes, there are heartaches and tears when the person in front does not have the correct papers, but in this environment its everyone for themselves. You cannot be diverted by other peoples problems. It can be disturbing but you have to remain focused.
The train was awesome, climb up the steps into another world, far removed from Mombasa old town. Three classes of tickets... 1st class gets you a sleeper, dinner, breakfast, 2nd gets you a sleeper but you share, 3rd gets you a hard seat and you take your chances... but make sure you have water.
Knowing the African way I knew that the departure would be delayed and so it happened. We walked the platform and it was my thought to show Peris the engine up front. However, it wasn't there, and her words to me ring in my ears, 'There is no head to this train, how can it move?' A simple question which portrays a Kenyan woman's life.
Due to leave at 7pm the train finally left at 10pm and in the interim, dinner was served.
Soup or Sorbet?? Fish or Chicken?? Mmmmm, rice or Potatoes??? Vegetables??? Wine or Beer??? It was so bizarre sitting at Mombasa station eating an elegant meal and the train still parked. During the meal a Dutch papa shouted to all, "My camera has been stolen, check your cabins".....we all wondered if our own valuables were safe. I went back to the cabin and the laptop was still there.
Then we decided to go down to the platform for a break and met up with this crazy man with a guitar......he was making his living going up and down singing gospel songs. I have to tell you that his guitar was out of tune and I just wanted to grab it and retune it...however he had the most wonderful voice and when it came to Jim Reeves old favorites he was very very good. 'This world is not my home, I'm just passing thru, the angels beckon me, Oh Lord what can I do' will remain on my heart forever. So this Kenyan man, un-tuned guitar, Peris and myself ended up dancing and singing with him... It was a magical moment. The other passengers clapped and laughed at our fun.